Here’s what it used to sound like when I used mentor texts in my writing workshop early on in my teaching:
Me: Take a look at this piece from Cynthia Rylant. Do you see how she used figurative language in her writing? You should use figurative language just like Cynthia Rylant. Off you go!
My students: I don’t get it (a glazed look in their eyes and a wrinkle of confusion above their noses).
I realized my feedback when using a mentor text was ambiguous, and therefore confusing for some and frustrating for many others. I reflected on why this was happening. There were a few things I needed to do to make my mentor texts a strong tool for feedback.
Before studying the writing techniques in a mentor text, my students benefited from reading for understanding first. Once they understood what the text meant it helped to reread it thinking like a writer.
My students needed only a handful of mentor texts, not a different one for every lesson I taught. I needed to have two or three go-to texts that we knew inside and out.
I needed to not only name the technique the author was using but also explain and demonstrate the strategy that the author (likely) used. This was the trickiest part for me so I created a step by step process. I follow this process whenever I am using a mentor text.
Here’s what I do. First, let’s take a look at one small excerpt from one of my favorite informational texts: Oh Yikes! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty, by Joy Masoff. This comes from the section called Dastardly Dentistry. Take a moment to read it (and be shocked or maybe a bit grossed out by the content).
The best writing is that which you cannot resist reacting to! Now that we understand what the text is about, we can prepare to use it as a mentor text. Here are the steps I follow:
Study a part of the text thinking like a writer, looking for techniques that the author uses that we as writers might try as well.
Describe the strategy that the author used.
Name it as a series of steps and jot them down.
What follows is an example of my thinking process when preparing What Time is It? Tooth Hurty! to use as a mentor text.
I noticed that Joy Masoff used a mixture of shocking facts and everyday language. Specifically, she listed some facts about her subtopic and then chose when to add in language like “rat brain gum,” “average Joe,” and “folks.”
Since I don’t know exactly what Joy Masoff’s process was, I made some best guesses. I imagined what she did to include specific, shocking facts and then bring in everyday language. I listed this as a series of steps to share with students so they can replicate the process. The strategy is the key to making feedback with a mentor text practical.
Let’s try it again, this time with a simpler text. This excerpt comes from Houndsley and Catina and the Quiet Time. Take a moment to read it and think about what James Howe does to create pauses for the reader.
Maybe you noticed the first sentence standing all on its own without a bunch of other sentences near it. This makes the first sentence stand out. Now we need to imagine what James Howe did to create that pause for us. Maybe it was: