Conferring with Mentor Texts

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.

Photo courtesy of Unsplash.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. To decide what to teach, ask yourself, “Considering what the child knows so far, what is a next step for them?”
  3. 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:

  1. Start by naming the craft technique you’ll be teaching the student.
  1. 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.  
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

Resources

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

5 Baskets to Add to Every Virtual Classroom Library!

By Clare Landrigan, CCIRA 2021 Featured Speaker

You know that saying … if you build it, they will come?  For me, this saying has manifested in ways I could have never imagined with the virtual bookroom I created last April.  Since then, this virtual space filled with hyperlinks has connected me to educators and students across the world.  This idea started because of the need for access to books in a time when even public libraries were closed, and it continues to grow as we think about authentic ways to engage our students as readers virtually.  Here are five baskets every teacher should add to their virtual classroom library to maximize student identity, engagement and choice:

Classroom Author Baskets

Our writers need an audience and our readers need access to text – this idea is a win-win!  Create digital book baskets filled with your students’ writing.  Their peers can choose to read these during independent reading or even for their book club.  I love watching authors join book club meetings to answer questions and listen to how their text impacted their readers.  Time is a precious commodity right now, this is an easy, meaningful way for our students to publish their writing and connect with an audience. 

         

#Trending

For many of us, reading is social – it is about being a member of a community.  Readers often consider what friends, colleagues, neighbors and family members are reading when they choose books.  Students cannot meet together and physically pour over books with one another right now.  They are not browsing together in their classroom libraries.  We need to find ways for them to connect and share texts virtually so our classroom reading community can support each other.  Organizing the books students recommend digitally into a basket provides a space for them to interact. We include student book reviews, audio booktalks, and video book trailers in addition to actual texts so students can consider their peers’ point of view.  All of this can be easily organized into a digital bin (Cherry-Paul and Johansen, 2014) in your virtual classroom library.  

Anyone Interested?

Research has demonstrated the importance of inquiry in student engagement.  In his book, The Curious Classroom, Harvey “Smokey” Daniels focuses on the impacts of student-directed inquiry, “Students were seized by curiosity, hungry to build knowledge, and fully in charge of their own learning. And those experiences, those habits of mind, will serve them for the rest of their lives.”  Allowing students to create digital text sets for the classroom library seems to be the perfect opportunity for students to get invested in a topic of interest with peers.  They can choose to read in depth, across varied texts, and experience how reading can propel their inquiry and thirst for information.  Students may choose any topic or a focus within a content area of study. Students may work independently or in collaboration with peers to research, share, and build their knowledge. This provides students with an authentic, meaningful literacy experience that they can take charge of! 

Help Wanted!

Every writer needs a reader throughout the writing process.  Audience is an abstract concept for young writers. It can be difficult to envision a person reading a finished piece of writing while it’s still being drafted. It helps to share writing throughout the process to receive response and suggestions from readers.  Enter the perfect collaborative reason to read and respond.  We add a Help Wanted basket to the virtual classroom library so students can add their writing throughout the process and ask for peers to respond.  Peers share questions, reactions, and ideas. They think about characters, information, structure, theme, point of view, feelings, and tension.  Students read these texts during independent reading, writing workshop and even during their free time. 

 Audiobooks

Students need access to recorded texts. Students can choose a favorite book to record for younger students or for their peers.  They can focus on their storytelling voice and bringing characters to life as they read their text aloud – slowing down to show the pictures as needed.  These recordings are organized into digital classroom library baskets and then shared with other teachers in the school for students to listen to during independent reading, partner reading, or for book clubs.  

If you don’t have a virtual classroom library, read this to learn how to use the free virtual bookroom to get started and check out these resources to DIY your classroom library with Padlet, Google Doc or Bitmoji. 

