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Revisiting classic mentor texts: establishing a community of writers.

Introduction

When Ruth Culham published The Writing Thief: Using Mentor Texts to Teach the Craft of Writing (2014), it was received with great praise. A mentor text, or anchor text, is a published piece of writing used as an example for student writers. The mentor text might effectively transmit a concept or topic. It might creatively use illustrations to show a story, rather than tell a story. A mentor text might display excellence in certain writing techniques such as metaphors or creating tone or voice. Ultimately, a mentor text can be used to inspire children to write creatively by providing scaffolding on which students can build.

Although the idea of mentor texts is not new, Ruth Culham's book reminds us that writing is more than worksheets and vocabulary lists; writing is an active creation, which mentor texts can help accomplish. Culham advocates that we admit to our students that writing is messy but satisfying. I would add that not only could writing be messy, it can be frustrating and isolating. Mentor texts can help negate those disquieting emotions.

Teachers may struggle to find the 'right' mentor texts, maybe because the mentor texts we have used in the past do not undertake the concepts or issues that we want to highlight in our classroom, such as issues of diversity. I offer three writing activities with classic mentor texts that not only help individuals in writing but also work to form communities of writers through partner writing, small group writing, and entire class writing. Because students are able to reimagine texts, they can include what authors have not, such as diversity in character and story. Diverse story lines can easily be included when stories are discussed in the class. The impact of such writing is twofold: students become authors together and students include themselves and others in texts where they were previously not seen.

Partner writing--Judith Viorst's Rosie and Michael (1979)

Mentor texts need to reach out to the students so that students can see ways in which their writing can be informed by the mentor text itself. In working with Year 2 students, I've found that friendship is a key issue in their lives. Therefore, books centring on child friendships motivate children to write about their friendships too. Judith Viorst's classic picture book, Rosie and Michael, is a perfect text for pair writing. In this writing, students get into pairs and discuss what they like about each other. In Viorst's text, Rosie's storyline is on the right page and Michael's is on the left. They each offer their view about the other such as:
Michael's view                Rosie's view

Rosie is my friend. She       Michael is my friend.
likes me when I'm dopey       He likes me when I'm
and not just when I'm         grouchy and not just when
smart. I worry a lot          I'm nice. I worry a lot
about pythons, and she        about werewolves, and
understands. My toes point    he understands. There's
in and my shoulders droop,    freckles growing all over
and there's hair growing      me, except on my eyeballs
out of my ears. But Rosie     and teeth. But Michael
says I look good. She is my   says I look good. He is my
friend.                       friend.


After reading the text, I ask for a volunteer to sit with me at the front of the class and do a think aloud about how we, as a pair, might rethink and write our version of the mentor text. This models what the students will then do together. Students have to decide what they will write about each other. This cooperative aspect of writing means that the pair together comes up with the story topics, based on the mentoring text or anything else they value about friendship. Students in my classroom wrote about their different cultural backgrounds and how those differences made their friendship unique. One such pairing included Ben, a student from Korea, and Kaitlin, a student whose parents came from Lebanon. On one page, with each voice talking about the other, Ben and Kaitlin chose to comment on the ethnic foods that they had eaten at each other's homes. While Viorst's text is void of diversity, students found ways to place themselves within their own text and bring diversity to the story.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Small group writing--Shaun Tan's The Arrival (2007)

In my classroom, we also spend time discussing visual literacy. I ask my students how they read pictures. Those who excel at decoding text usually say the pictures are there to help, but not to tell as much as the words. Words are most important to those that have a higher master level of reading. To my students who still struggle with language, pictures have a great meaning. To help keep students motivated to read words and pictures, I use Shaun Tan's The Arrival as a mentor text, in which aspects of diversity can be highlighted. Because Tan's narrative is seen through pictures instead of written through words, students in small groups can write the narrative together. I group my students so that each group includes those who privilege language and those who privilege illustration. Each group becomes responsible for writing the text for one of the six parts that Tan divides his book into. This writing is done in isolation from the rest of the groups, although certain aspects of the text, such as the name of the man and his pet, should be decided before the writing begins. When each group is finished, the parts are placed together. My students are always surprised to see that together their narratives work to tell one cohesive story, yet the writing took place in separate groups. Tan's illustrations lead readers so well that the student group narrative parts work together. Since this is an immigration story, with additional immigration/migration stories from other characters included, conversations about diversity happen within the narrative and then again, after the narrative is put together. An additional activity might include students writing their own stories of immigration/migration/or moving from one place to another and creating their own illustrations to that narrative.

Individual/class writing--Jules Feiffer's Meanwhile ... (1997)

The final classic mentor text that can highlight diversity within the classroom is Meanwhile ... by Jules Feiffer. In this text, Raymond, a young boy, is reading a comic book as his mother calls for him to do his chores. He is more interested in reading and notices that in the comic book, when the story line changes, the word 'Meanwhile ...' is written. In an attempt to change his own story line to avoid his chores, he slips behind the bed and on his wall writes, 'Meanwhile ...' The effect is immediate and the boy is suddenly on a pirate ship. But all is not well there and he again writes 'Meanwhile ...' only to find himself on a horse riding from a posse in the Wild West. The boy has three separate adventures (Pirate ship, Wild West, Outer Space) and in each, he manages to get out of trouble by writing 'Meanwhile .' He ends by writing 'The End' and is transported back to his bedroom. The last we see of him, he is taking out the trash as his mother had asked.

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

The students in my classroom each write their own 'Meanwhile ...' adventure and illustrate it. I model my own 'Meanwhile ...' page, usually by starting off with being in a faculty meeting and writing 'Meanwhile ...' at the bottom of the agenda. Students seem to enjoy that insight into 'teacher life.' I then say that my 'Meanwhile ...' takes me to jumping out of an aeroplane with no parachute. I write 'Meanwhile ...' in the sky with the coloured air coming out of the canister on my heels. I then encourage a student to offer her idea and on it goes. The pages can be assembled in any order since one 'Meanwhile ...' story page is not dependent on another. Using large sheets of poster paper, my class covered the entire area around the walls with their adventures. When all the pages are together, the class has formed a collective 'Meanwhile ...' text as a community of writers. Once again, this activity creates space to discuss the inclusivity of diversity in both characters and in the situations they might have during their 'Meanwhile ...' adventure.

Conclusion

Each of these three texts can be used to discuss a wide number of writing elements, such as style of writing, chronological order, tone, humour, compare and contrast, and many other aspects, in addition to including diversity in literature where the mentor text might lack inclusion or emphasis. While Tan's book is the most obvious of the three in terms of including diversity, those elements can be overlooked if the focus is on the adventure of immigration. All three mentor texts can be reinforced through student writing, providing agency for the student writers, who are able to include concerns that the authors did not focus on or incorporate. Through these activities, students become confident and creative learners, who have experienced success in both text and illustration, and through including diversity as an aspect in their learning, they become active and informed about their society.

References

Culham, R. (2014). The writing thief: Using mentor texts to teach the craft of writing. International Reading Association.

Feiffer, J. (1997). Meanwhile. ... New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Tan, S. (2007). The Arrival. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine Books.

Viorst, J., & Tomei, L. (1974). Rosie and Michael. New York: Atheneum.

Tammy L. Mielke is an assistant professor at the University of Wyoming, specialising in children's literature. She taught elementary age students for eleven years in areas with diverse populations and presently teaches pre-service teachers about the field of children's literature. Email: Tammy.Mielke@nau.edu.
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Author:Mielke, Tammy L.
Publication:Practically Primary
Date:Oct 1, 2016
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