In their remarkable new book Writing with Mentors: How to Reach Every Writer in the Room Using Current, Engaging Mentor Texts (Heinemann 2015), Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell show how they use mentor texts as the foundation for their writing classes and provide detailed guidance on how other teachers can do the same.
Most writing teachers know that students learn well from mentor texts—relatively short pieces or passages that demonstrate a certain principle under consideration. We may trot out an occasional editorial or classic text to make some rhetorical point, but frequently the modeling potential of what is available to us is left un-mined. Reasons for that sporadic approach can vary, but student writers greatly benefit when they study how other writers practice their craft and solve writer-ly problems.
One of the most impressive aspects of Writing with Mentors is how thoroughly they treat the topic of working with mentor texts—from finding the texts, to planning a course, to using them for whole-class lessons, small group processing, and individual instruction. Several times during my reading, I thought “Yes, but what about …,” only to have my questions anticipated and addressed.
Although the authors give readers the tools to develop their own banks of mentor texts, Writing with Mentors provides QR codes linking to every one of the plentiful examples mentioned in the book.
This book is much more than a how-to guide. It’s an example of dynamic teachers at work. Marchetti and O’Dell are clearly passionate professionals, eager to search for the best materials and the best delivery methods. But that’s just the start. They also illuminate their collaborative and reflective practices that culminated in such a fine book.
The authors’ expertise in collaboration and reflection is passed on to their students. I’ve struggled to find ways to effectively use small groups in writing classes. Unless the group members are relatively accomplished or relatively equal in ability, the social dynamics of the groupings sometimes overwhelm the writing concerns, at least in my class. Marchetti and O’Dell have solved this by using mentor texts as the basis of grouping. Group members discuss how the mentor texts relate to their own work rather than directly commenting on the strengths and weaknesses of each other’s writing. That, my friends, is brilliant.
Another big take-away for me was how the authors use mentor texts when doing the important work of conferring with students. They say, “It’s like having a third writer present, an expert writer whose knowledge we draw on as we work through various writing situations.”
Students in these classes not only learn to write in many genres, but they are also led to reflect on their reading, their writing, and themselves. All of this is geared toward helping students become independent, courageous, and creative. Those are worthwhile qualities for writers, sure, but they are also valuable for living a rich life.
That big picture is always in focus for these authors: “Remember, students won’t be in school forever, so they need to see purposes for writing beyond school.”
Writing with Mentors is a great choice for self-guided professional development in English/Language Arts, and it is also an excellent choice for group study.