Clare Landrigan is a staff developer who is still a teacher at heart. She leads a private staff development business partnering with school systems to implement best practices in the field of literacy. She believes that effective professional development includes side by side teaching; analysis of student work; mutual trust; respect; and a good dose of laughter. She is the co-author of, It’s All About the Books published by Heinemann and Assessment in Perspectivepublished by Stenhouse.  Clare is on the board of The Book Love Foundation and you can find her online at TwitterFacebookInstagram, and at her website, where she blogs about books and the art of teaching.

Guiding the Reading Journey: Helping Students to Help Themselves

By Kim Yaris

Each day, our classrooms–whether online, in-person, or a mix of both–are filled with children who consent to allowing us to guide them as they navigate their learning journeys. Our students’ learning pathways can be rife with obstacles and as the guide, it is up to us to help these learners work past their difficulties. In the fast-paced world of teaching and learning, there is often only a moment to think and in that split second, we must decide what kind and how much help to provide. Make no mistake. This is a great responsibility. Our students’ progress rests squarely on our shoulders. 

That said, the reality of our students’ struggles is this: When they struggle, they feel stress. When our students feel stress, so, too, do we. Stress initiates a physiological response that floods our bodies with cortisol, a hormone that sends a message to our brain to prepare for danger. As a result of this chemical messaging, our brains instruct us to focus on the perceived danger and so, we direct our attention to the most obvious stimuli. When we are driving a car, this response can prevent us from having an accident. But, in circumstances where we are guiding a child who is struggling to pronounce a word or figure out the meaning of a passage, is the inclination to focus on the most obvious stimuli equally helpful?

Photo courtesy of Anastasia Taigolou @Unsplash

Imagine sitting next to a student reading the sentence David searched for his keys in his pocket. When she arrives at the word searched, she pauses, squinches up her face a bit, and looks at us. Any teacher who has sat alongside a child learning to read knows this appeal and can recognize it as that moment–the moment when cortisol is released and our brains send out the same rallying cry as when someone stops abruptly in front of us while driving on the highway: “REACT!” 

And so we do.  In the span of the split second that we have to guide this student on her learning journey, we direct our attention to the most obvious stimuli–in this case, the word searched–and we may suggest to the reader to “Sound it out,” or ask her to think about what would make sense. Once we–and our young reader–are safely on the other side of the word “searched,” we may experience a small rush of another hormone–dopamine–that causes us to feel jubilant; but, it is important to stop and ask, is there cause for celebration? 

When teaching children how to read, the ultimate cause for celebration is when the learning aligns in ways that students are able to claim increased confidence, proficiency, and independence. Telling students what strategies to use and reinforcing the belief that they need us in order to be able to work past the obstacles that block their paths, does little–if anything–to make inroads toward these larger goals. There is an imperative need to shift the kind of help we offer, yet, with stress so often in the driver seat of our decision making, overriding the cortisol messaging instructing us to focus on the source of struggle immediately in front of us is no easy task.  Fortunately, while this task is not easy, it is also not impossible.

Our reactions to stressful situations are rooted in the reasoning paradigms formed through a process of constant mental narration.  So, for example, one of the stories that pretty consistently runs through our teacher heads is this: I must help my students. I must help my students. I must help my students. However, our job as teachers is not simply to help students. It is to help students help themselves. This small, but significant, amendment to our inner narrative can remind us, even in moments of stress, to question students in ways that help them grow increasingly more confident, proficient, and independent. Shifting our inner narrative opens the door to asking questions like “What do you know?” and “What can you try?” instead of always relying on more reactive language such as, “What would make sense?” or “Sound it out.” (Burkins and Yaris, 2016)

In the fast-paced world of teaching and learning, deciding what kind and how much help to provide are among our greatest responsibilities. While stress may have us believe otherwise, we are in charge of the inner narratives the determine how we heed this call.  It is not a huge leap to move from I must help my students to I must help my students help themselves. And when we make the leap, we step aside and help in ways that truly help students grow to become increasingly confident, proficient, and independent readers. 



