Using Mentor Texts as Models for Writing

By Amy Worob

Before leaving for winter break, I had made copies of one of my favorite texts that I’ve used with my sophomores for the past four years–Andrew Lam’s essay “Letter to a Young Refugee” from his book Perfume Dreams–a beautifully written mentor text that is both accessible and challenging at the same time. I didn’t have much planned for the first day back other than I knew I wanted to do something new with the text this year. 

It wasn’t until I was listening in on the great conversations my students were having about the text in my first period class (snooping is one of my favorite parts!), that I had an idea that I was determined to see through. Instead of analyzing the text to death or simply moving on after discussing it in class for one day, students could demonstrate their understanding of persuasive writing techniques by writing a “letter” of their own.

Writers write. And writers become better writers by writing (and reading). So often students are asked to write about something without actually trying the writing themselves. They write a lot of response paragraphs and essays, but how often do they write something that is of their own creation? 

I typically think that the best way to learn about writing is to try it. So, with this in mind, I asked students to take what they noticed from the structure, style, and techniques used in “Letter to a Young Refugee” and write their own “Creative Argument” Letter. By turning “Letter to a Young Refugee” into a mentor text for a students’ own writing, it made students more actively involved in their learning and resulted in analysis of writer’s craft in an authentic way.

Why Use a Mentor Text?

If you’ve ever wondered: How could I make persuasive and test-prep writing more interesting and authentic for my students? Or What is a more authentic way for my students to demonstrate understanding of moves writers make while writing? The answer might be found in using mentor texts for original, creative writing.

Any text can be a mentor text. It’s the way you use it that matters most. Some ways mentor texts (sometimes referred to as models instead) can be used are to help students with improving their writing skills through a specific skill focus in-context or genre study. Using a piece of published writing as a mentor for student writing gives students a relevant, authentic look at how writers write outside of a classroom. The mentor text can also serve both as a support for students that are struggling and as inspiration for students that are ready to create their own style and voice. Looking at mentors and models is a natural part of the writing process for everyone. I took a creative writing class recently and even then our main source of inspiration and focus was looking at what moves published writers made to do what we were trying to do. I even looked at other blog posts as examples before writing this one.

When it comes to writing for standardized testing, it can often become boring (for everyone) and formulaic. By looking at how persuasive writing techniques are used in the real world outside of the testing world, you can again add that element of authenticity that can in turn generate more student buy-in. Additionally, this use of a mentor text can inspire students to be more creative when it comes to crafting their writing which can help their writing, and their test scores, improve. 

Tying Skills to a Mentor Text  

When you use an authentic text, you get the ability to teach the authentic writing skills that come with it– like a mouse and a cookie with a glass of milk. These skills can be easily scaffolded to the level of your students and what type of text/skills you want to work on. With “Letter to a Young Refugee,” I planned on using it to begin our nonfiction and persuasion unit. I started with having students spend their time unpacking the text by focusing on the following skills:

  • Message/argument – What is the writer trying to convince people of?
  • Purpose – Why did the writer write this piece?
  • Audience – Who is the intended/target audience? Who sees this piece? What might they already believe or know that might influence them? How is that being addressed?
  • Persuasive techniques – How does the writer appeal to/persuade the audience? How are emotions used? How is logic used? How does the writer build their credibility? How is a counter argument to an opposing view created?
  • Organization/structure – How does the writer open and close? What patterns are you noticing in the language? Where are there shifts and tension? How would you divide and describe the structure?
  • Use of language – What stands out with word choice, sentence structure, imagery, etc? What language seems most important? What about the style of narration and tone?

The purpose of this was to guide students in noticing specific moves the writer was making and to get them thinking about the purpose behind these moves so that they could apply these ideas to their own writing. With each of these main elements of argumentative writing, students were asked to think about how the intention behind the element impacted how the text was written. 

To assess students’ understanding of the effect of specific elements, I had them answer some scaffolded close reading questions. I made these questions with the idea that I wanted to make sure that in addition to looking at the elements above, they were also looking at and understanding some of the author’s specific choices.

