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The Power of Mentors

My younger son, Christopher, is on the verge of turning three. As his birthday approaches, I find myself reflecting on the past year in his life. This has been a year filled with many doctor’s appointments and a lot of therapy. It has also been a year of HUGE accomplishments and growth. Christopher has a speech delay, and prior to this year we found ourselves immersed in frustration and tantrums. Everything began to change when he started early intervention about 8 months ago. With the acquisition of language, Christopher has changed. He is now happy and inquisitive. He has friends and goes to preschool a couple of mornings a week. As I find myself smiling thinking about all he has accomplished, I am reminded of all the strategies that have helped Christopher. The strategy that stands out the most is the importance of having good speech models or mentors. Christopher learned about letter sounds, word meaning, and strengthened his motor planning skills by listening and watching everyone from his big brother to the patient and kind cashier at the grocery store. Christopher’s mentors spoke slowly and repeated words or phrases. They allowed him to practice with repetition and parallel play. I now realize how important it was and still is to surround Christopher with mentors that provide different models of speech that will allow his continued growth.

The idea of mentors has carried over from my son to my work with young writers. I have always tried to use mentor texts in my minilessons to support the strategy I am teaching that day. I know that just as speech mentors provided Christopher with a clear example for developing language, authors give young writers a clear example of how to develop a particular writing skill. I hadn’t thought about how mentor texts should be part of my minilessons and also be part of my conferences. I recently saw Carl Anderson speak at Teachers College. He stressed the importance of having 2-3 texts marked up with all of the things you can teach young writers. These texts should travel with you to every conference. After you have decided what it is you are going to teach, you can open up one of your mentor texts to provide the writer with a clear example of what they are going to work on. This seemed like such a clear and explicit way to give my writers more support during a conference. Why hadn’t I been doing this? I think part of the reason is that in order to be really effective in using a mentor text in a conference you need to first do some preparation.

The first thing to think about when you are putting together a “toolkit” of mentor texts to use in your conferences is to think about what makes a good mentor. A mentor text is a published text where the author’s ideas, structure, or craft can teach or inspire students’ own writing.

A mentor text can be:

  • A picture book

  • A chapter book

  • A nonfiction book

  • An article

  • A poem

  • Students’ published pieces

After deciding what mentors I would be using during the Unit I need to think about what I can teach (places that I would mark up in the text), how I could teach it (the language I would use in my conference), and possible tools I could leave to support independence.

When I look for places that I can teach I think about:

  • Skill- name the skills in the Unit that writers are learning. Find books that have examples you can mark with a Post It or highlight for students

  • Genre- think about the genre of the Unit and show students how different authors write in this genre

  • Craft Decisions- look for examples where authors make careful decisions. Writers do this on every page, often with every word (beginning, plot, point of view, labels, technical vocabulary, comparisons, etc.). Mark these craft moves with a Post It or highlight for students

  • Readers React- mark places in the text where you had a feeling, question, or grew an idea. Use these to places to inspire students.

Then I think about possible language to use during a conference:

  • What can we learn from this author?

  • What do you notice?

  • Did you see what the author did?

  • Did you notice when the author….?

  • Let’s read this part together and see if the author did anything that you might want to try.

  • What are we learning from the pictures?

  • What are you learning as a reader?

  • Do you want to try….?

Finally, I thought about the possible tools that can help support student independence:

  • Copy of the page from the mentor text with parts highlighted

  • Post It with the strategy listed in a step-by-step way

  • Leaving the mentor text with the writer

  • Post It with a goal for the writer to try independently

  • Post Its or revision strips for the writer to practice the teaching on their own piece

I now use mentors in all of my conferences. I find that my teaching is more effective. I feel more secure in knowing what I am teaching the writer, and how I am going to teach it. I have seen my writers use more strategies from our conferences more often in their independent writing. Exposing my students daily to different mentors for their writing has helped them to become stronger writers, just as speech mentors are helping Christopher to become a more talkative almost 3-year-old.

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