Some teachers are afraid of using a workshop approach in high school, because it seems like too much of a free-for-all, without enough emphasis on targeting the specific skills that students need for literary analysis or writing. We’re preparing them for post-secondary education, they say, so shouldn’t we be steering them down the right path with focused lessons?
The reality is that when teachers use a workshop approach, they are much more likely to get their students interested in actually getting on that path, and learning something as they travel it. I’ve already written about how reader’s workshop is more likely to ensure that our students do the reading we ask of them; it’s no different with writer’s workshop. When we give them voice and choice, they will pick up the pen or the book and get to it. But what do we do once we get them engaged? How do we teach the skills they need when they are all reading and writing different things?
Mentor sentences and short texts are a perfect tool for this, and the great thing is that they pack a double punch: they can be used to demonstrate what good writers do for both reader’s and writer’s workshop. Here’s how I’m using them for mini-lessons this week:
My students will get a copy of this handout on the left. It instructs them to notice what each writer has done, and to find the similarities. As it’s the first of the year, I’ve done little instruction on sentence types or author use of language, but I’m hoping that since these are twelfth graders, they will soon identify the following: each is a simple sentence (the third has a compound one as well), and each writer has used metaphor and specific diction to illustrate how the subject feels.
After I give the students a chance to hopefully discover this on their own, I will have them turn and talk with a neighbour about their discoveries. As they do so, I’ll circulate and listen in to see how accurate they are. Once the conversation wanes, I’ll bring it back to a full class discussion and have them offer their ideas on the writers’ choices. If I need to, I’ll give a quick lesson on the difference between a simple and compound sentence. We will discuss how word choice affects meaning in each sentence. Finally, I’ll ask students to write, in their writer’s notebooks, at least one simple sentence that illustrates a feeling in a character.
When we are finished, I will have accomplished several things with four sentences:
1. The students will have had a short lesson on simple and compound sentences (and I will have identified who needs more instruction).
2. We will have discussed how writer’s use metaphor and diction to create character.
3. I may have tweaked their interest in three books: Wintergirls, Speak and The Book Thief.
4. Students will get a chance to imitate these writer’s techniques in their notebooks.
Because these are very short texts, this whole process will only take about fifteen minutes. I’ll give them the handout on the right for homework. This time, they will hopefully recognize that these are also simple sentences, but this time, they are used to illustrate an abstract concept. Wednesday, we’ll add phrases to the simple sentences before moving on to compound and complex sentences later in the week. I have mentor sentences that illustrate author’s use of repetition, parallelism and multiple types of figurative language. We will experiment with all of these during short mini-lessons during our reader’s and writer’s workshop.
After my initial lessons, the ones where I cover the elements of good writing, character development, tone, theme, etc., I will use longer passages and have the students recognize and imitate the multiple things that good writers do. We will have had lots of great discussions about books, they will have filled pages in their own notebooks, and hopefully they will have been inspired to read and write. However, they will also have been given the opportunity to analyze author choice and to develop the skills they need to be good readers and writers. I will still do some full class texts and writing assignments later in the semester, and I know from experience, that they will be much more ready to work on these things because of the approach I’m taking now.
If you’d like to use my short mentor texts in your classroom, you can grab them HERE. Would you like to get some support as you plan a workshop approach in your secondary classroom? Join my Facebook group, Secondary Reader’s & Writer’s Workshop Support. Send me your email to email@example.com, or search this link.
Do you have any favourite mentor texts? Please share in the comments!