Burkins, Jan Miller, and Kim Yaris. Who’s Doing the Work?: How to Say Less so Readers Can Do More. Stenhouse Publishers, 2016.

Tasty Inspiration for Creative Writing

By Laura Resau, 2021 CCIRA Featured Author

I love writing with all my senses, and taste is one of my favorites. It’s an often-neglected sense that taps into deep emotions and memories. I’ve found that if I’m lacking inspiration, I only need to go to the kitchen to find something to spark my creativity. 

Usually, it’s chocolate! In my most recent book, Tree of Dreams, the main character finds inspiration in chocolate—you could even say she perceives the world in terms of chocolate. As I wrote this book, I explored chocolate with all my senses (which was really fun!) 

I’d like to share with you some ideas that will inspire your students to use their sense of taste as a doorway into creative writing. Since many of you are teaching partly online this year, this activity is a way to let your students find joy in using their senses beyond the screen.

Food makes for fantastic writing inspiration! It can inspire us to explore figurative language, multisensory descriptions, poetry, and more. The academic literature shows that an awareness of the senses promotes mindfulness, which improves executive function (Flook et al, 2010). Multisensory learning approaches keep students engaged (Rose Report, 2006). Integrating more senses is inclusive of different learning styles (Rosenberg et al, 2015). And instruction on creativity and imagery makes students better writers overall (Graham et al, 2012). (Also, just… yum!!!)

You might consider guiding your students in an enticing “Ode to Food” activity. I love using Pat Mora’s and Rafael Lopez’s Yum! Mmm! Que Rico! as a example of vibrant food-inspired literature. This picture book text about food of the Americas is perfect for Thanksgiving-themed writing. Not surprisingly, Mora’s poetry works beautifully for elementary school, but I’ve also found that middle, high school, and adult students love these poems and illustrations as well. (If you teach secondary students, I also suggest a Pablo Neruda poem to use as an example, later in this post.)

At least a day before the class, ask your students to find a food (or spice or herb or tea) in their home that they want to use as writing inspiration. They can bring it to the computer for their online class, and have a notebook ready.

Before they launch into their own creative writing, read these haikus from Yum! Mmm! Que Rico! together with your students and ask them to think about the imagery and metaphors in these poems. I highly recommend getting a copy of this fabulous book at your library or bookstore so that you can read all the delicious poems to your students.

Note that if you teach secondary students, you might also consider reading aloud Pablo Neruda’s Ode to a Lemon. If you have Spanish speakers, you could have them read the original version (Oda al Limón). The English and Spanish versions are easy to find online. Again, as you read, ask students to think about the imagery and metaphors in the poem. 

Ask students to take a taste of the food they’ve chosen and think about it, using all their senses. How does it taste? Feel? Smell? Look? Sound? (If you’d like, you could do a group example first, using a food that you’ve chosen to elicit ideas from students.) 

Next, you’ll be asking your students a series of inspiration-sparkers about their food. You’ll give the students a few minutes to free-write their responses to each question. I’ll be using chocolate as an example (of course!), but feel free to use your own example and brainstorm ideas as a group first.

a) If this food were an animal, what would it be and why?

   Example: This chocolate would be a jaguar, all stealth and grace… its spirit is strong and wild and fierce… silently, it creeps up on you in the night shadows.

b) If this food were a kind of weather, what would it be and why?

Example: This chocolate would be a late afternoon storm, dark skies and pounding rain and intense thunder that shakes you to your bones.

c) If this food were something in nature, what would it be and why?

Example: This chocolate would be crunchy, brown leaves on the rich forest floor… earthy and musty… wistful with gold and green memories. 

Note that you can ask students to come up with their own inspiration-sparkers. (For example: What season would this food be? What kind of music? What emotion? Etc.)

4) Ask students to share what they came up with in their free-writing. Other students can give feedback on which imagery felt particularly vivid or interesting.

