Better Writing Means More Reading

I can’t believe it, but school officially starts next week! Though the summer flew by, I’m proud of all the reading I did. I hoped to read 30 novels, but I might be at 40 by next weekend. I had also originally hoped to read more books to improve my teaching; however, instead of three titles, I only got through one. Thankfully, that one title, Writing with Mentors by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell, gave me tons of ideas for my writing units.

1. Mentor texts hold all the power. Published writers are talented for a reason: they read a lot! I promote reading as a form of entertainment in my classroom, but there are times we need our students to study and analyze what they read too. We need our students to realize that they not only can learn content from what they read, but also how to become a better writer. Reading, analyzing, and discussing mentor texts can give our students strategies they can use now and in the future. Say a student wants to learn how to write a review of a product. It could be a book, restaurant, or even a video game. Sure a teacher could share a list of dos and don’ts, along with formula to follow, but the student could learn so much more from reading and studying 3-5 well-written reviews.

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My students read five reviews, and then looked for qualities they all had to fill out this chart together in a Google Doc.

2. Mentor texts get students away from formulaic writing. Every year I hear students share why certain writing genres scare them: “I can’t write a poem because I can never come up with rhyming words” and “I hate writing essays because I never know what to put in the third body paragraph.” I’m sure somewhere in their schooling they were told “You must have [insert requirement here],” but I aim to squash that belief in my room with mentor texts. Mentor texts allow our students an opportunity to see that there are many ways to write a great essay, poem, or review. Students can practice different techniques in their notebooks, and then when draft time arrives, they can write a piece they feel comfortable with. When students feel more comfortable with the task they are given, they will be more willing to take risks. No formulaic graphic organizer or outline required! Also, we teachers will enjoy reading our students’ writing again, for we will not have 100 5-paragraph essays about the exact same topic to grade.

3. Studying mentor texts helps ease frustration so students are more willing to experiment with language. Whether it is during a mini-lesson, notebook time, or even revision, students will have the chance to play around with language. For example, last year during a poetry unit,  I found that my students were very intimidated by poetry. I figured it might help them to have something to start with, so I showed them Terry Tempest Williams’s piece “Why I Write.” I then showed them the poem I created using the phrase “I write” at the beginning of each line. In my co-taught classes, my co-teacher shared her poem as well. Students then took to writing their own poems. Some depended on the “I write” sentence starter and either used it or inserted a different verb. Others took more risks, like combining ideas from two different poems we read together. So some played around with language, and some didn’t as much, but all felt comfortable trying.

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4. When using mentor texts, more opportunities arise for students to work cooperatively. I’ve always required my students to work on revising in small groups, but I found that many students didn’t know what to look for in their peers’ writing. Sure they may have been able to share when a piece lacked focus or if a sentence seems out of place, but they didn’t always know how to help one another with their sentence structure and word choice. Once I incorporated more mentor texts into my teaching, I heard phrases like “try using one-word lines like Jason Reynolds did in his” and “What about comparing this book to another popular one that’s similar?” Their feedback for one another became more specific, and I found that they enjoyed getting advice from one another.

Since reading Writing with Mentors by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell, I find myself eager to dive into a writing unit. I am now constantly looking for mentor texts whenever I read, and already have a folder full of them.  I’m excited to share these intriguing texts, images, and videos with students, and I think they will enjoy seeing their writing skills improve as they do. I look forward to sharing all that they accomplish!

How do you use mentor texts in your classroom? Do you have any favorites? Feel free to share below!

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