End of Year Reflection: Using Middle-Grade Mentor Texts to Teach Writing Skills
Reflection: My First Year With Mentor Texts
Sometimes we try something in our classrooms and we immediately toss it in the recycle bin as a really good try, and sometimes we find something that changes how we do business. Using middle-grade and young adult books as mentor texts in my classroom has completely changed how I approach grammar instruction and promoting literature in my room. I love mentor texts. I wish you could hear my screaming about mentor texts. I talk about them now all the time. The power for students to see their own writing on the page in the same manner as a published author coupled with the use of book talks in my room as a way to recommend books to others through my voice and theirs has altered the mindset about reading in my room. Reading has always mattered. Now, it it just makes sense in terms of writing. While mentor texts themselves are not a new phenomenon, the incorporation of deliberate (and fun) grammar instruction is a new addition to my classroom.
I started this journey with mentor text work back in 2014. I blew it off as another strategy at first. I looked at my elementary school counterparts with their picture books like they were crazy because middle schoolers would never read picture books (This was entirely false). I would then read Barry Lane and see the power of exemplars to change how my students were writing in The Reviser’s Toolbox. It was in years 4, 5, and 6 in my teaching career that I would really solidify what routines and strategies become benchmarks in my classroom. I became a hoarder of student models and examples. I craved writing my own examples so students could see me as their teacher writing in front of them and also see an example of the completed assignment before it was actually assigned. We all already do mentor texts, we may just not have them labeled as mentor texts. My work with mentor texts couples grammar instruction and the building of reading appreciation through deliberately chosen books and exciting book talks.
Take a moment and look through my district innovation grant presentation I gave to my district’s Teaching and Learning Council to get a gist of my work this year. The picture above is me caffeinated (Caramel Macchiato) and ready to talk mentor texts with elementary, middle, high school, and central office staff from my district. After the presentation, I have posted the questions that were asked of me, my answers, and my thoughts about next year.
Q & A
Tell me about your project.
Middle-grade mentor texts have changed my entire approach to grammar instruction this year! I take middle-grade and young adult fiction books and use them as examples for students to learn the “moves of an author” in writing passages each week. Each week has its own skill focus, and each day has its own theme. Mondays are noticing days. We notice the author’s writing together as two to three sentences are posted. Students see the sentences and make observations like, “I see each sentence only has one comma” or “I see that the names are capitalized in each sentence” (proper nouns). Students notice the writing moves before I tell them the official names. Then, on Tuesday they learn the official name. I say things like “this is a complex sentence because it is has a complete and incomplete part” etc. This is the day where they practice with the grammar move in small groups. Wednesdays are write like an author days. We act out the sentences and use a frame to write a sentence like the author. I love Wednesdays. Students independently make their own sentences based on the author’s style, and then they share them out.
How does this project reach striving writers?
I like to use writing frames to help my students setup their writing if they don’t know where to start. As teachers of writing, we have to help our striving writers build confidence. This project helps students see themselves as writers in the first place. If they can write like these published authors, the act of writing in and of itself becomes less scary, less daunting, less…impossible. It is always the hardest as a writer knowing where to start-mentor texts give students a beginning place. We always do examples together first as a class, and then use those examples as guides to our mentor text work.
How does this project challenge advanced writers?
As writers begin to add to their writer’s toolbox, they can work on sentence fluency and word choice in their writing. I often find that even my advanced readers need a review of grammar terms because they are often taught grammar in isolation and variations in patterns are not addressed. The English language has so many variations that they best method of learning rules is practicing with live text. Advanced students begin to add in different types of sentences and skills to their writing prompts each week and can also name the skill or strategy that they are using. This differentiation is key as it lends to advanced readers benefitting from the same experiences as my striving writers and vice versa.
How important are book talks?
Chad Everett at the Michigan Reading Association conference in March of 2019 said it best: “If you ain’t book talking, what are you doing?” This is for EVERYONE. We all need to be readers to show that our students should be readers. Book talks are the heart of the mentor text work. Because I am a reader, I can recommend books to my students. Because I have made establishing a rapport and building a community with my students a priority, they trust my opinion. Books fly off the shelves. Almost all of the mentor texts this year have been gone after the third or fourth hour because when kids trust you, they trust your book recommendations. A book waiting list is a good thing. This identity work in the beginning of the year is key because I have to show kids that I am doing the work with them, alongside of them. I am reading books just as I am expecting them to read books throughout the year.
