By Clare Landrigan
Mentor texts are the perfect scaffold for young writers. Mentor texts are always available. They do not care how often they are used for support. They don’t over-scaffold or rescue. They are great with wait-time. They are open-ended and allow the writer to use craft moves purposefully in his/her own writing. Research demonstrates that it takes 10,000 hours to become deliberate in any field – that’s a lot of hours. Mentor texts provide choice, allow students to have agency, and create space for students to practice again and again.
The sooner we start inviting our writers to use mentor texts the sooner they will start reading like a writer. There are no limits to how we can use mentor texts to support our young writers. I worry that too often we only use mentor texts in our lessons to model or to study a particular author/genre. Sometimes we over scaffold students’ experiences with mentor texts by telling them which craft moves to use and how to use them. I have been trying to broaden how mentor texts are used by always making them an option for students when they are writing. Once we show them how to use a mentor text, students can be in control of when and how they use them.
This past spring, I had the privilege of joining two first grade classrooms for writing workshop. The students were studying traditional tales. They were in the process of drafting and revising their own traditional tales. When we analyzed the student writing we noticed the students were using dialogue, strong feelings, and thoughts to elaborate their stories. They were ready to learn how to stretch out the most important part by telling it scene by scene. We noticed an opportunity to teach them how to add action in order to stretch out these scenes. Whenever I invite elementary students to try a new craft move or an elaboration strategy, I typically show how to apply it in both the illustrations and the words. This provides multiple entry points into understanding how a particular craft move impacts the writing.
These students had recently participated in March Book Madnessand fell in love with two texts: Drawn Togetherby Min Lê and Dan Santat and The Fieldby Baptiste Paul and Jacqueline Alcántara. These texts were perfect for the instructional focus we identified, and the students knew them so well they were primed to be mentors. Even though these texts are not traditional tales we decided to use them to model using action to stretch out the scenes and tell the most important part of the story step by step. Both texts showed how these craft moves can be used in the illustrations and the words.
I modeled a quick lesson showing how I would use these texts as mentors. I identified the moment in my story and showed how I would stretch it out using panels or a series of pictures across two pages. I also added the text to model how I would elaborate in words using strong verbs. In one classroom I used Drawn Togetherand in the other, I used The Field. I then placed copies of the text around the room and invited these young writers to use it as a mentor. I did not assign the students a task or make everyone use the text as a mentor. It was simply an invitation. I sent them off and then asked the adults in the room to resist teaching so we could observe how and if the students used the texts as mentors.
Here are some samples of the students’ work inspired by studying Drawn Together:
The students using The Fieldfocused immediately on the strong verbs and action in the illustrations. Several students identified the moment in their story that needed to be stretched out scene by scene and found a mentor page to guide them.
As we observed the students using these mentor texts to scaffold their revision process, we noticed another pattern emerging. Students started studying each other’s writing. Explaining to each other the craft moves they tried and why they tried them in that moment of the story. It was powerful to watch them confer purposefully with each other and look to each other as mentors.
I believe there needs to be more fluidity between our reading and writing workshops. If a student notices something that is perfect for her writing during reading workshop, I want her to get up and get her writing to capture this idea. If a student is stuck during writing workshop, I want him to get up and head to the classroom library. When the going gets rough, writers get up and read. Our students need to know this, and we need to give them the opportunity to move between reading and writing as needed. This is the process authentically used by readers and writers. It also encourages our students to look within and develop agency in their writing process. Using mentor texts is a strategy that will last a lifetime.
It is important to remember that, “the learning environment is ‘the third teacher’ that can either enhance the kind of learning that optimizes our students’ potential to respond creatively and meaningfully to future challenges or detract from it” (Fraser, 2012; Helm et al., 2007; OWP/P Architects et al., 2010). In my most recent book co-authored with Tammy Mulligan, It’s All About the Books, we suggest having a section in the classroom library that is dedicated to mentor texts, so students know there is a place to go when they are looking for a particular type of mentor text. The classroom library can be the third teacher if it is designed to support our writers.
I also love including student writing in this section of the classroom library. There is no better way to say, “You are a writer,” than to include a student’s writing in the classroom library. It gives them an authentic audience and it gives classmates another mentor text to study and use in their own writing. I also include teacher writing in this section of the classroom library. It is helpful for students to have time to truly study the writing their peers and teachers share. They can also easily access the author to ask questions since they are members of the classroom community.
There is a lot of space for approximation between teacher modeling and student application. “Mentor texts empower students to become independent, which is crucial because they will not always have you as their writing teacher. If students develop an understanding of how to tap into the power of mentor texts, they will be able to seek out their own mentors in the future” (Ayres and Shubitz, Day by Day, 2010). The process of revision should be active, playful, and meaningful. We need to get out of our students’ way and let them give it go. The more they try things out and look to authors – professional, teacher, and student authors – as mentors, the more they will embrace and find joy in the revision process.
Clare Landrigan is a staff developer who is still a teacher at heart. She began her work as an educator over twenty years ago, teaching in an integrated first- and second-grade classroom at the Eliot Pearson Children’s School in Medford, MA. She now leads a private staff development business and spends her days partnering with school systems to help them implement best practices in the field of literacy. Clare is the coauthor of the book, It’s All About the Books: How to Create Bookrooms and Classroom Libraries That Inspire Readers. She believes that effective professional development includes side-by-side teaching, analysis of student work, mutual trust, respect, and a good dose of laughter. You can find Clare online at Twitter, and at her website, where she blogs about books and the art of teaching.