5) Ask students to use their free-writing as inspiration to write an ode, poem or song, about the food they’ve chosen. If any students are interested in exploring the haiku form, you could give them this option, too (5 syllables on first line, 7 syllables on second, 5 syllables on final line).

6) Ask students to share their creative work with each other, and guide them on how to give specific, encouraging feedback.

7) Remind students that they can write their own food-inspired poems whenever they’re feeling bored at home!

For more ideas and materials, please see my Literary Chocolate Tasting Guide here:

Thank you! I hope you and your students enjoy the activity and feel inspired to do more creative writing with all your senses!

Laura Resau is an award-winning author of nine highly acclaimed young adult and children’s novels, including The Lightning Queen (Scholastic), What the Moon Saw, Red Glass, Star in the Forest, The Queen of Water, and the Notebooks series (Delacorte/Random House). Her most recent novel, Tree of Dreams, was the winner of the Colorado Book Award, and praised as “a moving exploration of friendship, activism, and how chocolate makes everything better” in a starred review from Kirkus.

Meaningful Learning Experiences: Teaching the Student and not the Content

By Dr. Towanda Harris

Along with the rest of the education world, I have been thinking a lot about the accessibility of meaningful learning experiences for all students. And by all, I mean all, especially our black and brown students. In the past, I have asked teachers to share their definition of “meaningful learning experiences” and majority of the time the definition started with the content and how it is used to ignite the student’s learning.

Making learning meaningful means that we must acknowledge the value of students’ life experiences and prior learning and begin with the student in order to connect the content throughout the process.  I work with schools on the most affluent side of town and schools on the poorest side of town and I keep coming back to this thought: “What if we believed that our students were brilliant in spite the pandemic?” As I reflect on my time in the classroom, my first year was filled with a lot of talking and a lot of listening. Unfortunately, I must confess that the talking was mostly me and the listening was mostly my students. It didn’t take long for me to learn that I had it all wrong. My definition of meaningful learning was steeped in teacher-centered protocols and routines, which all depended upon compliance. If my students were going to experience meaningful learning, I had to change my definition. It was NOT completing the assignments first. It was NOT answering questions before wait time was given. And it definitely was NOT scoring a hundred on an AR test. Meaningful learning was about gaining new knowledge that enabled my students to engage with each other and the world around them. It was about being emboldened to challenge and reflect on new information. It was about being able to look at life through the lens’ of multiple perspectives and experiences from others and also making connections to their own lives.

I recently read an article in the Washington Post entitled, “Can we stop telling the ‘corona kids’ how little they are learning?” by Valerie Strauss. During the past few months, I lost count of the number of times I heard words like learning loss, COVID slide, deficit, and so on. What if we are wrong? What if it wasn’t our structures, routines, and procedures that increased their learning after all? The decisions that we make are reflections of what we believe about our students and what they can accomplish. It determines how we plan for our students. In Dr. Gholdy Muhammad’s book, she reminds us that “it is critically important to push back on standards and practices that are not aligned to what students need most.” In this untraditional school year, it means that the curriculum scope and sequence must be built with our students, especially our black and brown students, in mind as we journey through the highs and lows of the ever changing factors that prevent us from being in a mask off, non-“social distance” zone with our students.  

As educators, we can begin with reflecting on the physical and virtual spaces that we build. We can build a compliant classroom that is filled with rules and procedures or we can build one that is filled with student agency that is driven by students’ interest and is often self-initiated. As educators, we have had lots of time to see learning in a variety of settings. In students’ bedrooms, at the kitchen table, on the couch, and even with younger siblings joining our read alouds. Cameras ON or cameras OFF, we have been creative in our efforts to engage the learner. So, what would that look like in our classrooms? How do we ensure that we value students’ voices, their perspectives, and their contribution to the learning, regardless of the learning environment? We must start with us being thoughtful around the resources, questions, and opportunities we use to engage students within learning spaces.

