MENTOR TEXTS BUILD THE HABIT OF REVISION
There are a lot of good reasons for using mentor texts with our students, but you know what? There are three really good reasons why your texts should not be “perfect.”
The idea of using mentor texts was one of those game-changing ideas for me. Showing students what the end result should look like just made a whole lot of sense. I mean, if I was unaware of the game of golf and someone passed me a club, a ball, and pointed to the flag fluttering so far away, would I know what to do?
Of course not. That’s why those mentor texts are so valuable for students – they give them a pathway to success. The show them where the flag is AND show them how to get there.
However, I don’t always give my students a perfectly polished piece of writing when I give them a mentor text. Here’s why:
1. “Perfect” pieces can be discouraging to many students
If I give them an amazing piece of writing right away, they might see it as unattainable and disengage right from the start. When someone who struggles with writing sees a text that is several levels above what they can do, frustration can set in. So, instead, I start with a piece that lays out the basics, showing them what the expectations are for the assignment, without making it look too difficult. To go back to my golf analogy, I want them to be able to play the game and not feel like they need to make par right away.
But what about raising the bar, giving our kids something to aim for? I know that objection is in some of your heads because I want my bar raised too. That’s where my next strategy comes into play.
2. Imperfect Texts Teach the Habit of Revision
I want my students to learn the all-important art of revision – and to make it a regular practice in their writing game.
So, when I write – or choose – a mentor text, I make sure the basics are there, but I want a piece that has room for improvement, as well as strengths. Then when I give it to my students, I want them to read it over, looking for things that the writer did well, and areas that could be better. I always copy the text with wide margins and ask my kids to write all over it, underlining and highlighting as they evaluate the writing.
After they’ve done this on their own, they turn to a partner to confer, allowing them to have an even deeper discussion on the merits of the mentor text. Finally, we go over it as a class.
By going through this process with a text someone else wrote, they learn the skill of looking critically at a piece of writing and thinking about what could be done to improve it. The hope is that this is a skill they will then use when they revise their own work.
3. A Variety of Mentor Texts Foster Critical Thinking Skills
For major assignments, I try to give my students a variety of mentor texts – one that’s just ok, one that’s pretty good, and one that is polished and well developed. That way, they can really think about what makes an effective piece of writing in the genre we are working with.
I will give them all three and ask them to read and evaluate each one. Then, I ask them to rank them one to three. When they are done, they confer in partners or groups to come to a consensus about their rankings. After they have done this, and we have discussed it as a class, the students will have a good vision of the expectations of the assignment – and what they can model if they want to achieve a certain level.
So what’s the end result of using imperfect mentor texts? The students get a far better understanding of what I expect, as I’ve done more than just point them to the flag in the golf green. I’ve shown them what a golfer does when she picks up the driver. And then what she does next, whether her ball is in the woods or on the edge of the green. The students also get to practice their revision skills, ones that they will then (hopefully) apply to their own writing.
If you would like to get some ready-made mentor texts to use for informational writing, you can check them out here.