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On the Podcast: Developing Writing Skills with Mentor Texts with Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O'Dell

Developing Writing Skills with Mentor Texts

Mentor texts from a variety of high-interest sources along with diverse authors can be a real game changer in secondary writing classrooms. 

Today on the podcast we're talking with authors Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell about their new book A Teacher’s Guide to Mentor Texts, the latest addition to the Classroom Essentials Series. In it they write about how students learn to read like writers, deepening their understanding of quality writing and inspiring them in their own drafting and revision.

Download a sample chapter of A Teacher’s Guide to Mentor Texts

Rebekah and Allison have written a foundational guide on the what, why, and how of teaching with mentor texts. They provide a multitude of annotated examples from professional writers, alongside student samples, to illustrate how mentor texts can teach specific writing skills.


A transcript of this episode will be available soon.

Rebekah: Well, a lot has happened since we wrote Writing With Mentors. We wrote that book six years ago. At the time that we wrote it, we were teaching together in the same high school. We were not doing a lot of work with teachers. And so, since Writing With Mentors came out, we have changed a ton about our lives and our work. I've moved grade levels. I now teach middle school. We have had six years of traveling around the country and getting to work with teachers in grades six through 12, hearing their experiences, hearing what they need for their writers and different contexts and different kinds of schools and different school populations. And we've also had six more years to experiment with mentor texts in our own classrooms to learn more about them ourselves.

So there's a lot that's new in this book. In fact, almost everything's new in this book, except our love of mentor texts. That is the same. But there's not a single example in this book or a single instructional strategy that has also appeared in Writing With Mentors, because this is just our latest, newest, freshest thinking about what works for kids and what works for teachers when we are using mentor texts.

And then, in addition to just sort of our new, fresh thinking, what's so exciting about being a part of the Classroom Essential series are the kinds of resources that we're able to provide in this book that we weren't able to provide in Writing With Mentors. And not only are there hundreds of new mentor texts in this book, including full length mentor texts, but there's also online a whole unit ready for teachers to take into their classrooms on op-eds with full length mentor texts, with our annotations of mentor texts that can help teachers figure out what to teach, to whittle down those skills that they want to teach students.

There are planning tools that are online, that we get to share with teachers here that really take the theory and the practice of using mentor texts into a teacher's plan book, which I love because I know that we've all been in professional development where we get really excited about new ideas, but we don't know how to put those ideas onto our calendar Monday through Friday in a 45 minute class period. And so, we provide resources to help teachers do that.

And we also have lots of video in this book, which is really exciting to be able to share. Some of the videos are just for teachers and teaching you how to do something with mentor texts yourself. But some of them are mini lessons, which are my favorite ones, that you could either, as a teacher, you could share directly with your students. If you would like Alison to be the guest teacher in your class, you can put on a mini lesson of Alison teaching kids to read like writers, or teachers can use those videos just as their own mentor texts actually, to help them find the language, find the teaching rhythms of using mentor texts as a resource in their writing classroom.

Brett: If someone's still kind of new to mentor texts, if they're still getting comfortable with mentor texts, what is it about mentor texts that makes it such a useful tool to help students become better writers?

Allison: So mentor texts, we like to say they do two things. They inspire writers and guide them, and then they also actually teach the skills of writing. So the way we use mentor texts with students is showing them lots of really rich examples written by professional writers that are hot off the press and relevant and engaging. This is our definition of a mentor text. And our job is to expose our young writers to as many different kinds of mentor texts so that they can begin to get a sense of what's out there and what's possible for them as writers. So mentor texts ask us not just to appreciate a good piece of writing as readers, but to go that next step and to really begin to see a text in a new way, to see almost yourself as a writer reflected in that text, like a mirror. What's here that I can take back to my own work? What's here that I can use to make my own writing more like me?

And so, what makes the teaching so interesting is we're using the example of someone's else's writing to help our students find their own voices. And how we do that is by teaching them to find the tools inside the mentor texts that they can take back to their own work.

Rebekah: I think the other great thing about mentor texts is not just how they help students, which is our main goal and our top priority, but teachers now more than ever do not need one more thing to do just for the sake of doing it. Right? Teachers need things that help their students and also make their lives better and easier as teachers. And so, another reason that I have been so wooed by mentor texts over the last 10 years or so is because mentor texts make my life easier as a teacher. They teach me what to teach.

