How much of what we do in education is simply done in preparation for more education?   How much of what we teach will really be applied outside the classroom walls?  What do we mean we say the real world? These are questions we should ask ourselves every day.  In particular, I think about the type of writing we ask of our students on a daily basis.   If we are to prepare students to be writers for a world beyond school, we have to begin to utilize the world of writing outside of school.

My love affair with the Common Core turned out to be more of a crush than a long term relationship. However, I still believe that there is an authentic application of standards.  Standards are simply thinking skills, goals, and tools for educators.  The standards can help teachers and students become critical thinkers and writers.  However, the standards will not help students love learning.  The standards in and of themselves will not prepare students for life after school.  Only the contexts in which we place these standards can do that. Context matters.

So what context do we place writing?    How can we create rich and authentic writing opportunities for our students?  How can we  resist the temptations to “standardize” writing and rather find innovative, creative, and authentic ways of teaching writing?  Perhaps the most important question, “How do I get my students to start writing, truly enjoy writing, and become unique writers?”

Writing Next is one of the largest research reports completing a meta analysis of what writing strategies yielded the most promise in classroom.  The report outlined Eleven recommendations that were found to have the highest impact on student writing.  One of the recommendations that continues to stand out for me is recommendation ten, The Study of Models.  “The study of models provides adolescents with good models for each type of writing that is the focus of instruction. Students are encouraged to analyze these examples and to emulate the critical elements, patterns, and forms embodied in the models in their own writing” (p. 28) .

In  Pathways to the Common Core, Lucy Calkins explains  “Students will invest themselves most in writing on topics they know and care about, for real audiences of readers who do not know the same information as the writers know and who therefore stand a chance of wanting to learn from the writers.  Above all else, this method suggest that writers need demonstrations, guided practice, assessment based instruction, and feedback.”  I continue to  wonder how we can approach the teaching of  writing  that allows students to utilize their own experiences as having primacy over the more formal types of academic writing students expected in secondary  and post secondary education.

Below are five stages to help teachers use real world writing  as mentor texts.  The point of the mentor text is that students utilize various forms of real writing as a mentor.  As students begin to see the different ways that writers craft their stories and ideas, they come to understand and create their own style of writing.

Stage One: Find the Mentor Text

Look at the writing that surrounds you in articles, blogs, and magazines and books.  It is everywhere.  The point is to expose students to different styles of writing.  Have students help you find exemplars.  Ask students what they are reading.  You will be surprised. The trick is to not look to hard.  Kelly Gallagher and his Article of the Week is a great place to start.  My wiki resource site also has several examples of Mentor Texts.   All one needs to do is look at the different styles and techniques that these writers utilize to see the potential.    Some structures have more specific purposes depending on the type of writing you are asking for your students.  For example, your purpose may be more argumentative in nature, or narrative.  It is important to have a purpose for the writing, yet be careful of making too much of a distinction between writing types.  Good writing many times is a blend of narrative, informative, and argument.                        Example: Where Everyone Knows Your Name 

Stage Two: Analyze the Mentor Text

Read the passage with the students. It starts with  modeling close reading.   Ask yourself and your students how the author writes.  Text annotation along with the think aloud make the invisible for many students visible . Below are some teaching points when you are analyzing the mentor text.

  • What central ideas are emerging as you read the passage.  What is this author trying to explain?
  • How does the author organize his thoughts?  How are his ideas connected?
  • What types of words or language do you see unfolding?  How does word choice impact the tone?
  • How is the text structured?  Is it sequential? Is each paragraph  a different idea?  Does the writing use short  paragraphs or longer paragraphs?
  • What is the  point of view?
  • What text features do you see?

These questions help the reader get at what the author is accomplishing with his or her paper.  Mark up the text analyzing what you see and what impact it has on the text.  Notice the moves the author makes with his writing and how it impacts the meaning.   Example:  Where Everyone Knows your Name 

Stage Three:  Model using the Mentor Text with your own writing.

After analyzing the craft, emulate the author’s style in your own writing.  Here you will substitute the topic that the author writes about with your own.  The point is to use the mentor texts structure and how the author elaborates on his or her own ideas as a framework for your own writing.  Just as you would emulate the three point shot of your favorite basketball player or mimic the teaching moves of your favorite educator, you emulate the writer’s style.  It is important here that the teacher is writing with and in front of  students.                                                                                                                        Example:  Cubicle World

Stage Four: Collaborative Writing: Generating topics with your students

After you have written in front of  students using your own topic, generate other topics that students could write about.  Brainstorm several ideas and come to consensus on a class topic.  Together, generate writing using the same structure of the original mentor text.  Have students generate short bursts of writing together and share the work as a class.  You may have a collaborative google doc where various students can contribute to the development of the writing.    Here, students are sharing ideas on the topic while still focusing on the patterns, structures, and word choice of the original mentor text.  Classroom Topics Generated:  Where Everyone Knows Your Name

Stage Five :  Write, Edit, Revise, and Finalize

 Release students to write independently.  Allow them to share with each other and have heavy doses of one on one conferring. You may lead your students through a series of reads and rereads looking for specific areas of improvement.  You may start with word choice, clarity of ideas, elaborations and then move into the grammatical aspects of the writing.  As a teacher you may perform some mini lessons over some areas that you see as problematic and immediately have students utilize the grammatical lessons in their own writing.  The point is that the writing the students have produced goes through multiple stages refining and cleaning up the work.

Teachers and students will find that this technique can help spice up even more formal academic writing.  Below is an example of using the mentor text for a character analysis essay over Of Mice and Men.     The trade off of using mentor texts is well worth the time invested in them.  Not only are you analyzing texts that exist outside of school,  you are also providing students with voice and choice.

By the way, this approach is totally standards based.

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