By doing this, they are not only identifying the moves being made in the piece, but also doing the critical step of thinking about why they are being made and what effect/function those choices have. This step makes it possible for them to translate other author’s choices into crafting their own choices. Here are some of the responses:

  • “Lam’s suggestion of arming ‘yourself if you can–a knife, a stone– and guard your family and what possessions you have left like a mad dog its bone,’ speaks to the aggression and desperateness of survival (Lam 20). To survive, the refugees must guard their remaining possessions for those material goods will ensure their further survival. The connotation of the phrase ‘mad dog’ presents an image of primal aggression, the innate protectiveness of the items that an animal gathers and uses (e.g. squirrels and nuts, lions and carcasses). The use of ‘mad dog its bone’ compares the desperateness of the refugees to animal-like savageness.”
  • “The paragraphs ending the letter emphasize the positive outcomes of enduring the ‘pain and suffering’ and are there to show that hope is present in this society (Lam 22). This has a connection to the author’s argument because it displays how the journeys of the refugees will be extremely ‘difficult and treacherous’ and to surpass these obstacles will require being ‘brave, strong, and cunning’ (Lam 22). The refugee’s determination to overcome the ‘overwhelming darkness’ also illustrates the author’s argument by showing how the letter is not meant for just the refugees, but for all people with similar predicaments (Lam 22).”

Putting Learning into Writing

Once we had explored how the writing in the mentor text was functioning, I told students that they would now be writing their own letter to anyone about anything. Their only requirements were that it needed to have a clear position, use a variety of persuasive techniques, and teach me something about them/what they care about. They were encouraged to use “Letter to a Young Refugee” as a close step-by-step model if they needed support or wanted ideas, or they could be as creative with the structure and style as they wanted. I gave them no minimum or maximum length as well, telling them I wanted them to be free to express their writing without constraint.

Many students did want assurances that only I would be reading what they wrote, not ready to share personal writing of this nature with their peers, which was perfectly acceptable. Some students struggled a bit finding a topic at first, possibly not used to being allowed such freedom in their writing. One student turned that into the topic of their letter. Others made brainstorming webs about things that are important to them, interest them, and that they know a lot about. They then used this to help narrow down a topic.

The Results

Reading their products was some of the most enjoyable grading I’ve ever had. They showed off what they knew about language in ways that really paid off, and I even had kids telling me that they actually enjoyed finishing their writing for homework! They even did more writing than they normally might have– the majority of my students submitted products that were two pages typed, single spaced because they were invested in the writing they were doing.

My students were able to show me that they understood the concepts we talked about in class because they put them into practice themselves exercising both critical and creative thinking skills. I saw them using interesting word choice and impactful sentence structures, such as mimicking the anaphora used in “Letter to a Young Refugee.” When asked why they wanted to use this element when they were in the process of writing, they told me it was because they liked the emphasis and rhythm that the repetition created– such as in “Letter to a Young Refugee” a few paragraphs start out with “Be fierce… Be alert… Be hopeful,” and one student used the same structure with “Be kind… Be mindful… Be driven.” I also heard them having many great conversations with each other on how they wanted to structure their argument and use figurative language! 

Some of the topics they wrote about included a letter to girls who don’t feel like they’re pretty when they look in the mirror, to kids that are racially stereotyped and how to rise above, and to kids that feel overwhelming pressure/stress/anxiety about having to do well in school:

  • “Be proud of your diversity. Your culture makes you unique, and … makes you so much more socially aware and gives you more understanding and empathy for those around you.”
  • “Escaping societal pressure is a confusing and doubtful process… All I want to remind you is that you are in charge.”
  • “I’ve been you… I’ve scrutinized over my skin in the fluorescent school lighting… been quiet, even when I know I’m right, as to not be ‘problematic.’”

There were also more light-hearted letters, arguing who the best Jedi in the Star Wars franchise is, why middle schoolers should try band in high school, and why dance is a sport. Some even wrote letters to their past or future selves.

  • “Dance is a beautiful thing… But being a dancer is probably one of the most difficult things you can do to yourself.”
  • “The first day of summer band can be tough so I’ll try to tell you a few important tips for the first day.  The most crucial thing is to always drink as much water as you possibly can.”
  • “I wanted to speak on this topic because I believe that Obi-Wan has been disrespected when it comes to the most powerful Jedi.”

Through this experiment in giving my students an opportunity for more authentic and meaningful writing, they were not only able to demonstrate a complex understanding of the content area, but learn the skills needed to read moves in any type of writing and then apply it to their own. They can pull from this experience to help them in the future with other types of texts and types of writing as well (even in standardized testing situations) because now they know from personal experience that there is intention in the choices writers make.

 

Amy Worob is a fifth year high school English teacher in Leander ISD near Austin, TX. She earned her Masters in Education from the University of Texas at Austin and is also an Arkansas Razorback. To keep up with what her classes are doing, follow @amyworob on Twitter.

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Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.

2 thoughts on “Using Mentor Texts as Models for Writing

  1. Pingback: Writing for the Culture: Centering Marginalized Youth Perspectives on Their Writing Experiences | Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

  2. Pingback: The Power of Author Visits   | Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

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