How do I choose the best resources?

First, let me release you from the notion that there is one best resource. Choosing resources begins by knowing our students and continuously taking note of what is working and what is not. We have to ensure that our choices are not one sided or targeted for one audience. It should be beneficial for a variety of learning styles and representative of diverse perspectives that exist in our world. Here are some helpful questions to ask yourself when deciding:

  1. Do the resources provided allow students to reflect and connect with their identity?
  2. Are there specific students not benefiting from the use of the resource? Why or why not?
  3. Does the resource help to meet a goal that has been set for individual or groups of students?

How are you facilitating meaningful learning?

In a recent Education Week blog, Dr. Bettina Love boldly proclaimed that, “when schools reopen, they could be spaces of justice, high expectations, creativity, and processing the collective trauma of COVID-19.” Reiterating the point that learning is not meant to be a sit and get or a lopsided experience, with one person giving and others receiving. Learning evokes change. Are we probing students, especially black and brown students, to challenge each other’s thinking about the injustices that exists in the world around us? Questioning is a big part of the process. When we ask questions and encourage them to ask questions of themselves and others, we help students to reflect on their new learning and become changemakers. This creates an environment in which all voices and perspectives are valued and heard in order to deepen their understanding. Here are some helpful questions to ask yourself in order to foster that type of environment:

1. What opportunities do you provide during instructions to invite students into the learning space?

2. Is feedback 2-way, in which students engage in conversations among teachers and peers? How do you know?

3. During the new learning, what resonates with students as they reflect on their life experiences? 

How can I co-create more opportunities for student engagement?A group of people sitting in a room

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No more “sage on stage” in classrooms. Opportunities for engagement yields a growth mindset. For example, asking students to read a passage and answer the comprehension questions, is not engagement; however, selecting themes to explore and allowing students to choose groups and share personal connections through discussion is engagement. This is the difference between passing a summative assessment and changing a perspective on a topic based on the rich conversation that a student experienced. Here are some helpful questions to ask yourself in order to foster that type of environment:

1. What opportunities are we allowing for students’ two worlds to meet in daily discussions (school life AND home life)?

2. Which voices overshadow the other voices in your class? Are there multiple ways that students can engage in learning (i.e. blogging, speaking, posting, etc.)?

3. In what ways are you making students’ social well-being a priority and using it to further their learning?

Students learn more than content at school—they also learn from the ways we teach and the ways they are invited to participate in their learning. If the day is filled with students spending all of their reading time independently filling in worksheets or watching videos, without any opportunities to immerse themselves in books, what are we teaching them about what it means to read and connect with the world? At a time when we face intense pressure to achieve and address the so-called “learning loss” it may be tempting to adopt materials that claim to promise results and turn our backs on practices that make school joyful, engaging, and meaningful for our students. “It’s just for a little while,” we might think, “just until the state test is over.” However, if we want students to make gains that outlast a single assessment and lead to a lifetime of learning, we can’t sacrifice the kind of meaningful learning experiences that we know children need. 

Bio: 

Dr. Towanda Harris has been a teacher, staff developer, literacy content specialist, and an instructional coach. Currently an Instructional Leadership Coordinator and an adjunct professor of reading and writing in Atlanta, Georgia, she brings almost twenty years of experience to the education world. Towanda is the author of The Right Tools: A Guide to Selecting, Evaluating, and Implementing Classroom Resources and Practices. You can follow her on Twitter @drtharris and IG @harrisinnovationcg.

Bibliography

Hammond, Z. L. (2015). Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.

Harris, T. (2019). The Right Tools: A Guide to Selecting, Evaluating, and Implementing Classroom Resources and Practices. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Love, B. (2020). Teachers, We Cannot Go Back to the Way Things Were . Education Week.

Muhammad, G. (2020). Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy. New York: Scholastic.

Strauss, V. (2020). Can we stop telling the ‘corona kids’ how little they are learning? Washington Post.