Thursday, October 31, 2013

Mentor texts outside of the English classroom

This year I moved to a new teaching assignment called Convergence Journalism, which is basically an English class on speed. Think of it as writer's workshop, but with video cameras, editing software and a blog. My students create videos and write stories for our school website. I am also teaching a class called Sports Information where students read, write and talk about sports.

In this transition, I have relied on my English roots. If you are a regular follower of my blog, you know that I am a huge fan of the Yoda of English teachers: Kelly Gallagher. Specifically Gallagher's latest book Write Like This. From this book I have borrowed many ideas, but the one I am using the most now is his idea of mentor texts.

The idea is that students first analyze how professional writers write, then emulate that style with their own writing.

We do this analysis through first close reading the text. This is no different from how my students used to do Articles of the Week in English class. The students need to see the moves and style that writers employ.

Once we have performed a close read, we then move to using it as a mentor text. I follow Gallagher's model of we go, I go, you go. The steps look something like this:

We go: Analyze the text together. Look at the style of the writing. Examine the sentence structure. We look at what the author is SAYING, but also what the author is DOING. This offers two very different perspectives of a text.

I go: Gallagher says that the teacher is the best writer in the room. I agree, and believe that students need to see their teacher writing in front of them, even if they are struggling with it.

This. Is. Scary.

I don't know if there is another thing in teaching that makes one feel as vulnerable as staring at a blank computer screen and writing from scratch while 30 students are watching.

I revised that last sentence at least five times, but you didn't see me do it. When you write in front of your students, they will see you go through the entire writing process, warts and all.

One tip: Don't write for more than five minutes at a time. I found that if you write for too long, students will begin to zone out or lose interest. At some point they will get the point and be ready to write on their own. This is when I stop and we move on to the next stage.

You go: Students are then responsible for taking what they saw in the mentor text and my writing and applying it to their own work.

I know what you are thinking: There is a fine line here between plagiarism and creating your own work here. I tell my students that we aren't emulating the IDEAS of the author, but his/her STYLE. I also tell them that they would not want to write so close to the same style of a writer on a true academic paper that a teacher might think they are plagiarizing. It is a fine line.

One of the first mentor texts I use is this book review for Catching Fire that falls under Gallagher's writing categories of Analyze and Interpret, as well as Take a Stand/Propose a Solution. In order to write a good review, students must analyze the subject and take a stand about it.

We look at this book review closely. What does the author do?

I point out to students that it isn't just plot summary; in fact there is only one paragraph that addresses the plot specifically. They notice that there is a paragraph comparing it to the previous book. There is one that analyzes a character. Another talks about the author. Finally, they notice that one short paragraph gives the writer's opinion of the book.

Then I write in front of them.

Finally, I turn them loose to write their own reviews of a book, movie or restaurant. Here are a couple of the results:

Succotash: The Hipster's Restaurant.

Monster's University.

As you can see, the students took the writing model and put their own spin on it. Had I just said, "Write a book review" I would have seen 90% of the paper just retelling the plot.

This is how I implement mentor texts in my Convergence Journalism class. In upcoming blog entries, I will show other mentor texts I have used along with student examples.