Sunday, 5 May 2013

All Atwitter about Mentor Texts

I never thought 140 characters could be so complicated. For starters, I had to learn to write sparingly.  (After all, I've already written 140 c-- oops!  I've gone over the limit).  And then there are the RTs and bit.lys.  Throw in some #s and @s, and it's as if Twitter has its own language.  Sure I've seen the videos, and I've read the tips, but I know that to learn how to tweet best, I need to analyze great tweets from the Twitterers I follow.  As I use my mentor tweets to find my way in this genre, I'm reminded at how important mentor texts are in our classrooms. 

Mentor texts are nothing new.  With every unit we teach, we seek to find "touchstone" texts that we love as readers which in turn informs our writing.  Over the years though, my thinking has changed about what mentor texts are and how we should use them.

I used to think that there were actual lists out there that good teachers knew about and shared.  I thought we should protect them with all of our might so that our students would see the texts for the first time under our tutelage.  And we would be the ones to unlock each text's secrets.  Not only that, we could rely on these texts year after year without worry that our teaching would fade.

Since then, my thinking has evolved.  While I agree that some texts lend themselves beautifully to specific units, I believe that we should think more openly about the texts we use.  We know that certain texts resonate more with some of us than others.  With that in mind, do we all have to use the same text?  We also know the value of revisiting good texts, so why should we protect them?  And if we stick with a static list, won't we be missing out on some great possibilities?  

Don't get me wrong.  Of course we need to be aware of the common texts we use, and we should be communicating vertically to know what texts are used each year.  Grade level teams may even "call dibs" on certain titles.  Having said that, there are so many standouts available from picture books to short stories to new award winners to articles and speeches, the possibilities are endless.  Not only that, why not consider video clips, movie trailers and other genres to inform ourselves as writers.  For example, some of us use this trailer for Brave to show how authors (and movie makers) slow down an exciting moment and bring it to life.

When it comes to how we use mentor texts, we may want to think flexibly as well.  As Ralph Fletcher notes in Mentor Authors, Mentor Texts, "instead of directing students to pay attention to this strategy or that technique, what if we invite them to look at these texts and enter into them on their own terms.  This would give students more control, more ownership, and it would respect the transactional dynamic that is present whenever  anybody reads anything."
Mentor Authors, Mentor Texts (Fletcher, 2011)

Fletcher goes on to include an interesting graphic to show the range of noticings a reader can make in a given text.  With his more democratic approach to using mentor texts, Fletcher implicitly supports the idea that in any piece of quality writing, there are a number of possible takeaways.  Just consider how you could teach details by focusing on the camera angles or how to use actions to cause your reader to infer character traits in the Brave trailer.  

As far as when to use mentor texts, many of us begin our units with intense reading immersions.  This makes sense as we delve into a given genre and use our mentor texts to clarify characteristics and note nuances when talking about them in groups and as a class.  It becomes a careful balancing act when we begin writing though as some of us may have them close by when drafting while others do not.  What I find more practical is to bring them back out during the revision stage to see what I have done compared to my mentors.  In doing so, it honors my own voice while drafting and gives me further inspiration to revise with an additional trick or two.  In terms of Fletcher's graphic, at the beginning of the unit, we use mentor texts for the lower half of the pyramid, and as we revise and edit, we can revisit them with the top half of the pyramid in mind.

How about you?  What are your thoughts on mentor texts, and how do you use them in your classes?  

In the meantime, in case you're wondering how I'll condense this post into 140 characters, don't worry.  I learned that I can tweet out, 
"Just blogged:"  Thanks, Mentors!


  1. Hooray for discussing that there is no one-size-fits-all approach!

  2. Love the multi-media integration! :)