Teaching is a profession that elicits a myriad of questions throughout the day, from the rhetorical to pedagogical. Finding intellectual space to ponder these questions in a way that will impact practice can be tough, and we want to help. Our new series, “In The Quiet: Reflections on Learning” invites you into the mind of an expert in the field through a brief Q&A. So, wherever your quiet is—after the bell, on the commute, or elsewhere—please enjoy this space to reflect as you hone your craft.
The next post in this series comes from Carl Anderson, an internationally recognized expert in writing instruction for grades K-8 who works as a consultant in schools and districts around the world.
As someone who has dedicated his career to the teaching of writing, what would you say is the most consistent practice in classrooms with highly effective writing teachers?
Highly effective writing teachers teach with mentor texts. At the beginning of units of study, during several days of immersion, teachers introduce students to the unit’s mentor texts. The authors of these texts become co-teachers, and collectively the teacher and these authors teach students about how to write well across the rest of the unit.
This teaching takes several forms. When effective writing teachers teach students about craft techniques in mini-lessons, small group lessons, and writing conferences, they do this by showing students mentor texts that contain these techniques. In direct instruction lessons, teachers explain the techniques to students. In inquiry lessons, teachers ask students to “read like writers” by asking the question, “What do you notice about how the author wrote this craft technique?”
Effective writing teachers also do “whole class text study,” which involves inviting their classes to have an extended discussion about a mentor text in which they notice and discuss interesting craft moves. These conversations help students develop their skill with reading like a writer and also help them build their repertoires of crafting techniques.
What is a common challenge you've observed that teachers have regarding writing instruction and how do you help them overcome it?
Finding great mentor texts is a universal challenge.
There are two criteria I think about when I am looking for mentor texts. First, texts should inspire students to write, and they’re more likely to do so when they reflect and validate students’ identities and interests (as Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop has written, texts should be “mirrors” for children (1990)). And second, they should be versatile, that is, contain multiple craft techniques that we can teach.
Although teachers understandably ask me for lists of great mentor texts, it’s a hard question for me to answer, because I usually don’t know the students in most schools as people and as writers. Instead, I reframe the question and ask, “How can I help you find mentor texts that will be great for your students?” Then we discuss places where they can find wonderful mentor texts, such as in their classroom and school libraries, or in children’s magazines such as Highlights; ASK; Click; Cricket; Spider, and Storyworks. It does take some time to find mentor texts, but it’s time well spent when students genuinely connect with them and want to learn from the authors who wrote them.
How does learning to "read like a writer" make teaching so much easier?
Our ability to “read like writers”—that is, notice the craft moves that writers make in their texts—is essential to teaching well. When we feel comfortable “reading like a writer,” our ability to “unlock a text” and explain to students what writers are doing is greatly enhanced.
As students become more familiar with reading like writers, they learn more easily from mentor texts, and will need us less and less to be their guides, as they start to notice on their own what writers do. In fact, students in all grades will often notice aspects of authors’ craft that we don’t see ourselves in mentor texts!
As a learner, what professional learning experience has had the most positive impact on your teaching career?
When I was a teacher, learning in the company of other teachers really energized me. For example, when I was a classroom teacher, I loved attending the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project’s summer institutes, where I had the privilege of learning with educators such as Katherine and Randy Bomer, and Katie Wood Ray. In the summer of 1994, I took a course with Katie—just before I joined the staff of the Reading and Writing Project myself—in which Katie taught me so much about reading like a writer. She did this by having the class read and discuss great mentor texts, and by having us try what we noticed in our own writing. I still remember her conferring with me about how I was crafting my writing—truly one of the highlights of my career! What I learned in that course really changed my understanding of teaching with mentor texts and made me a much better writing teacher.