In many classrooms, students labor over writing. They groan when we give assignments. They procrastinate. They lack confidence. Where’s the joy? We know it matters. Joy suspends time. When students have it, they will work past the bell.
We teachers have the power to ignite joy as a regular practice through the study of authors’ craft moves. Students will discover the potential of intentionally arranging sentences (in a list, perhaps), or in shaping an image (to show a creepy setting or define a character), or in creating authentic dialogue. Studying passages from great books not only hones writing skills but also generates curiosity.
What is this author doing to make this book so good? I can’t stop reading it! How can I replicate those craft moves to give my writing this kind of life and power? Does the author do this in all his books?
The answer to these questions lies in the frequent study and imitation of micro mentor texts.
A micro mentor text is a few sentences, a paragraph, or a scene. It is short enough to analyze with students in a mini-lesson but packed with writer’s craft that we can teach students how to identify and imitate. The power of this practice lies in its simplicity and its infinite variations. It’s a simple idea that I’ve used with great success in my teaching and literacy coaching, grade two to college, for decades. My students, however, do most of the work, collecting passages to study during independent reading and book clubs. When we unite our students’ reading with the study of the writer’s craft, we save time and inspire wise young writers.
There is never enough time in teaching, but one important and lasting understanding is that books hold lessons for writers. Let’s help our students learn how to discover them.
A few tools and techniques can change your entire approach to teaching writing. I’ll share a sample micro mentor text lesson.
BEGIN: Excite your students about the selected text
I begin with a book talk, holding up Refugee, by Alan Gratz. I summarize the story in a few sentences from the author’s website:
Three different kids. One mission in common: ESCAPE. Three young people will go on harrowing journeys in search of refuge. All will face unimaginable dangers—from drownings to bombings to betrayals. But for each of them, there is always hope of tomorrow. And although Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud are separated by continents and decades, surprising connections will tie their stories together in the end.
“This book,” I tell students, “has won so many awards, I can’t list them all. It not only was voted Best Fiction for Young Adults in 2018, but also became a New York Times best seller.” I end this book talk, as I do all book talks, with these words: “If this sounds like a book you might want to read next, add it to your list at the back of your writer’s notebook.”
We must support the ongoing reading lives of all our students. Daily book talks remind students of all the great books available to them.
NOTICE: Passage study engages students through peer discussion
In the following short passage from Refugee, Gratz establishes the setting with artful intention. I encourage students to talk with a partner, not only about what is happening here, but also about what Gratz is doing to create this moment, sentence by sentence.
It was like they were invisible.
Josef and his sister followed their mother through the crowd at the Lehrter Bahnhof, Berlin’s main railway station. Josef and Ruth each carried a suitcase, and their mother carried two more—one for herself, and one for Josef’s father. No porters rushed to help them with their bags. No station agents stopped to ask if they needed help finding their train. The bright yellow Star of David armbands the Landaus wore were like magical talismans that made them disappear. Yet no one bumped into them, Joseph noticed. All the station attendants and other passengers gave them a wide berth, flowing around them like water around a stone.
The people chose not to see them.
I wander the room and take notes on what students notice. Below are a few observations that I heard when conducting this passage study:
- The claim “like they were invisible” is supported by details of what that means.
- The repetition of “no porters, no station agents” to show what was not happening but should have been happening.
- The use of a simile (“like magical talismans… like water around a stone”) to help the reader imagine what the crowd is seeing and how it is moving.
When we come back together as a class, I share students’ observations and add them to an anchor chart (an ongoing, cumulative list) of craft moves we notice. Each book, we soon learn, is a treasure chest of craft moves.
IMITATE: Teacher modeling helps students visualize the use of craft moves in writing
We pull out our writing notebooks, and I model how I might imitate Gratz’s craft moves based on my own topic. My goal is to encourage students to use their observations as they write. I say, “I imagine myself at morning basketball practice in the gym of my middle school. There was only one team at the school, so my best friend and I tried out for the boys’ team. I want to describe that setting for readers.” I write a few sentences (either on the board or under a document camera, depending on what tools are available) and explain that I’m focusing on details that describe, inspired by Gratz’s writing.
The cement wall was cold against my head and neck and my legs crossed, uncrossed, stretched, and bunched up. I pulled my long blond hair back into a ponytail. I waited. I hated this part. More than the cold lima beans on my plate at dinner or scraping wax off of our hardwood floors at home, I hated this choosing teams thing. Just once, I wanted to be captain.
THEIR TURN: Drafting and sharing their own written work boosts students’ confidence
I ask students to choose their own topics and try imitating Gratz as I continue writing. They do. Pencils fly. Some students go back to the passage to look at it more closely, and then continue writing. Other students read what I’m writing before continuing.
I imitate a sentence pattern from the passage. I return to the passage and highlight the “no” sentences, and then I write my own sentences:
No girls were chosen to be captains in the morning scrimmage. No coach stepped up to make it fair.
Students work in pairs, sharing their creations for a minute or two as I listen in. Sometimes we share our writing as a class. Student confidence blossoms. After all, they are standing next to the craft of expert authors, so they write with confidence. When students share, they discover the many ways that craft moves can be made across experiences and experiments from all the writers in the room. All things seem possible.
PRACTICE: Students learn How to read like writers independently
When students enter independent reading, I see 25 heads bent over 25 books. No matter the novel or nonfiction book each student has chosen, intentional craft moves are at work in it. We read like writers. As I confer with students, I hear what they’ve noticed.
In book clubs, students share passages they’ve collected to spur discussion. But they share more than passages. They share the joy of discovery. One student says to another, “Where did you find that?” and suddenly they begin to study the passage together.
This is teacher joy—when we watch students learning from each other. We need more of it. As Decoteau J. Irby says in The Blog of Harvard Education Publishing, “Joy at school and in learning is a foundation from which students gain the confidence that academic struggle is temporary and worthwhile.” Let’s bring joy back to the teaching of writing. It’s there—right there—in the books we love.