Why Use Student Writing As Mentor Texts?
As writing teachers, we want our students to be confident in their abilities to write for a variety of tasks, audiences, and purposes. We want to create positive writing climates where writers feel valued and secure. We want students to truly view themselves as writers and be moved with a sincere desire to write.
There are many paths to achieving these goals. One method I routinely employ to build such abilities and dispositions is using students’ own writing as mentor texts for teaching. It’s a grand thing to say to students, “We’re all writers and writing is a messy business. We’ll tease out our thinking, what we’re crafting, and the hows and whys together. As we do this, we’ll use your writing as a primary tool to help us all grow.”
I’ve been using students’ writing as peer mentor texts for years. Watching students’ engagement, seeing their reactions to one another, and noting how this method affects what and how they write has convinced me of the power we have right at our fingertips in our students’ own pieces. How does first grader, Michael, feel when he comes forward to help me teach the class using his own informative writing about black jaguars? How might his classmates feel watching Michael’s writing be celebrated and used as a model? Might this model feel much more within reach since it was written by a peer? (Tune in to my next post to learn more details about Michael and his writing.) The answers to these questions have far-reaching implications.
I’m not suggesting we throw out other methods that work. We know using trade texts as mentors, modeling writing, engaging students in shared, interactive and guided writing, and creating and using shared anchor charts are all effective in impacting students’ abilities to write. I’m suggesting we add using peer mentor texts to our go-to, best-strategy toolbelts. If we can celebrate and value our students, boost their confidence and build their identities as writers, all while teaching with a high-impact, accessible model, we’re doing much to move toward our goals. We shouldn’t leave this one out, folks. There are simply too many benefits.
Reflect on how we teach writing process. We model process in front of students when we work on our own writing while thinking aloud, then debrief with them about what they saw and how it is useful. We engage in process with students: brainstorming, drafting, rereading, tweaking… adding, rereading, revising…talking-it-out again, rethinking, adding…* as we work together to compose during shared, interactive, and guided writing. Yet, we have another tool: the messy, less-than-perfect, working about of students on their own papers. *(See this post for more on the recursive nature of writing)
How might it work to use second grader, Caden’s piece, to examine writing process and the impact peer interaction had on his story?
In order to make the revisions he did, Caden will tell you he reread his piece several times as he was developing it. For example, he talked-out his first sentence more than once, settling on adding two detail phrases, 'when I woke up' and 'with my friends.' He also shared his piece with peers and with me (more rereading!) as he moved along. When questions popped up for us listeners, we asked them (these were simple who, what, why, when, where and how questions), and Caden decided whether to make changes accordingly. Look closely at all the specific instances of revision and editing in this two page story. It’s rich with opportunity for highly impactful teaching and learning. Is it perfect? No. Can we learn a great deal about process from examining and naming what we see and giving the author opportunities to explain his thinking? Absolutely! Research shows accessible peer models, rather than exemplary ones, have a positive impact (Rogers and Feller, 2016). All this and we’re meeting standards, too!
Consider for just a minute what it might feel like to be Caden, having your work used as a model. What might it feel like to be one of Caden’s peers? How might it feel to be part of a writing community that truly values the ongoing work of its members in this way? Aside from all the learning benefits, students experience affective benefits when we rally around their work.
Using peer mentor texts to teach and inspire is a passion of mine, so much so that I wrote a book, We Can Do This! Student Mentor Texts That Teach and Inspire. It provides teachers with ready-to-use models written by kindergarten, first and second grade students, the majority of whom are from my Title I school. Click this Amazon link and “Look Inside” for a close-up view of how the volume is put together.
Stay tuned for more in this blog series on Using Student Writing as Mentor Texts to Teach and Inspire! Next post: specifics on how to use student writing as mentors. As always, I welcome your comments and am happy to answer questions.