What teacher-authors have influenced your work?
How many can I list here? Here are my top favorites:
M. Collen Cruz
Jeff Anderson and Whitney La Rocca
Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell
Gretchen S. Bernabei
Okay, but what ONE text would you recommend to start this work?
Patterns of Power: Inviting Young Writers into the Conventions of Language, Grades 1-5 by Jeff Anderson and Whitney La Rocca as quickly become my grammar continuum go-to book. So many teacher books I read tell you WHY OR WHAT. This book tells you the HOW. it is a great place to start with middle-school striving readers and writers and also advanced students.
How did you plan your continuum of skills for each mentor text?
Honestly, I started with the building blocks of grammar: simple sentences and verbs. The kids decided we should add acting to the Wednesday work because they wanted to “see” the verbs in action. This part of the mentor text work came from them. I wanted to start with simple sentences, verbs, and adjectives because we were focusing in on personal narrative work. I wanted to assess what they knew, and also I wanted to help them write about their own lives.
I see you did some of this work every day, doesn’t that eat too much time out of your class?
Nope. These are warm-ups. I spend maybe 7-12 minutes on mentor text work a day. Could these lessons be longer? Of course. Are they sometimes longer when I have students who want to act and I let them? You bet. However, as teachers we make adjustments with the levels of engagement. Mentor text work has not replaced my curriculum and it doesn’t mean I don’t “get to” other areas of my pacing guide.
What was the best part about this project?
Wednesdays have fast become my favorite day. The students actually came up with the idea of acting out the sentences after we starting verb work in Trimester 1. An example of this for a complex sentence would be, “After I run around the room, I fall down to the ground.” A student would then get up, run around the room, yell comma, and fall to the ground. This dramatic involvement along with the writing examples peaked engagement. Students wanted to act and then they felt empowered to write their sentences. I would then ask, “Who thinks they have a better sentence than Angie Thomas?” or “Who thinks they outdid Kwame Alexander?” These phrases alone were powerful because they elevated my writers to think better of themselves and each other. The toughest thing about writing instruction is efficacy. We as teachers have to make our writers believe in themselves.
What would you change for next year?
Oh, this is a list. However, I am excited that the first year is done and that there is a somewhat roadmap to my work now. I can go back and tweak information and add in skills that I thought were lacking. I included a slide on this in my presentation above, but I also wanted to make sure my goals for next year were clear.
I want to add a fourth day to the week with warmups that does not hinder Friday Focused Free Write. I want to add a “APPLY” day where I have sample sentences and invite writers to continue writing like an author in their genre of choice on Fridays.
I want to keep a running display or anchor charts with sample sentences and the skill continuum so students can build on their new skills each week. I found that many students were having a hard time writing in different styles and skills if it was not related to the mentor text work of the week.
I would like to infuse more pop culture examples into Tuesday’s naming day…thank you, M. Colleen Cruz.
Instead of grading journals each week, I want to figure out a way to assess their mentor text work without grading individual journals. I am not sure what this looks like so far in my mind. I am picturing a running Google Doc in their Google Classroom accounts where they edit the sentence next to the skill. This would also serve as a way to cross-off number 2 from this list.
I want to spend more time on simple and compound sentences at the beginning of the year. They really struggled with compound sentences and seeing two complete sentences connected by a conjunction.
I want to incorporate new texts like A Good Kind of Trouble byLisa Moore Ramée and Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams.
Linda Reif’s book, The Quickwrite Handbook: 100 Mentor Texts to Jumpstart Your Students' Thinking and WritingMy Mentor Text Posts is one of the inspiration for the shift in my classroom this year with mentor texts. I would like to see my students look at longer passages like in this book and practice noticing skills with a variety of skill sets. Perhaps I can work this into the end of each marking period of trimester to look at skills they have gained over time.