And when I am entering a new genre of writing with my students, or we're going to try to write a piece that I've never tried with students before, by reading like a writer myself, by looking with that writerly eye into the writing, I am shown those skills that I need to teach. And so, I no longer toil over the lessons that I'm going to teach, or how am I going to get my kids to be able to accomplish this kind of writing because all I have to do is the same thing the kids do, and that's look into the mentor texts to find the skills, to see the examples already there in front of me, and now I have my lesson for tomorrow.

Allison: Mentor texts give me more confidence as a teacher. It doesn't matter how many years you've been teaching or how many students you've worked with, there will be a student who presents you with a question that you can't answer and you're not sure how to tackle it. And when you have mentor texts around you to help you help that student solve his writing problem, or her writing problem, you have so much more confidence about how you're helping that student because you've been able to sort of crowdsource using these mentor texts. What would other writers say about this problem? How would other writers answer this problem? You're not alone in the classroom when you are surrounded by your mentor texts.

Rebekah: And students aren't alone with mentor texts either because they have those other sources to go to as well, in addition to the teacher. And those sources, those mentor texts, our mentor authors bring in a really rich diversity of voices into our classrooms. Students can find writers who write about the same concerns they have, who sound like them, who look like them, who come from where they come from. And so, in that way, sometimes mentor authors and mentor texts can meet my students' needs in ways that I alone cannot. And so, I'm so grateful to bring in that community of voices because I need it and my kids need it.

Brett: Rebekah, you just sort of touched on it there with the richness that you described in a mentor text. Can you go a little bit deeper with that and tell us what you look for in terms of the good qualities or the qualities of what would make a good mentor text?

Rebekah: Absolutely. A great mentor text is the kind of writing that you dream of your students doing. And that's really what we look for. We're not looking for writing on the same themes or the same topics that our students are writing about. We're looking for writing that does the same work that we want our students writing to ultimately do. And so, when we are having our students write op-eds, we are looking for op-eds that knock our socks off, the kind of op-eds that we just absolutely wish our students would produce themselves.

Allison always loves to say that we should use the highlighter test to find a great mentor text. It's the kind of writing that makes you want to go grab a highlighter because there's such a good sentence, or it makes you want to text your English teacher best friend, like, "Oh my gosh, listen to this line. It's amazing." And so, it's aspirational. That's what a great mentor text is. It is beautiful writing that has craft. When we read it, we want to tell someone about it because we love it so much. And in it, we can see skills that we can turn around and teach our students by showing them these examples.

Allison: I would add to that, it's also maybe writing that our students dream of themselves writing. When we describe mentor texts that we want to take a highlighter to, you might have a certain vision of the kind of writing that an English teacher would want to highlight. But we're bringing lots of rich texts in that are about sports and video games. Some of the smartest mentor texts and mentor writers that we've brought into our classroom are writing about video games. And I'll be honest, it has changed the way that I view media video games. It's changed my outlook because the writing is so incredible. And so, we are not just finding pieces of writing that we love, but pieces of writing that our students love and that we think they would like to be able to write themselves, really good writing about sports and video games and food and dance and the kinds of things that they love.

Brett: And sort of through that, Allison, you write about how when introducing students to mentor texts, we should help them read like a writer. Can you say a little bit more about that?

Allison: Sure. One of our overarching goals with our students is to nurture independence in them. We know that we only have them for so long. And when they leave us, we want them to be successful writing in lots of different genres, across lots of different contexts and opportunities. And so, we like to teach them how to read like writers because what that does is equip them with a set of tools that enables them to see a text that is professionally written and understand how the writer has put that text together, to name the tools the writers used to craft that text, and then to find places to work those tools into their own writing, either pieces that already exist or pieces that are being dreamed up. And so, we spend a lot of time in this skill, teaching them to read like a writer, teaching them to understand how a piece of writing was put together, with the end goal of that student being able to take those craft moves back to his own work, her own work, and make the writing come alive without our help.

Of course, we're there every step of the way. And this takes a lot of practice and a lot of time, but eventually with a lot of practice and time, students can begin to see a piece of writing and understand how it was made and make their own writing like it.

Rebekah: And that's something that's really powerful, the transference of this skill. If this were just something that made an op-ed better or made a personal essay better, that would be good. That would be one thing, but it would be an awful lot of work for a teacher just to make one piece of writing a little bit better. But the reason that we do this, the biggest reason that we do this, is because this is a skill that they can use for the rest of their lives.

