Writing Masters: Using Mentor Texts With Young Writers

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With classroom-tested tips from our Curricular Resources authors on how to improve your teaching of writing at any grade level, each Writing Masters installment will share author insights and practical suggestions on teaching writing in the classroom that you can use the very next day. This week in the Writing Master series, Ralph Fletcher asks, "When is a mentor text helpful to a student and when is it an anchor that weighs that student down?"

Using Mentor Texts With Young Writers: How Much Mentoring Is Enough?

by Ralph Fletcher

Nowadays writing teachers make extensive use of models, exemplars, examples drawn from literature—commonly called mentor texts. Most of us recognized that writing in a classroom can only be as good as the literature that supports, surrounds, and buoys it up. I have seen it with my own eyes many times: mentor texts really can lift student writing. In my book Mentor Author, Mentor Texts I wrote extensively about how writing teachers can bring mentor texts into a workshop, but I didn’t say much about how such texts can be misused. When does a mentor text become burdensome instead of inspirational for a young writer?

I visited one fifth-grade class where the teacher used a great number of mentor texts. First students did a close reading of the mentor text; later they were directed to pattern their writing after this text. One boy confessed to me that he found this confining.

“My teacher calls them anchor texts.” He sighed. “I feel like they weigh me down. I can’t just write the way I want to because I always have to be doing it like the anchor text.”

Imitation is not in and of itself a bad thing. Practitioners in every field of art learn by emulating masters in their field. In my early twenties I deliberately tried to imitate the lean-‘n-mean sentences of Ernest Hemingway. It’s worth noting that this mentorship was experimental, temporary, and initiated by me. Afterwards I was eager to regain the controls and incorporate some of Hemingway’s style into my own writing.

Some years ago while visiting an elementary school in West Hartford, CT, I walked down the fourth-grade wing. A teacher had posted student writing samples that were spin-offs of my poem “The Good Old Days.” Each student borrowed my first two lines to begin their poems:

Sometimes I remember
the good old days

In the middle of the poem students wrote their own memories. Each one of the student samples ended with lines I had written:

I still can’t imagine
anything better than that.

What was my reaction? Frankly, I was horrified. If you know anything about my work you know I definitely don’t want to create an army of “Fletcher Clones.” It’s my mission to help each student find his or her own individual voice. And yet… when I looked at the poems I had to admit that they were surprisingly good. Most students were able to harness the energy of my poem and make it their own. Later, when I reflected further on this, I remembered Vygotsky’s famous and oft-quoted line: “What a child can do with assistance today she will be able to do by herself tomorrow.”

When is a mentor text helpful to a student and when is it an anchor that weighs that student down? My thinking continues to evolve on this issue. My ideas are further complicated by my perception that choice is rapidly disappearing in the writing classroom, a development I find disturbing. I consider choice to be one of the non-negotiables. Certainly young writers need strong examples that give them vision and help them shoot for the stars, but it would be a cruel irony indeed if mentor texts become just one more arena where students suffer a loss of choice.

When students are studying a genre, we can invite them to “write off of” a mentor text to see what happens when they try following the pattern used in a strong piece of writing. It makes sense to me that an exercise like this might happen early in the genre, when students are just learning about and getting comfortable with it. But I think we should remember the “gradual release” model. At some point we must take off the training wheels, let go of our students’ hands, and see what they can do on their own.

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Ralph Fletcher has been a mentor to teachers and young writers everywhere. He is the beloved author of many best-selling teacher professional books, including What a Writer Needs, Second Edition, Mentor Author, Mentor Texts, Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide, Craft Lessons, and Breathing In, Breathing Out, as well as the author of Curricular Resources such as Teaching the Qualities of Writing and Lessons for the Writer’s Notebook. Students know Ralph as the award-winning author of more than 20 books for children and young adults, including Fig Pudding, Twilight Comes Twice, The Writer’s Notebook, and Marshfield Dreams: When I Was a Kid.

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Next week Linda Hoyt shares some tips on Power Writes. "When you infuse a strong writing emphasis into the heart of each content area," says Linda, "academic vocabulary and knowledge are extended. So, power up writing all day long with Power Writes!"

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