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Using Breakout Rooms to Inspire Young Writers

Mentor texts are my go-to when teaching any genre of writing. When moving to the hybrid model of learning in my classroom this year, I knew I needed to find a way to faciliate learning from authors to help inspire my students' writing.

Breakout rooms were my answer. In breakout rooms, students can do the work of learning by breaking down a mentor text in groups, listing the qualities that make that text effective, then applying those qualtities to their own writing.

Here are three easy steps for using breakout rooms to inspire young writers:

1. Choose a high-quality mentor text.

So many high-quality texts are available online. The key is to find an authentic example that students can break down and use as a model for their own writing. I recommend starting a notes file in your phone or using a doc in your Google Drive. Label it Mentor Texts, and start collecting when you come across great pieces of writing.

When choosing a mentor text, choose something that is engaging and on level for your students. When teaching narrative writing, for example, I chose "Thank You, Ma'am" by Langston Hughes as our mentor text. Here are some ideas by genre:

  • Narrative Writing: Choose an engaging short story... and keep it short so it's easy to break down later. I've used "Thank You, Ma'am" by Langston Hughes, "7th Grade" by Gary Soto, "Names/Nombres" by Julia Alvarez, and "All Summer in a Day" by Ray Bradbury.

  • Informative Texts: Any informative article from NPR works. Once again, choose something short and engaging. This article, "How Americans use their cell phones" from the Pew Research Center, is great because it is engaging and does an amazing job modeling the use of facts, numbers, and statistics to support ideas.

  • Argumentative Writing: Go to the editorial section of any online newspaper (a local story would automatically hook students--our neighboring school district is currently arguing to change their mascot, and the editorials have been perfect mentor texts). In additional to well-written arguments, you can probably find some poorly written arguments that make great examples for what NOT to do! A few arguments my students have enjoyed reading: "School Suspensions Don't Work" from the Boston Globe, "When Dress Codes Discriminate" from NEA today, and "Ditching Processed Foods" from NPR.

  • Research Writing: Many school libraries have database subsciptions, a great place to start if you're searching for research mentor texts. I've used this article on Smartphone addiction with my students. Science Daily also has some neat research articles, like this one on Elephant Extinction.

Start by reading one whole text together and doing a simple analysis (i.e., what makes this a strong narrative, what makes this a strong argument piece, etc.). Next, place students in breakout rooms. Instruct students to read the piece more closely a second time listing the qualities that make that text effective.

Tell students to work as a group to write at least five qualities that make this writing strong. Depending on the length of the piece, give students a time limit (you have 7 minutes to reread and make a list of qualities of an effective research writing!).

When the time is up, bring students back together as a whole class and make a master list students can refer back to as they write their own pieces.

2. Chunk your mentor text.

After doing a whole class read and analysis, start each class by analyzing mentor texts piece by piece and then tasking students with completing that chunk of writing in their own work.

For example, for narrative texts, place students in breakout rooms. As a group, tell students to read and analyze just the lead of narrative texts. Based on the leads they read, instruct students to list the qualities of a strong lead. For this, you might choose to have students analyze just the lead of the mentor text you read as a whole class, OR you might choose to add a few other leads (it's okay if students haven't read the entire piece--encourage them to analyze just this chunk and break down what works).

Most often, I throw a few examples of leads in for my students from different narratives so they can look at a variety of approaches and styles. Then, they list the qualities that make that writing effective.

We follow this same lesson structure (analyze several examples, make a list of qualtities) for each chunk of the writing piece: the body, the closing, and sometimes genre-specific tasks like using dialogue or embedding quotes.

3. Add space for application.

After breaking down a single chunk of a mentor text(s), students leave their breakout rooms and start writing their own pieces. For example, students might analyze leads in groups, then begin brainstorming and writing their own. They might analyze body paragraphs in groups, then start brainstorming and writing their own.

Chunking the mentor gives students a high-quality mini-lesson on specific writing techniques and THEY are doing the work of learning. It's active, not passive, and it shows when students apply the skills they learn from the mentor in their own writing. Student writing becomes stronger, and they become more confident because they know exactly what to do in order to be effective writers.

Take the pressure off by calling this stage of writing "practice." Encourage students to practice writing several versions of the same chunk of text that they analyzed. After practicing and writing several versions, go back to breakout rooms to get feedback from classmates. Encourage each student to display their work, read it to their group, and get feedback.

To help facilitate mentor text analysis, I put together a Google Slide template where students can find everything they need in one place. This slide deck includes three slides for mentor texts, a slide to list the qualities of an effective text, two slides for brainstorming their own writing, and a slide for peer feedback.

You can download my free mentor text analysis template here or by clicking on the image below. If you find this helpful, feel free to share this post with your teacher friends! Questions? I'm here. Post your questions or comments below. Happy teaching!

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