Mentor Texts and Writing

slice-of-life2 I am participating in #SOL18. Thanks to the twowritingteachers blog team for providing this space to write, read, and respond to each other’s writing. It has been a wonderful routine to begin with writing each day and to gather new ideas  for structures, craft, and topics.

Today I decided to write about my favorite topic – teaching writing with mentor texts – by using the third person to explain my thinking.

“If you are teaching the qualities ( traits) of good writing, all you need are some picture books,” says Lynne Dorfman. “They have vivid vocabulary—word choice is so important, because they only have 28 to 32 pages to get the job done,” Dorfman says. Teachers can read them aloud in one sitting, but also return to them throughout the year as a model for good writing. Students, too, can easily return to picture book mentor texts independently to study and imitate. Eventually, they will even find their own mentor authors and mentor texts.

Chapter books are great for helping students improve their reading skills, but trying to get students to develop their writing skills by imitating a Harry Potter book, for example, isn’t going to work as well as picture books. Lynne recommends using picture books as “mentor texts” to help students cultivate a mentality of “I can do that!”  She once heard Shelley Harwayne tell an anecdote about Paul McCartney. While accepting an award, Sir Paul talked about his mentors. He particularly talked about Buddy Holly who only used three chords to play most of his songs. McCartney thought to himself, “I can do that!” And so began an incredible career in the music industry.  In fact, McCartney’s and Lennon’s first 40 songs were influenced by Holly’s style. Lynne has always found that story to be very powerful and has used it almost as a mantra when working with young writers.

“You’re not alone as a teacher-writer when you have these wonderful authors and mentor texts. They stand with you as if you have these authors in your classroom with you helping you teach writing to children.”  Lynne is especially fond of children’s literature. “They are wonderful stories with life lessons that act as social signposts, guiding us and providing direction,” she says. She estimates that her picture book collection numbers more than 3,000 books and is still growing.  In fact, just this morning Lynne asked her husband to help her shop for another bookcase. “I love books! They’re my favorite thing to buy. I do read on a Kindle occasionally, but there’s nothing like curling up with a book.”

Lynne would like to write a book about an everyday hero. She would like to research a woman to write about – someone like Anne Carroll Moore or Marie Curie (picture books already exist for both). She’s making a list of possibilities and hopes to have something in time for Carolyn Yoder’s nonfiction workshop at Highlights Foundation in August 2019. Lynne believes that students need not only mentor texts for writing, but also mentors in general for living.

Writing is her favorite pastime. She loves to read, too, but she thinks best with a pen in her hand. “Writing is really a part of what it means to be human—to be able to write your thoughts and feelings down and send them out into the world, kind of like a prayer, hoping that someone will hear you. It validates who you are and what you’re about. Every day we wake up with a clean page to write on, and we write the story of our lives.”