By Morgan Davis, 2010 CCIRA Presenter
When I first started teaching about mentor texts, it was for an audience of teachers whose first question was, “What’s a mentor text?” Now, more than a decade later, our collective learning allows for a different entry point: Because while we might call a text we are using for instructional purposes a “mentor,” not every interaction with a text is intended to apprentice us to the craft and content of writing.
When a text inspires a story, further research, an editorial or any other dialogue about the topic, whether written or discussed, when it compels us to move the ideas beyond the text and make them into something new, it is a source, not a mentor.
This distinction is the heart of work that JLA—Jeffco’s Literacy Association—is doing this month in a book study using the Global Read Aloud picture-book text set from Yuyi Morales.
We began our “Books and Brews” book club seated between two pool tables in the back room of a bar in Lakewood. A round of introductions, appetizers, and a crack of a book-spine later, and we were immersed in Yuyi’s portrayal of Frida Kahlo in Viva Frida.
Texts as Sources
Upon our first read of Viva Frida, I gave my Spanish skills a much-needed workout, alternating between the printed English and scripted Spanish text on each page. Less than sixty words altogether, we let them and the book’s combination of illustrations and photographs wash over us. We shared our first reactions, which ranged from wanting to see the pictures up close to conversations about whether this was a work of fiction or nonfiction to our initial “gist” of the story’s message.
Our second reading, which began with us all reading it aloud together, allowed us to take a closer look at the author’s decision-making, to clarify ideas that had been sparked by our reading. We followed characters across pages, analyzed the evolution of the artists’ media, and made inferences about the woman portrayed in the pages.
With our third reading, I asked everyone to independently make a list of five-to-ten key words from the text, words that were either stated explicitly, like “dream” or “live,” or
those that were implied, like “playful,” and “discovery.” Sharing these allowed us to make connections, generating new ideas, like “innocence,” and “coming-of-age.” Quick-writing to one of these words became equally generative, as we explored our understandings of what this text was really about.
Through this process—reading, thinking, talking, and writing—we learned things about Frida Kahlo, from the text and from each other. Things that were confirmed or clarified in the author’s note.
Things that allowed me—in the week that followed our first meeting—to appreciate the scenes in Coco that show Frida Kahlo as an unapologetic and creative spirit, even in death. Things that made me connect as I sang (and danced) along to the song “This is Me” from the Greatest Showman as the chorus describes being bruised and brave, and making no apologies for being who we are.
Things that allowed us to connect to the human experience revealed in the book’s poetry. Things that lingered in our consciousness long after our time together was over. Things that brought us to the page to write about Yuyi Morales and about the topics and themes in her books.
We charted what we noticed about ourselves as readers and writers when content is the focus, the inspiration, the topic of conversation and of our learning.
Texts as Mentors
This conversation about topics became a perfect segue to our next venture into Yuyi’s books. We started with the first of Katie Wood Ray’s three questions that can guide immersion in any writing study: What kinds of topics does Yuyi address with her picture books? (Study Driven, page 125).
We listed topics we had explored in reading these books as sources and then—and here is the shift—we began to apprentice ourselves to her work: We brainstormed what topics we might choose. Topics that could be handled in the kind of ways that Yuyi’s are. Topics that capture specific aspects of an author’s culture, like the lifestyle of Lucha Libre in Niño Wrestles the World, the biographical sketch of Frida Kahlo, and the experience of immigrants. Topics that convey universal themes, from finding home in unlikely places and explaining natural phenomena to the experience of wandering, discovery, and imagining a different life.
Overall, we recognized that Yuyi’s books do what we have come to expect of picture books: they express what it means to be a child, providing a space for children (and adults) to make sense of the world within and around them through story.
We next read Yuyi’s Dreamers to help us expand our noticings through the lens of Katie Wood Ray’s other immersion questions: What kinds of work does it seem like [Yuyi] must do to produce this kind of writing? and How does Yuyi craft these books so that they are compelling for readers? (Study Driven, p. 125). We annotated the text with our noticings and added things to the list that we had noticed in other books in our stack.
Of all the things we noticed, I chose the structure of her text to model a “close study” and then a “try-it”:
First, we noticed Yuyi writes:
“We became… We became… You and I became… Someday we will become… but right now…We are…”
Then we worked to name what it was that we noticed. In this case, a pattern revealed in repetition of a phrase using the word “became” before a break in the pattern that shifts to present and then to future tense.
Finally—and I think this is my favorite part—we put pen to paper and simply gave it a go:
We became students before we were old enough to ride bikes. We became graduates that couldn’t imagine leaving the classrooms we’d called home for so long. We became teachers who had their own classrooms before we were teachers who turned our classrooms over to our students. Someday we’ll become people who leave the walls of our schools behind, but right now, we fill them with magic and watch as our students become our future. We are teachers.
And just like before, we charted what we noticed about ourselves as readers and writers when considering texts as mentors; we reflected on the process of pairing writing with reading when craft is the focus, the inspiration, the topic of conversation and of our learning.
We write about things we read to build and share ideas. We write like what we read to get better at building and sharing ideas with the world.
Despite our tendencies to define which comes first—text as source or text as mentor—let’s not allow this to become complicated. I have spent time with students who, during a study of the art of opinion writing, have found authentic purpose in seeking sources to validate and elaborate their claims. I have seen students who were inspired by their excitement for an article about dung beetles come to the page to demand action and evoke social change.
This work has great potential for informing units of study that bring reading and writing workshops together. And while there may not be a single entry point, there is a difference. Let’s notice it. Let’s name it. And let’s continue to encourage the exploration—in ourselves and our students—of authentic ways that readers and writers interact with text as sources and texts as mentors.
These ideas began percolating after a session with Ruth Culham (aka The Writing Thief) at #CCIRA16. Read the original post here.
Morgan Davis is a literacy consultant and K-6 Instructional Coach in Jefferson County, Colorado. She regularly presents at CCIRA and is currently piloting this book club about texts as sources and texts as mentors with JLA, Jefferson County’s local literacy council. You can join in the conversation @MorganDavisLit on Facebook and can follow Morgan as she explores teaching and learning, slices of life, and her own writing processes on Twitter @melizdav and through “It’s About Making Space.” Also, watch for literacy classes based on these and other topics coming to the metro area next summer.