Teaching with Mentor Texts in High School

Using mentor sentences and texts in middle and high school English classes. Reading workshop

Teaching with Mentor Texts in High School

I first heard of mentor texts from my friend who is an amazing fourth grade teacher. At the time, I figured they were just for younger kids. Then, I was lucky enough to attend two PD sessions with the oh-so-inspirational Penny Kittle and discovered that they were invaluable tools for high school teachers too. 

Mentor texts are models of effective writing that we show our students. They can be longer, like a short story or article used as an exemplar for a type of writing assignment, or shorter ones (sentences or longer passages) used to illustrate certain skills or techniques. 

It took me a while to get the hang of using mentor passages, but once I found my stride, I was off and running. Now, they are a staple in my classroom.

Let me tell you why and how. And, if you stick with me, I'll give you some fabulous freebies too.

1. Why Use Mentor Texts?
The why is pretty simple: mentor passages help us show our students how to write well. They don't have to guess how to craft an effective sentence because they have the blueprint right in front of them. Think of real life. If you want to improve your golf swing, which would you rather: the instructor stand there and tell you what to do, or grab that club and show you? Or, better yet, would you rather watch someone set up that IKEA dresser, or read the directions and figure it out yourself? I think we all know the answer to that! The next step would be very important, though. After seeing how it's done, you have to try it yourself.

So let's put this in English class terms: if you want your kids to learn to use a semi-colon, instead of giving them a lesson and a handout of exercises, you provide sentences where the semi-colon is used properly, and ask students to figure out the rule for its use.

“I pictured her tragically; it never once occurred to me to picture her as the tragedy.” ~Robyn Schneider, The Beginning of Everything

“True terror isn’t being scared; it’s not having a choice on the matter.” 
~John Green, Turtles All the Way Down

“That which is around me does not affect my mood; my mood affects that which is around me.” ~Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain

Students are given the sentences and time to reflect individually. Then, they work with a partner to write a rule for semi-colon use. After that, they write their own sentences that contain a semi-colon.

Using mentor sentences and texts in middle and high school English classes. Reading workshop; readers workshopWhy is this better than the traditional method? First of all, it creates an active learning situation for the students. They are responsible to figure out the rule and have to act as detectives, rather than just passively receive the information.

Mentor texts also offer a way to make a clear connection between reading and writing - and an excellent way to combine the two in our time-strapped teaching lives. Reading and writing shouldn't be two separate entities, and if you choose your texts carefully, you can teach lessons in analysis and writing all at the same time (I'll give you some specifics below).

Finally, if you choose sentences and passages from engaging novels, another bonus of mentor texts is that you can inspire kids to pick those novels up and read. For that reason, I try to choose ones that might draw them into the story and want to know more. 

2. How do I find & Organize Mentor Texts?
You don't need to spend hours and hours on your computer, hunting and pecking. There is a much more enjoyable way to find texts to share with your students: read. Read books that your students will be interested in. Read with post-it notes and pens, and when you see a well-crafted sentence or passage, mark it.

Using mentor sentences and texts in middle and high school English classes.

But how do you keep it all organized and easily accessible?

I've been doing this for several years now and have learned to be a little more intentional with my post-its. First of all, I've moved up to the larger ones, ones that I can write on as I read. I'll note the features of the passage (metaphor, use of dialogue, semi-colon, etc). Then, I stick the post it right on the quote. In the picture below, I've found a quote that I can use to illustrate a couple of comma rules, something I want to do early in the upcoming semester.

Using mentor sentences and texts in middle and high school English classes.

Don't stop there, however. You need to make a plan for how to use them. This year, in my quest to be much more organized, I've started a Mentor Tracker file on Google Drive.  At the end of the day (or week), I'll transfer the info on my post-its to the table so I can have a collection of quotations, organized and ready to go. It's still a work in progress, but you can grab it here and edit to suit what you're doing with your students. 

My richest resource for mentor texts, however, are the novels my students are reading - because I can use them without doing any work myself. For example, if I'm teaching them about variety in sentence length, they will be tasked with the job of looking for examples in their novel and using them as models for their own writing. The same goes with literary analysis. If I'm showing them different techniques authors use to develop character, I ask them to examine the ways that the writers do so in their novels.

It's so easy to make that link -- and it's easier for the teacher, because you don't have to spend hours looking for mentor texts. It puts more responsibility on the students to do the thinking and the work, and it is an activity that blends reading and writing skills, as they have to be able to identify the technique in the novel (reading) and use it in their own writing.

3. How Do I Use Mentor Texts?
First of all, I think about the skills that I want my students to work on, and then I plan mini-lessons, based on the mentor texts, to help kids build those skills. Next, I follow this procedure:

  • Give students the mentor text and ask them to note the writer's moves (you can pose a broad question like this to see what the kids notice, or you can ask them to look for something specific).

  • Discuss their observations

  • Give a mini-lesson on the topic

  • Use students' novels to reinforce the lesson

  • Ask students to imitate the mentor to practice the skill 

Read on to get more detail and a freebie!

I do a lot of double-dipping and even triple-dipping, using the texts to demonstrate multiple elements. For example, next week I'll be teaching my students how to write an engaging opening to a narrative. To illustrate the ways that writers draw their readers in to the story, I'll read the openings of several YA novels. This will serve two purposes: I can book talk the selections AND illustrate a skill I want my students to experiment with.

Using mentor sentences and texts in middle and high school English classes.

The mentor text pictured above is the opening from Goodbye Days, by Jeff Zentner. I will tell my students a little about the book: it's from the point of view of a teen whose three best friends have died in a car crash - and he thinks he is responsible for their death because he sent the driver a text.

I'll read the opening to them and invite them to note the moves Zentner makes to draw his reader in. I want the kids to notice that he grabs the reader's attention by starting with a shocking fact. Hopefully, they will also point out that he uses a conversational tone that will appeal to many readers. If they don't, I'll start asking questions: How would you describe his tone? What words or phrases contribute to it? What's the effect of this tone?

Using mentor sentences and texts in middle and high school English classes.

After this discussion, I'll give a short mini-lesson on the techniques writers sometimes use to open their stories. During this lesson, students will re-read the openings of the novels they are reading and discuss the techniques used with a partner. With this step, they are analyzing and evaluating the author's choices.

But wait! There's more...

After we discuss the passage as an opening, I'll use it to teach some comma rules. Students will be instructed to look at it again, this time paying attention to how he uses commas - or not - around character's names. In my experience, most students will notice exactly what I want them to, so they learn the comma rules, but they do so in a way that's far more active and engaging than just reading about them and doing exercises. 

Next, I'll ask them to use one or more of the passages I've shown them as inspiration for their own writing. With the comma rules, we will just spend a few minutes writing sentences that contain names as necessary parts of the sentence, as appositives, and as nouns of address. Then, students will be asked to write an opening chapter to a part of their lives, using what they learned from our discussion of all of the mentor texts. They can mimic them exactly, or they can just try one of the techniques. 

Mentor Texts in High School
In the above example, I'm giving students a specific task that is inspired by the mentor texts. However, if I'm focusing on a particular skill like diction or idea development, for example, students are often directed to look at the writing they already have - prompts and drafts - to find places where they could revise it based on what they just learned from the mentor text. 

If you'd like to use mentor texts in your classroom, and want a little help, check these out:

Writing Workshop Bundle

You can also read about differentiation with workshop here.

Thanks so much for reading!

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