7 Steps To Teach Writing With Mentor Texts

Teaching writing with examples of good writing—seems like a no-brainer.  And yet, it took me a long time to figure out practical ways of teaching with mentor texts.  Maybe I was just intimidated by professional and well-respected authors.  Maybe the whole process just seemed to vague and nebulous.  In any case, I have since figured out a few patterns that I follow. 

Teaching with mentor texts is more abstract and complicated than simply assigning a grammar handout, but once you get a routine, it doesn't have to be so difficult.  

These are my seven steps to teach writing with mentor texts. 

Find pieces that you enjoy reading.

If you find pieces that seem “important” or “good” but that you have a hard time slogging through, chances are that your students will quickly pick up on your lack of enthusiasm.  Keep reading until you find something that engages you from the beginning and keeps your interest throughout—chances are that if you find the writing engaging your students will too.

Find something relevant, but not necessarily reflective.

I want my students to be engaged by what they read because they believe that the issues or ideas are important to their lives; at the same time, I want to push their comfort zone and get them to think about viewpoints that might not be so obvious to them.  So I’ll find a short story about a father and son, but one that takes place in the rural South.  Or I’ll look for argument pieces on cellphones, but find writers who question the validity of technology.  Getting students to connect to writing doesn't mean that I have to pander to them.  

Annotate the text like crazy.

Notice everything that you can about the way the piece was written.  Something drew you to it, something kept your interest throughout—what was it?  Look for the deliberate techniques and choices that the author made in the construction of the piece.  Although it might feel like a step that you can skip, this is not the place to cut corners.  The more familiar you are with the piece the better you’ll be able to direct a class discussion on the writer’s craft.

Keep in mind all of the usual components of good writing.

Chances are that whether you are teaching poetry or a researched essay on the economic factors of the Harlem Renaissance, whatever piece you are reading has a main idea, specifics, and an organization of some kind.  Writing might seem mysterious and vague, but all good writing has the same main elements.  It’s easy to be intimidated by great writers, but they all use the same building blocks to create their masterpieces.

Look for the specific techniques that you would like students to notice.

Decide which elements of the piece will be most helpful to your students’ writing.  Are the majority of the kids struggling with effective thesis statements?  Plan a lesson around that.  Are they getting the ideas in but failing to support them enough?  Focus in on the author’s use of evidence and facts.  You won’t get your students to incorporate every technique that the writer uses, but you can get them to fully comprehend a few key details.   

Get your students to describe the specific techniques that writers use.

It’s not enough for students to identity the grabber or point to the thesis statement.  They need to understand and explain in their own words how writers create those pieces.  So plan plenty of questions to focus them on the elements, and then keep the discussion going until they can put what they see in their own words.

Task students with trying one or more of the techniques that they observe.

The whole point of examining mentor texts as writers is to apply the techniques that we observe.  So get students to play around and work some of what they admire into their own writing.  

Teaching writing can be daunting to say the least, and yet it really isn't such a big mystery once you get down to the nitty-gritty.  Having a routine to follow and practicing the same procedures over and over goes a long way in student and teacher comfort level.  Teaching writing with mentor texts is tricky at first, but as you’ll see in your students’ final products, it is so worth the effort.

Christina Gil was a high-school English teacher for sixteen years, but she recently left the classroom to follow a dream and move with her family to an ecovillage in rural Missouri. She believes that teaching creative writing helps students excel on standardized tests, that deeply analyzing and unpacking a poem is a fabulous way to spend an hour or so, and that Shakespeare is always better with sound effects. When she is not hauling water to her tiny home, she can be found homeschooling her two kids, meeting with her neighbors about the best way to run their village, or writing in her blog, Gil Teach.

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