This page is for the writer AND THE TEACHER OF WRITING…
One of my goals for 2019 is to use my mentor text work from teaching to influence my own fiction writing and poetry work. I wanted to create a page here where other teachers who write can access materials to help improve their own writing as well.
Mentor Text Blog Posts
The mentor texts for these two weeks, Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes and The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, are similar in the sense that they are amazing examples of kids working through problems. Both books are easy to sell during the book talk because kids love books where students are handling conflict. I love teaching irregular verbs over the course of two weeks because the first week we learn what irregular verbs are and then do some practicing with examples. In the second week, we combine standard past tense verbs with an -ed ending, AND we also use irregular verbs in our sentences. We are still building on our work with action verbs/verbs of being and helping verbs from previous weeks.
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander might be one of my all-time favorite mentor texts. It could be because kids love the novel-in-verse format of this book, or the basketball theme, or the fact that they want to know what happens each quarter. This is an easy book to book talk because it just grabs kids. I love using this book to show helping and linking verbs in the present tense. This continues from the work the previous week where students identified action verbs and verbs of being. This lesson speaks to the easy conversational tone that we all have with each other on a daily basis. Kwame Alexander sounds like me. He sounds like you. This directly links to the ability to make grammar accessible because it is something we already know, we just have to know what to call the writer move when we make it.
Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt is our all-sixth grade read. Our district gave all fifth graders this book to read over the summertime, so they have a chance to have a common, shared conversation about a single text when they enter middle school. While not all students take part in the rising class read, all students are given books. The best way to promote this text is through a book talk. Often, I hear students say “I didn’t read this book over the summer,” and then they choose to pick it up after they hear it book talked. We can never forget the power of a book recommendation to our students. The goal for this small mentor text mini-lesson will be to show students the difference between verbs of action and verbs of being.
One of my big mentor text reflections from last year was that I felt like I didn’t spend enough time on the basic parts of the sentence. Things like subject, predicate, verbs, and adjectives. These are the things that middle school teachers are always teaching and re-teaching, but I really wanted to frontload these skills at the beginning of the year. There are so many variations in the English language, so I really want to encourage my sixth-graders to have a strong grasp of the simple sentence before moving forward. Even in my advanced sections where students have reading levels well into the highschool range, they were identified as struggling on identifying the subjects of sentences.
Sometimes the hardest part is knowing where to start. I want to start writing individual posts each week, so that people can follow along with my mentor text routine. It can be daunting looking at all my materials for the first time and thinking:
“How do I find time to read all of these books?”
“How do I teach kids to read like writers?”
“Where do I put this into my curriculum or pacing guide?”
“Can I really teach grammar with books on my shelves?”
The answers to these questions aren’t always easy, but they are possible. We have to make time to show our kids that books have the power to unlock the world of writing in front of them. We have to dedicate space in our own lives for reading because it is one of the greatest forms of self-care. We have to reconfigure our pacing guides to use these resources because we have to prioritize what matters. Figuring out what matters to me as a teacher has always been the struggle. I know without hesitation that the use of mentor texts has changed the way I do business in my classroom. Last year was a road trip of trials and errors, but those experiences and that time spent researching mentor texts was so worth it. Now, I also wanted to share what I am doing to help lighten the load on others.
It might be an interesting experiment to pose some of these questions to your students this fall:
“How do you see your teachers?”
“What do you like or dislike about school?”
“What would you change about how school is setup?”
I bet we would get a ton of answers that would spark debate and some good-natured arguments. Another interesting take on these questions is to look at how school and teachers are represented in popular middle-grade and young adult texts. I originally started working on this post as a way to access narrative writing by looking at how authors portray kids’ thinking about schools and teachers. However, then I got to thinking about the bigger discussion we as teachers need to be having with our students. I am going to use this in my classroom as a way for students to talk about their feelings toward school and teachers, and then connect how they feel to what they want in their own experiences in education moving forward. I want to keep in mind that these middle-grade and young adult texts are written by adults for young people, but some of their descriptions about school and teachers are surprisingly accurate. It would be interesting to cut up and put some of these passages in front of students to hear what they have to say.
For many years, I lived in the school of thought that my middle-school students wouldn’t want to read picture books. As with many things in teaching, we don’t know until we know. I love reading aloud to my students, and naturally, they love it to because reading aloud goes back to a time when they loved reading as young children. As I could spend a lengthy bit of time here on this post about the apparent lack of love of reading that my sixth-graders come into my classroom with every fall, I will l quote Pernille Ripp from #NerdCampMI: “My goal is to make them dislike reading less.” Reading aloud to my students starts to work on this mission.
…The same call for inclusivity in the beauty industry is also in the same call for the materials that we put in front of our students. This necessity drives the movements behind #WeNeedDiverseBooks and a call for diverse classroom libraries. We have to make materials available to our students.
I bring up this description of skin tone though as a conversation starter for how skin color is often depicted in works of fiction. If we focus on diverse literature, it is important to look at how characters are being represented on the page. How are our students able to describe themselves? What descriptions do they see while reading? What is included in our weekly read aloud? These questions impact the makers of stories in the publishing industry, and they impact the strategies we are using to teach our children. These questions are necessary to bring up and think about in terms of engaging with my young writers that need to have access to mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors in our classroom.
This post outlines different strategies as they are observed in 16 different middle-grade and young adult works of fiction. I am using mentor texts here to show my young writers that the works of published authors are not only accessible but can be unlocked to show them how to write. This post will give a great starting point to the young writer that desires to describe their character AND also make connections to that character’s background, culture, or identity through the use of skin tone identification.
This post is inspired by Donalyn Miller after her #NerdTalk at #NerdCampMi on July 8, 2019. She is a warrior and book whisperer for reading in the classroom, but more so, she is also a person who is not afraid to “make good trouble.” She started her #NerdTalk by voicing that she was the teacher who often raised questions to the administration at the end of the staff meeting. While many of her points on reading have helped form the construct of my teaching identity when it comes to reading, I have to be louder about another element that makes up who I am as a teacher. As an advocate for diverse literature in the classroom, it is my duty to be downright rowdy when it comes to putting materials and books in my classroom and in my district’s classrooms. #NerdCamp was a grouping of largely white women, like most of the demographic of the teaching profession, and Donalyn Miller spoke to white educators directly in the call for boisterous and clear advocacy of diverse texts in schools. We all have to be a deafening, strong force when it comes to diverse texts.
Each summer I am called back to Western Michigan University’s campus. It seems I can’t leave. I got my Masters Degree in the spring of 2014, and I promptly started working with the Third Coast Writing Project’s Camp for Young Writers. Entering the director role in 2017, this camp has been a huge motivation and drive behind my personal development work each year not only as a teacher, but as a writer. It has also taught me a great deal about teacher leadership. My favorite part about writing camp is that each and every adult, volunteer, and student calls themselves “writer.” It is a community that is a given. What we as teachers often spend some time creating in the fall, just simply happens. It motivates me to create this atmosphere in my classroom year after year. We are all writers, after all.