By Carl Anderson
I love to have writing conferences with students! In these 1:1 conversations with students, which we have when we teach writing onsite or online, we’re best able to differentiate instruction, meet students’ varied needs, and get to know them as writers and people. For all these reasons, conferences are the most important teaching we do in writing workshop.
I especially love writing conferences in which I use mentor texts to teach the craft of writing—for example, how write effective leads, how to transition from one part to another, or how to write precise, beautiful details. A mentor text is a well-written text that we show students to help them see how they can craft their own writing. Mentor texts can be published texts by well-known authors, texts we’ve written ourselves, or texts written by students.
It’s important to teach with mentor texts in conferences for several reasons. Mentor texts help students envision the craft moves they can make when they’re drafting and revising. They help students understand that reading is central to the act of writing, because when we teach with mentor texts, students learn to “read like writers,” a kind of close reading in which writers notice how writers craft their writing. And mentor texts help us teach effectively, too. When we teach with a mentor text, we’re able to teach descriptively, instead of prescriptively.
How can you confer with mentor texts, or improve the way that you’re already conferring with them? Here are some of steps you can take to do this important kind of teaching.
Preparing for Craft Conferences
Unlike mini-lessons and small groups, where you know what you’re teaching beforehand and have already selected which mentor text you’re going to use in the lesson, when you begin a conference, you don’t know exactly what you’ll teach students—and, if it’s going to be a craft conference, which mentor text you’ll use. This means that you’ll need to prepare differently for conferences, so you’re ready to teach one of a wide variety of craft techniques.
You’ll prepare for craft conferences by assembling a stack of mentor texts, and having them with you when you confer. Usually, a stack contains 3-4 different texts. You won’t need more than that because each of the texts in the stack will enable you teach many different craft techniques. Together, a stack of 3-4 texts will contain many craft techniques.
The First Part of the Conference
In the first part of a conference, your job is to discover what kind of writing work a student is doing as a writer. You’ll do this by beginning conferences with an open-ended question, like “How’s it going?” or “What are you doing today as a writer?” In some conferences, you’ll find out that students are working on an aspect of process—finding a topic to write about, planning a draft, revising or editing. In others, you’ll learn that students are working on an aspect of craft—they’re figuring out the structure of their piece, using punctuation to create voice, or writing an ending, etc. When you discover that a student is doing craft work, you’ll know right away that you’ll be teaching with a mentor text.
The Second Part of the Conference
Once you know that the conference will focus on an aspect of craft, you have to do some quick thinking. You need to decide what to teach, and then select which mentor text you’ll use, all in a few moments.
To do this, you’ll:
- Read the student’s writing and ask yourself, “What does this student know so far about doing the kind of craft work?” That is, you’ll ask yourself about the partial understanding the student has of the work.
- To decide what to teach, ask yourself, “Considering what the child knows so far, what is a next step for them?”
- Finally, ask yourself, “Which mentor text in my stack shows this next step?”
The Third Part of the Conference
In the third part of a craft conference, you’ll teach the student how to craft their writing more effectively. To do this, you might teach the student a new craft technique, or show them how to use a craft technique they’re already using even better.
You’ll take several steps to teach with a mentor text:
- Start by naming the craft technique you’ll be teaching the student.
- Make the text visible to the student. If you’re teaching onsite, place the mentor text in between you and student. To share the text in a socially distanced way, use a document camera to project the text onto a nearby screen. If you’re teaching online, use your online platform’s “share screen” function to show students a JPG or PDF you made of the mentor text that you’ve placed on your computer’s desktop.
- Name the author of the text. Doing this helps students understand that an actual person wrote the text, one who crafted their writing in ways that students can learn from.
- Read aloud the part of the mentor text that contains the craft technique you’re teaching. Hearing the technique read aloud helps students internalize the way it sounds.
- Describe the craft technique precisely.
Finding Good Mentor Texts
To confer with mentor texts, you’ll need to have a collection of them! Start by taking stock of the texts you already have, and see which units of study you have enough texts for already (usually, a stack of 3-4 texts will be enough for a unit). For the units for which you don’t have enough texts, it’s a good idea to make a stack ahead of time, so you aren’t scrambling to find texts while you’re in the middle of the unit.
You can find excellent mentor texts in several places:
- Your classroom library will have many potential texts.
- Ask colleagues to share the ones they use.
- Ask your school librarian to help you find texts.
- Look for collections of particular genres written for children.
- Children’s magazines like Highlights and Time For Kids have a wide variety of texts in them.
- Google “Sources of Mentor Texts”—you’ll immediately find several websites in which educators discuss their favorite mentor texts.
As you choose mentor texts for your collection, use these criteria:
- Choose texts you love, so you’ll discuss them with enthusiasm and passion.
- Select texts you think your students will be moved by in some way, so that students will want to see how the authors wrote the texts to cause these reactions.
- Students should see themselves, as well their lives and interests, mirrored in the texts, which will help students be more interested in studying them—and be inspired to write about their lives and interests, as well.
- The authors of your mentor texts should reflect the diversity of students in your classroom. Students are more likely to develop identities as writers when they can see that authors of mentor texts are like them in important ways, such as gender, race, or ethnicity.
- You see lots of craft techniques in the texts that you can teach your students, techniques that are in students’ “zones” as writers.
- To watch Carl teach with a mentor text in a conference, go to: https://www.heinemann.com/shared/iplayer.aspx?id=wmr0t3zeer
- For help with conferring with mentor texts online, read Carl’s article, “10 Tips for Conferring with Student Writers Online.” https://blog.heinemann.com/10-tips-for-conferring-with-student-writers-online
Carl Anderson is an internationally recognized expert in writing instruction for grades K-8. He works as a consultant for schools and districts around the world. Carl is the author of How’s It Going? A Practical Guide to Conferring with Student Writers, Assessing Writers, and A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Conferences K-8. Look for his next book, A Teacher’s Guide to Mentor Texts K-5, in 2022. Website: www. conferringcarl.com Twitter: @Conferringcarl