When I started a blog, the first thing I did was scour the Internet for the best blogs and study them. I looked at titles, leads, hooks, development, and closings. My first instinct as a writer was to attempt to stand side by side with some of the best and learn from them.
The best writers our students encounter almost every day are authors. Our job as teachers is to help our students to start looking at their reading not just as an escape or as a text that will help them build reading skills, but also as a tool for writing. While I'm a strong believer in teachers modeling writing to students and even students acting as writing models for each other, let's not forget to tap into one of our most valuable resources in English Language Arts: published authors.
Here are three of the top reasons why authors are the best teachers of writing:
1. Students do the work of learning through analysis and discovery.
When we provide our students with author's writing as a mentor text and tell them to model their own writing after the author's, we are asking our students to work through a complex process.
First, students must have an understanding of the text itself. Students must do a closer reading than if they were just reading a text to answer questions or if they were simply reading for pleasure.
Second, students must complete an analysis of the text. When my students use author's writing as their mentor text, I ask them to break the author's writing down: examine the dialogue, the sensory details, the paragraphing and sentence structure, etc.
Third, students have to apply what they gleaned from the author's writing into their own writing. Applying the traits students notice in an author's writing requires the highest level of thinking skills. When students are using an author's writing as a mentor text, they are looking back to the text, noticing specific qualities of the author's writing, then mimicking that quality in their own writing.
When students are breaking down a text and using it as a model, they are learning in authentic, powerful ways that cannot be reached if we simply tell them to notice that their author uses vivid details or dialects in dialogue. Students are doing the noticing, the analyzing, and the applying.
The process of breaking down an author's writing, analyzing it, and using it as a model not only helps students to become better writers, but it also helps them to become readers.
2. Students learn a variety of writing styles, not just one.
When we ask students to use author's writing as a mentor text, we're giving them the opportunity to see writing through a new lens each time. Consider learning from Shakespeare versus learning from Gary Paulsen. Imagine giving our students the opportunity to learn from authors as classic as John Steinbeck and as contemporary as Kwame Alexander.
Learning from published authors gives students an authentic opportunity to learn from experts in their craft. The world of published authors is so vast and diverse, that once students learn the process of using a mentor text, we open the doors of our classroom to thousands of new opportunities for learning.
Each time our students use a different author as a mentor, it sheds a new light on writing for our learning writers. As students begin using a variety of mentor texts, they begin to develop their own unique style of writing.
3. Students learn to take risks.
One of my favorite authors to learn from at the middle school level is Gary Paulsen. Why? Because he breaks the rules of grammar. I could spend an entire class period looking through Gary Paulsen novels with my students and marveling at his use of one word sentences.
My favorite line from a Gary Paulsen novel is that one word. That one word packs so much power because Gary Paulsen breaks the rules of grammar purposefully.
So often as ELA teachers, we get caught up in teaching the rules of grammar and we forget the magic that can happen when we take risks as writers. I want my students to learn the joy and art of playing with language. Authors can teach students how to use language in new, rebellious, and risky ways.
I love modeling my own writing for my students. I want them to see me polish my ideas into a piece of writing I'm proud of. I especially want them to see me struggling and working through the process. However, I know that if I don't teach my students to tap into the world of published authors as mentor texts, I'm shortchanging my writers.
Watching my students learn side by side with the most talented writers of all genres, from different time periods, and of vastly different styles has been deeply rewarding as a teacher. When I see my students use a one word sentence in their writing in the style of Gary Paulsen, I'm floored at the sophistication it takes to recognize the power of one word when we isolate that word in a sentence.
Empower your students by allowing them to do the work of learning from published authors, learning from a variety of writing styles, and learning to take risks with grammar through mentor texts.
Check out the tools I use to teach my students how to use narratives as mentor texts by clicking here.