When they start a job someday and they have to write their first memo, they can find a memo that somebody has sent in the office before them, and use it as a mentor text to guide and inspire their own writing. If they have to give a valedictory speech someday, let's hope, that would be great, but if they have to give a valedictory speech, they can go to YouTube and find mentor texts for excellent valedictory speeches and use that to guide and inspire their own writing. So this is something that is so worth our time and so worth our effort because the ability to study a master's work and take pieces of it to bring into your own work is something that they will use for a lifetime.

Brett: I love those examples, Rebekah. Those are just so absolutely, just the real life work that you're bringing in. Allison, we talked before about how it's different this time around because it's a Classroom Essentials book, and of course that presents so many more opportunities of what you can do in this book. Certainly the layout and the design of this book is just stunningly beautiful. One of the big benefits within this book is there are a series of galleries that you and Rebecca have organized throughout the book. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about what the galleries are and how does that work in the pages?

Allison: Oh, we love the galleries. I think they're my favorite feature. And if you think about the word gallery, there's a lot of stuff to see and interact with. And so, we do have a series of galleries that focus on different dimensions or aspects of a piece of writing. So the first gallery is looking at craft and punctuation across a large swath of texts. Basically the galleries are chock-full of examples from the freshest, most interesting, most beautifully crafted pieces of writing out there. And what we've done is sort of gathered an example or two of craft moves that fall into different categories.

So I'm looking right now at the section of the craft and punctuation gallery called Just Write Words. So we look at the ways in which writers choose words and examples of those interesting choices. So one of the categories is DIY words, and these are words that writers invent. I've actually been using the word happy sad a lot with my own kids to describe how we feel at the end of the year. And this is a word that came from a beautiful memoir called Heavy by Keith Layman.

Another example in this section of the craft gallery is hyphenated words. A lot of writers glue two words together because one word just won't do. And there's something really interesting happens when we create a hyphenated word. I'm looking at an example now of this hyphenated word, metaphor-darkness. So metaphor hyphen darkness. How interesting and rich is that? Something that you achieve in that combination of words that you couldn't get with just one word or the other.

So the galleries offer tons, oodles of examples that have been lifted out of mentor texts and show different categories of moves that writers are making. And so, there's so much potential with these galleries. One of the first ways that I would be excited to use it as a teacher is to sort of elevate my own repertoire of mentor texts, right? We have students coming to us, conferring with us all the time about what's happening in their writing. It's really helpful to show them lots of different examples of how writers are tackling this same kind of issue. And so, those galleries and the book are filled with sentences that the teacher can show the student. Open up the book and just see, here are five examples of the thing that you're trying to do.

Rebekah, what are some other ways in which we want teachers to use the gallery, and students use the gallery?

Rebekah: Well, another way that teachers might use the galleries is teaching in small groups, individual conferences, teaching in the whole class. I'm looking at the structure gallery, which is my personal favorite gallery. And when we're trying to teach students how to find a system of organization for their ideas that's not necessarily just in five paragraphs, I could see pulling out some of these ways to begin or ways to end and showing them in a mini lesson to my class.

Another reason I love these galleries so much though is in the book we talk about encouraging students to find their own language that makes sense to them, to describes the moves that they see writers making. There's so much alienation that happens when we English teachers have our specialist of special English words that we roll out at the beginning of the year and insist on students using them. And sometimes that can stand between students and the mentor texts if we insist on using technical English words. So we encourage students just to, if you see something in a text, find a name that makes sense for what you're seeing. And not only is that more democratizing, but it's also more flexible because sometimes there's not a name. Sometimes there's not already an English teacher term for what a writer is doing.

And so, what these galleries can do is they can model for both you and for your students, how to do that, how to name what you're seeing, because we do that for you. We name a bunch of moves that we see and mentor texts. For instance, start with the facts beginning or a have the last word ending or a micro-story paragraph. And these are not fancy or revolutionary terms, but I think that using these galleries and using these terms that we have in the book with students can also provide a really comfortable model for teachers and students for how you find that language to say what you see.

