Monday, March 28, 2016

Book Review: Writing With Mentors by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O'Dell

Book Review:  Writing With Mentors by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O'Dell
by:  Chandra Verbic

This book, geared towards the upper grades, is all about using mentor texts to guide your reading and writing instruction in the classroom.  “Mentor texts are model pieces of writing – or excerpts of writing – by established authors that can inspire students and teach them how to write” (Marchetti, O’Dell 2015, 3).  In my elementary classroom, I used mentor texts to introduce genres of writing or to cite specific examples, but after reading this book, I was able to see how they can be so much more than that.  And arguably, they are the most important piece of your literacy instruction.  Not to mention, this book is filled with QR codes that, when scanned, take you exactly to the websites and sources that are being discussed.  It’s a great interactive feature that I found myself using more often than not. 

In this review, I’m going to look at the various lessons and strategies that Marchetti and O’Dell lay out for the upper grades and discuss how I would best adapt them for grades K-6, and more specifically my first grade classroom.  Let’s jump in!

Sourcing Mentor Texts

The first thing you need to tackle, in any classroom, is sourcing your mentor texts.  Where do I find them?  How do I ensure their quality?  Will my students like them?  Will they be engaged and inspired?  These are all questions I had when I was thinking about where to gather these mentor texts.  Ultimately, “good writing is good writing, regardless of the genre, so you shouldn’t have to look too far into these engaging sources to find what you need to teach” (Marchetti, O’Dell 2015, 17).  But for those times that mentor texts don’t come easily or organically, there is a really helpful chart that I found in this book:

Remember, you are choosing mentor texts to inspire your students, give them a vision for their writing, and move them forward throughout their writing process (Marchetti, O’Dell 2015, 23).  Bonus points though if the mentor texts also use digital savvy vocabulary (to connect to your reader), is a regular publication (to keep your readers interest over time), and has a familiar author (for reliability).  I remember recently how much more interested I was to read an article about how J.K.Rowling (a favorite author of mine) used Twitter to engage with her audience -releasing her thoughts about conspiracy theories of Hogwarts, commenting on things she’s working on, and giving insider information into the world of Harry Potter. 

Now, I’m not going to break down each chapter (although I could… the book was full of wonderful strategies and roll out lessons for your literacy block), but instead focus on my three favorite strategies and how they apply to K-6. 

Mentors Show Students How To Plan

Mentor texts are your students' road maps.  They guide them in the direction of becoming better writers.  But before we arrive at any destination, we must plan for the journey.   When I taught first grade, I specifically focused and spent time teaching students how to brainstorm.  Then how to narrow their focus, arrange their ideas into cohesive thoughts, and begin writing their piece.  This is essential in any grade.  So how do mentor texts fit into this journey?

“Mentor texts help students generate ideas for writing.  At the beginning of a new writing study, we simply remind students that their mentor texts are one of the many resources that might help them come up with something they are excited to write about.  Once students find potential topics in the mentor texts that they’re reading, we encourage them to jot them down on a running list of ideas.” (Marchetti, O’Dell 2015, 109)

When my first graders were doing their Wonder Bubble research projects, they often struggled to find a topic.  I would have them brainstorm and think about what interests they had.  But after reading Writing with Mentors, I think I would approach this brainstorming session a little differently.  Instead, I would have them look at what types of books they like to read about.  For example, I had a student who was always reading books about space.  He liked to learn about the Solar System, but more importantly, he had a fascination with the various galaxies and “other life forms” out there.  He ended up doing his research project on Jupiter, which was okay.  But had we used the mentor texts that he liked to read as his “road map”, we probably could have narrowed his focus more and got him excited more about the topic at hand.  I get excited just thinking about all the rich writing opportunities that would have came out of those mentor texts, vs. just an arbitrary brainstorming session. 

Student Conferences with Mentor Texts

Writing conferences were a big part of my literacy block.  I would meet with my first graders and we’d review all their writing up to that point.  I would focus on what they were struggling with and would push them further in their writing journey.  I always enjoyed this individual time with my students, but now I have a way to deepen this learning opportunity!

Marchetti and O’Dell have some great strategies for conferring with mentor texts. 
1.      Keep the students mentor texts in a binder (or writing folder):  What a great idea!  Once your student has an article or book title that he/she enjoys, keep it with their writing.  That way you can refer to it as you conference with them, reminding them of these additional models.  You can even organize these mentor texts by genre, topic, or technique using sticky notes or tabs. 

2.      Keep the main thing, the main thing:  If a student is struggling with a topic, use the mentor text to generate ideas.  If a student doesn’t understand proper use of onomatopoeia, use the mentor text to show how it’s incorporated to boost the story’s quality, not distract from it.  Whatever the struggle though, keep the focus.  There are so many things we can look for in a mentor text, that it can be distracting.  Pull it out, highlight what you need it for, and move on.

3.      Be prepared to demonstrate and let the student do most of the talking:  These are two things in one, but I think they are related.  If your student is struggling to plan or implement a strategy, bring your own folder of mentor texts with you to the conference.  Then show your student how the mentor text inspires you or helps you plan your writing and do a live demonstration!  After that though, switch sides.  Let your student discuss what they noticed you doing or express what they would like to try.  Then pull their mentor texts to do the same modeling activity with them holding the pencil.   

Using Mentor Texts to Publish Student Writing

Publication was always such a big portion of my writing workshop.  We celebrated each and every published story with a celebration of all kinds – outdoor picnic, extra recess, hot chocolate, pajama day, and my most favorite: dancing on our desks!  It was my favorite time in my classroom. 

Because mentor texts are published pieces of writing themselves, they are wonderful examples of how a publication should look.  But more importantly, your students can examine what makes this text interesting to them.  Why did they pick it up and read it?  Why did they choose it as a favorite?  Does their own writing do the same? 

This chart, included in Writing With Mentors, illustrates how authors incorporate visual effects into their writing.

Students can choose to pull together these presentation elements to elevate their writing (Marchetti, O’Dell 2015, 154).  This forces your students to think about their audience.  Who will read this piece?  What perspective will they have?  And it opens the conversation up about editors and publication houses in the real world.  In Writing with Mentors, the authors even delve into who to write a query letter (a proposal of writing ideas to editors, agents, and publishing companies).  I think that this can be incorporated even into the elementary grades.  My students used to submit publications to the Scholastic, Kids Are Authors contest each year.  We used previous winners of that contest as mentor texts to see what elements our story needed to have.  It would have been interesting to extend that learning even further into the query letter and allow students to think about the step after you get your ideas down on paper and to answer questions such as:
·         What information belongs in a query letter?
·         Who are they directed? 
·         How do writers make their query letters stand out?
So many teachers end their units at publication, but after reading this book, I can see how we can push and extend the learning even further.  And that’s where you hit the potential student writers and authors and editors interest levels.  You may have the next literacy agent of Heinemann sitting right in front of you! 

Overall, I thought this book had a tremendous amount of lesson ideas and strategies to use in your literacy block for grades K-12.  I think it is one to add to your personal collection and one that can elevate your teaching style.  It’s easy to get stuck in a rut during literacy because the methods there are so tried and true.  Once you find something that works, it’s hard to veer away from it.  But I think it’s important to introduce new ideas into your classroom instruction for both you and your students, using Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell as your mentors. 

Follow Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O'Dell on Twitter or visit their blog for new posts and updates.

 Chandra Verbic is a first grade teacher, turned college professor.  She currently teaches in the teacher licensure program at Lipscomb University and authors the blog  She loves reading the latest children’s literature to her two children, drinking too much iced coffee, and taking time to stop and dance on her desk.