Last week, I wrote a post for The Secondary English Coffee Shop about why and how I use mentor texts with my students. I received several questions about differentiation with reading workshop, so I figured I need to write another post.
The simple answer to whether or not you can differentiate with mentor texts is a resounding “yes!” Mentor texts, and all aspects of reading and writing workshop, can be tailored to suit individual students needs. Without a question, when you use a workshop approach with your students, differentiation and scaffolding is an integral part of the process.
Let me show you how this works with an example:
1. The Mentor Texts and Mini-Lesson:
Last week, I gave a lesson that focused on how writers use imagery to establish setting and create atmosphere. I selected two mentor texts that illustrated this – paragraphs from two different novels. When I choose the texts, I take them from the YA books on my shelves, and I look for short examples that very clearly illustrate the focus of the lesson.
Students first read the mentor texts to look for the writers’ moves. I’ll tell them to pay attention to how s/he uses words for effect. Students will make notes on their own and then discuss their conclusions with a partner. Then we will discuss it as a class. During this time, if students have not recognized the imagery in the passages, I’ll start guiding them toward it by asking questions. Finally, I’ll give a quick mini-lesson that reviews imagery and its effect on setting and atmosphere.
Some students will get it right away, while others may have trouble just recognizing imagery, let alone being able to explain the effect it creates. But that’s ok, because we aren’t done yet.
Next, students will read their novels. I’ll tell them to watch for places where their writer uses imagery to create an effect and to place a sticky on one of the passages they find. At the end of the reading period, I’ll either tell kids to share their example with a partner, or ask for volunteers to share the examples they found with the class.
After this, students will get out their notebooks and experiment with creating atmosphere with imagery in their own writing. In each case, students are starting from where they are. They are reading books at their reading level and so can look for examples in a text that they don’t find overwhelming – as is often the case with some of our full-class novels. When they are writing, they will all be at a different place – some will be experimenting with multiple types of sensory imagery while others may be struggling to create a single visual image. And if they do, it may not contribute to atmosphere at all.
While they are doing this, I will circulate with my clipboard, and ask each student to show me the example they marked in their novel and/or in their writing. I use a scale of one to three to record where each student is (three is exceeds expectations, two is proficient, and one is needs work). Each column is focused on one skill, and is divided in two for reading and writing. These “quickie-conferences” give me a snapshot of where students are and what I need to do next.
2. Design your next lesson around the needs of the students
The snapshot I get from my quickie-conferences tells me if it’s time to move on, or if I need to review and reteach. If it looks like most of the class needs further instruction, I’ll start the next class with more examples and another lesson. If only a handful of students need more work on the skill, I can do some small group or one-on-one instruction.
Conferences with groups and individuals are an essential part of this process, one that makes differentiation with reading workshop easy. During writing time, when students are busy working individually, I’ll pull a group of kids who need a little more work on something and give them a lesson.
For example, I might be helping them with a mechanical issue like comma splices. Another group might need work on how to embed quotations. And it’s not just the lower level kids who work with me in small groups; the kids that need a challenge will also gather and work with me on something that’s more advanced. Everyone, regardless of skill level, will take part in small group instruction at some point.
The real magic happens in the one-on-one conferences. That’s where the teacher can drill down on skills that each student needs to work on. It doesn’t matter if they are at grade level or above; each kid works on what s/he need most.
Let me illustrate how this would work with my imagery/atmosphere example: Tobey is an advanced student who has an insightful understanding of what he reads and his writing is exceptional. During our conference, we will chat about the setting of the book he is reading, The Poisonwood Bible. He’ll show me a passage and then I’ll ask him about the effect that Kingsolver creates. He’ll be able to easily illustrate this, so then we’ll turn to his writing. We will examine a passage where he’s used a lot of visual imagery to effectively create a tense scene. But, even though he knows what he’s doing, I’ll challenge him to try to add different types of sensory images to the passage – perhaps some auditory or tactile ones.
My next conference will be with Lindsey, who struggles with analysis and writing. She’s reading Everything Everything and she can identify examples of imagery, but has a difficult time articulating how they create an effect. I will work with her on this, asking her questions that help her analyze the quotation she’s chose: I imagine each book traveling on a white conveyor belt toward rectangular white stations where robotic white arms dust, scrape, spray, and otherwise sterilize it until it’s finally deemed clean enough to come to me. I will ask her why Yoon may have repeated the word “white,” or why would the robotic arms “dust, scrape” and “spray” the book?
Hopefully, she will be able to tell me that the author is emphasizing the sterility of the room. If she can’t, we’ll look at another passage and I’ll model my thought process so she can see how I work through the analysis. When Lindsey shows me her own writing, she will have used some visual images, but they don’t create a strong effect. She had been trying to create a scary scene, but it wasn’t very spooky at all. I’ll prompt her again with questions or give her suggestions and then ask her to try again and show me what she’s come up with at the end of class. Lyndsey may never reach a high level of analysis, and her writing might still be quite basic, but the one-on-one time with me pushes her a little closer each time.
These conferences take time, and you do need to put effort into establishing routines and expectations at the beginning of the year — but it’s so worth it. You can watch students grow at their own rate, each one getting what s/he needs to learn and grow.
I hope that answers the question about differentiation with reading workshop and mentor texts. If you still have questions or concerns, drop them in the comments! You can also check out this post on how to get started with reading workshop.
If you’d like to read more about the way I blend reading and writing workshop, check out this post. And, if you’d like to get tips and strategies delivered from me to your inbox, sign up here.