Student Engagement

Using Mentor Texts to Motivate and Support Student Writers

July 31, 2014

If we want students to do something well, it helps to both tell them and show them what we expect. When it comes to writing assignments, we teachers will give students directions to write a convincing essay or draft a descriptive narrative followed by telling them how to earn a good grade on it. Many of us also hand out a rubric or criteria chart that tells all the expectations for the essay. But, with all that there is to cover and the time crunch, we may sacrifice showing them mentor texts, examples of good writing.

Show Not Tell

Let's take a moment to think of ourselves when we learn: Do we understand something and apply it better when we are shown a finished product while also being told about it? I'm going to guess that most of us will say yes. Doesn't it help to scrutinize that already-assembled bookshelf display at Ikea before going home to those often confusing instructions? (Clearly, I speak from experience on this one.)

So if we want students to write a convincing persuasive essay that includes evidence, let's show them examples. If we want them to craft a descriptive story, filled with dialogue and details, we need to show them what this looks like and talk about.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: when I show them a student model it often gets copied or parroted back! And, yes this is a concern as we want all our students to work hard and create their own original and unique essay, story, or speech. Additionally, and I speak from experience as both a teacher and a writer on this one, nothing causes writer's block more than being handed an amazing model and then told, "Okay, now you write!"

So how do we keep students from mimicking or from freezing up? We have to give students time to talk about the mentor text, time to practice, and time to share their own efforts with peers for feedback.

Deconstructing Good Writing

Once you have found some good mentor texts -- student written or published pieces -- plan backwards from there. Put your lesson designer cap on and ask yourself, what are all the features that make this a solid piece of writing: the organization? the title? the sentence variety? the use of metaphor and other imagery? the evidence that supports claims? the introduction?

After you have listed these features, create mini-lessons for each one you want your students to emulate. The mini-lesson should include time after the teaching for students to practice and share in small, safe groups and when ready, with the whole class. Also, I used to create a handout with several really great introductions (from books, essays, short stories, and speeches). Together, the students I would analyze these opening sentences and discuss what made them so powerful.

The importance of what happens next should not be underestimated: Give your students time to practice writing what they just learned. And not just time but make it low-stakes -- no grading, no evaluation, no rubric -- simply time to explode on a page, take chances, be whimisical, be daring: firewrite! Let them then share what they wrote with near neighbors or read it aloud to the whole class. If they don't want to do either, give them the option to not.

Finding Mentor Texts

If you are a new teacher and don't yet have a collection of student essays and writing samples, then turn to your colleagues who might have some to share. I've also found awesome mentor text on the Internet.

Write Source offers a large collection of student writing for all grade levels and genres, and for free. What is great about this selection is that numerous teachers from all over have submitted these models so there's quite a bit of variety.

Because I support teachers who work at urban public schools in Los Angeles, a relevant resource I found to share with teachers is the publication, LA Youth. Archived on the site are countless narratives, persuasive essays, letters, and poems written by teenagers living in metropolitan areas of LA. The more students can relate to the voice and content found in a mentor text, the more it will inspire their own writing.

There are also many anthologies and books out there that offer wonderful collections of children and adolescent writing. I used this one with eleventh-graders as they were writing their college personal statements, 50 Successful Harvard Application Essays. This collection of essays offered up clever, zany, and heartfelt teenage writing that sparked creativity and bravery in my own students' writing.

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