Much of what I understand about writing today is thanks to the black ink that resides in the pages of my books. While it’s true that I have had some incredible mentors, and I am thankful for them each and every day, what I have come to understand about growing as a writer is that sometimes the best teachers are hiding on our bookshelves. Studying the beauty of one sentence over and over again can uplift, inspire, and open up possibilities that we may not ever have imagined on our own. But here’s the catch; if we are not careful, a mentor text can stifle instead arouse, and our students will turn something beautiful into a formula.
So here are some Dos and Don’ts for the use of mentor texts in your classroom:
Do give students lenses to study through. Try using big, open-ended questions like, What part of this text speaks to you? What did the author do that made you respond the way you did? This will allow them to switch modes and read like a writer, focusing their reading on the craft instead of the plot.
Do give copies of mentor texts to each child and invite them to keep those copies close as they write. Teach them that mentors are our forever writing companions and can help us set goals or intentions, work through a few draft possibilities, or go back into some revision work.
Do highlight that mentor texts can teach us more than just technique. Reading mentors aloud can help our students experiment with the use of rhythm, punctuation, sentence length, etc…
Do let students borrow a line to get them started. Sometimes a mentor can provide a word or a phrase that gives them fuel to get their pens moving across the page.
Don’t let your students think that there is only one way to write well. Overemphasizing a particular tool or technique that an author used effectively may accidentally send the message that all work must look that way as well. For example, if students study a beautiful lead, name what the author did that made it so effective, but then start ALL of their pieces that same way, they have missed the point. There are countless ways to begin a story well. We don’t want to steal their voices and have our kids turning mentors into formulas.
Do use more than one mentor in your unit. While many of us have one favorite text that we refer to over and over again in our teaching, limiting our exploration to one text may also limit the different styles and techniques that our students will see. You may decide to zoom in on one text in your teaching but give students opportunities to study other texts and pick a few favorites during an inquiry day.
Don’t over focus on terminology. There is a place for knowing the names of literary devices; however, the exploration of a mentor text is not about kids yelling, “I found hyperbole.” Instead, it is about kids noticing what an author has done and defining for themselves why it is so effective. Let them name their noticings first and try out what they see. It’s the writing that matters, not the name.
Don’t always be the one leading them through the text. A great mentor text can certainly give us loads of fuel for our lesson work, but we want to provide time for our kids to take the lead too. Let them have time to explore and notice what they can pull from the text on their own. You’ll see that it’s these noticings that stick the most.
In his book Mentor Authors, Mentor Texts, Ralph Fletcher (2011) says of mentor texts that they allow him to “shed my old writing skin and grow a better new one.” May the texts you gift to your student allow them all to do the same.