Ernest Hemingway once famously said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
Young students learning to write can certainly relate. Sentence construction, spelling, grammar—there are many complex skills a child must master on the road to become a confident writer. The good news is that teachers don’t have to carry the burden of instilling those skills. Students can learn from each other.
Read on to explore the idea of student-mentor texts and how to use them to enrich writing instruction, strengthen specific writing skills, and build the confidence of emerging writers.
The traditional view of writing instruction places students in their seats waiting for their teacher to show them how to create. However, reliance on this model of teaching has its limitations. It can turn students into passive recipients of learning who are highly dependent on their teachers. It can promote rote learning that depends on memorization and regurgitation of facts, not deep understanding. And, it can produce students who learn what’s being taught, but are unable to apply it in real life.
Learning to write is so much easier, and a lot more fun, when students are shown examples of a skill just taught. Isn’t that how many of us learn a new skill? By hearing how a peer crafted an introduction, organized a story, or used imagery, writer’s block vanishes and the wheels of creativity begin to turn. This is where a good student mentor text can make a real impact.
I CAN Do That!
A student mentor text is a piece of writing used to demonstrate a specific writing skill and motivate students to write something creatively similar. While under-utilized in most classrooms, student mentor texts can be one of the most valuable strategies in writing instruction. They’re not a substitute for good teaching, but rather a tool for enriching it and bringing it to life.
Thanks to student mentor texts, students learning to write do not have to start from scratch. They can learn from the work and experiences of other student writers and avoid the same mistakes. They can learn what works in certain circumstances and why and how to use that insight to create something new. In addition, they can develop skills in working collaboratively, giving and receiving feedback, and assessing their own writing.
Something magical happens when students witness classmates taking risks, solving problems, and persevering. The observing students become inspired, their confidence grows, and they overcome their fears. They realize they can do this, too. Student mentors invited to share their texts benefit as well. They feel worthy, recognized, and empowered.
And, don’t make the mistake of thinking only perfectly written pieces make good mentor texts. There is value and something to be learned from all writing—including the unpolished, the messy, and even the crumpled pieces of paper tossed away!
Finding Student Models Right at Your Fingertips
Student mentor texts are not commonly used to their full potential in today’s classrooms. lf used at all, they are often on an ad hoc basis, without much thought or planning. As a result, teachers don’t have a good model when designing a learning environment that prompts students to learn from each other.
Teachers getting started with student mentor texts often ask: How do I go about selecting a good student mentor? Our advice: Don’t limit your view. Any student can be a mentor—a top-achieving student with advanced skills, a struggling writer whose skills are lacking, and anyone in between. There are lessons to be learned from all. And opportunities for all writers to read their own work out loud, stand in the spotlight, and shine.
Once a strong mentor text is selected, hang onto it. Make it part of an ongoing collection of student writing and a piece included in writing instruction year after year. By taking the time to organize collected texts according to a genre or skill, great examples of student writing will be readily available for all to enjoy and learn from.
For a more detailed look at why and how you might use mentor texts in your classroom, check out SDE’s webinar “We Can Do This” Using Student-Written Mentor Texts to Teach and Inspire (Gr. K–2) by literacy expert Janiel Wagstaff.