Mentor Texts to Engage and Empower Our Students

by Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli

Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli are featured presenters at the 2019 CCIRA Conference on Literacy. 

In Painting the Windby Patricia and Emily MacLachlan, we follow a young boy’s journey as he studies the artists who visit his island. Each one is a mentor who teaches the boy some new technique. In our classrooms, mentor texts do the same thing for our student writers. They provide opportunities to take risks and try new things. Mentor texts serve as snapshots into the future, helping students envision the kind of writer they can become. A writer needs to try new things in order to write differently tomorrow than he writes today.

Studying mentor texts with a teacher or partner, or examining a favorite mentor text independently, can move a community of writers forward. When a teacher carefully chooses a set of mentor texts and returns to them frequently, there is a commonality that students bring to discussions, share sessions, and conferences. Mentor texts serve to sustain the writing community. With the help of mentor texts, students build writing muscles to help them tackle longer pieces of writing in new genres and formats.

Sometimes a mentor text can provide a seed of an idea before a student starts to write. Other times, a student may need to return to a mentor text to help him problem solve when he is stuck. He may return to examine a structure, investigate how an author uses dialogue, or discover new strategies to create a satisfying ending. Even after many drafts, a student may go back to a mentor text to study punctuation, perhaps finding new ways to use a comma, colon, or ellipsis in his piece of writing before the final edit.

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Choosing mentor texts for your classroom is a personal matter. We believe you must connect to the books you choose – even love them. When you know your students well, you will understand what they will connect with, as well as what they need to help them move forward as writers. It is important for teachers to know mentor texts inside and out to be able to pull that “just-right” book that inspires a student to say “I can do this, too.” While we find picture books to be extremely useful, it is important to have a balance created by different genres, fiction and nonfiction, and a variety of authors. Occasionally you may decide to use magazine articles, graphic novels, chapter books, poems, or song lyrics as mentor texts. Eventually, we hope students will have the knowledge and confidence to choose their own mentor texts when they need to do so.

At the end of Painting the Wind,the young artist finally reaches his goal, but he needed his mentor to point that out to him.

I look at the painting of Meatball running from the wave, his ears flying.

“You have painted the wind,” I say to the landscape painter.

He points to my painting hung next to his, my painting of bent trees.

“You have, too,” he says.

 We do the same thing as teachers, using mentor texts to help young writers discover more about themselves and empower them to move forward with greater confidence. In other words, mentor texts help students continually reinvent themselves as writers.

MacLachlan, Patricia and Emily MacLachlan. 2006. Painting the Wind. New York: HarperCollins.

Lynn Dorfman and Rose Capelli are literacy consultants working with teachers nationwide to support writing workshop.  Their popular book is now in it’s second edition: Mentor Texts, 2nd edition: Teaching Writing Through Children’s Literature, K-6 Lynn and Rose also authored Nonfiction Mentor Texts:  Teaching Informational Writing Through Children’s Literature, K-8. Follow Lynn and Rose on Twitter.

Author: CCIRAblog

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