Allison: It also puts the emphasis back on the student's own writing, because we're not just analyzing what the writer has done and stopping there. We are analyzing what the writer's done so that we can grow ourselves as writers. And I think the more student-friendly the term, and the more permission we give students to find their own words to describe what they're seeing, the more likely our writers are to bring those craft needs back into their own work. It's just a reminder that we're doing this to grow our writers, not just to sit around and analyze really smart writing.

Brett: That is such an important point. Well, let's start to wrap up with this. Allison, who would you recommend this book is for?

Allison: I can see the teacher who is just at the very beginning of her mentor text journey picking this up, but I can also see the more seasoned mentor texts teacher enjoying this. We've had a lot of really positive feedback on social media, and teachers who have been following our work for years have been finding little tidbits in the book, things that they had never thought of before. For example, in this book, we emphasize after students have studied a craft move, invite them immediately to try that move in their own writing. So in the same breath in which you analyzing that craft move, also invite them to try it out. And we've had a lot of teachers say, "Wow, I never thought about the power of that immediacy. We would analyze on this day and then maybe we we'd apply it the next day, or maybe we wouldn't." But there's a lot of power in that invitation that comes right after studying it.

So the book is filled with lots of tips, sort of like boots on the ground, here's how this really works, and here's a way in that maybe you hadn't thought about before. So it's for experienced teachers just as much as it is for newer to mentor text teachers. And I feel like it's also, you talked about the format, Brett, the aesthetic of the book is so beautiful. I think it's a book for time-starved teachers, and who isn't a time-starved teacher? It's so easy to read and digest, and it's just easy on the eyes. And it sort of has this almost dog-eared quality about it already because of all the kind of annotated art that runs throughout the book. So it just feels good in your hands.

And it also has a workbook feel to it. There are lots of places in the text where we stop teachers and invite them to actually open up your notebook, write in the margin, do some thinking on the page here. And so, in that way, I think it's for everybody who wants to grow on their mentor text journey, regardless of where they're starting.

Rebekah: I think it's also a book that's great just for teachers who want more and more and more mentor text resources. Between the galleries and then the full length mentor texts that are in the book, and then additional mentor texts that are in the online resources, if you just want to grow your stack, this is a great place to go. And I also think that this is a great book for teachers who want to just continue to take their students' work with mentor texts to ever deeper levels.

My favorite part of the whole book is a continuum that comes at the end of the book when we're talking about assessment, where we talk about moving students from the beginning with mentor texts, to just imitating mentor texts, to eventually transferring what they learn in a mentor text to multiple pieces of writing. And then, finally, truly crafting independently, kind of fulfilling that vision that we talked about earlier of kids who can find a mentor texts on their own and use it completely on their own. And we walk teachers through that continuum. How do you move students from those very, very, very earliest encounters with mentor texts eventually to the place where they are able to do that work on their own for the rest of their lives?

And so, if you're a teacher who been using mentor texts in your classroom for years, but you want to just keep digging deeper into ways to get your students toward that point of complete independence, I think that this book has a lot to offer.

Learn about Allison and Rebekah's August Webinar Series

allisonmarchetti-1Allison Marchetti is coauthor—with Rebekah O'Dell—of Writing with Mentors and Beyond Literary Analysis. Their popular blog Moving Writers focuses on writing instruction in middle and high school classrooms with an emphasis on voice and authenticity. Traveling the country to work with teachers and students provides constant inspiration as they help educators do the hard-and-transformative work of teaching real writing.

Allison has taught middle and high school English in both public and independent schools in Richmond, Virginia. Her favorite moments in the classroom happen at students’ desks, thinking and reading and writing beside them.

rebekahodellRebekah O'Dell is coauthor—with Allison Marchetti—of Writing with Mentors and Beyond Literary Analysis. Their popular blog Moving Writers focuses on writing instruction in middle and high school classrooms with an emphasis on voice and authenticity. Traveling the country to work with teachers and students provides constant inspiration as they help educators do the hard-and-transformative work of teaching real writing.

After more than a decade in the high school classroom, Rebekah currently teaches middle school English in Richmond, Virginia. She has experience using the reading and writing workshop model to transform student engagement at all levels, from inclusion classrooms to the International Baccalaureate program.

Topics: Mentor Texts, Podcast, Reading, Rebekah O'Dell, Writing, Allison Marchetti, Heinemann Podcast, Literacy, The Classroom Essentials Series, A Teacher's Guide to Mentor Texts

Date Published: 06/10/21

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