There is nothing quite like a teacher’s collection of mentor texts. As I run my fingers over the fraying spines of mine, lines rush at me like a flood. From Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon… “Somewhere behind us a train whistle blew, long and low, like a sad, sad, song.” Then, Cynthia Rylant’s Fireflies… “The moonlight and the fireflies swam in my tears, but I could feel myself smiling.” I let the words wash over me, appreciating how each book has left a mark on me as both a teacher and a writer.
These books and any we use as mentor texts can allow us to see new possibilities in how to lay out thoughts, invite readers into our self-created worlds, and play with language. And yet… something I’ve come to realize is that the mentor texts that matter most to my students are not those beloved and perfect books. Instead, the most meaningful are the flawed pieces that flow from my fingers each day, because they are crafted in front of my students. My young writers can see the messy thinking and clunky wording that are a part of drafting, and see that prose doesn’t begin with the high polish of published, literary jewels—it gets there. It gets to a brighter shine through work and revision.
The most valuable work of a writing teacher is to show students the process, decision making, and quest for honesty that writers go through in order to make their words have emotive power and sheen. In doing this we are vulnerable and real in front of our students, powerful states of being to model for children. To do this is to be a writer as well as a teacher, because we can not teach what we do not do. When Donald Graves was asked by an interviewer in the late 1990s, what is the one thing teachers need to do when teaching writing, he answered:
Write yourself. Invite children to do something you’re already doing. If you’re not doing it, Hey, the kids say, I can’t wait to grow up and not have to write, like you. They know. And for the short term and the long term, you’ll be doing yourself a favor by writing. All of us need it as a survival tool in a very complex world. The wonderful thing about writing is that it separates the meaningless and the trivial from what is really important. So we need it for ourselves and we need to invite children to do what we are doing. You can’t ask someone to sing a duet with you until you know the tune yourself (Instructor magazine)
The tune of which Don Graves speaks isn’t always easy. Writing in front of your students is hard, like trying to master the oboe. And what I’d add to Graves’ insight is that writing with your students has profound power, because it brings you closer to learners. You and your students live in a place of sameness, which allows you to have writer-to-writer conversations that let students know, I work at this too. Not one of us would want to take feedback or advice on our dieting from someone who’s been a size two their whole life. To be all in with someone, we need to live the struggle ourselves, and share the secret that in writing all of us write awful drafts, all of us have moments when the words won’t come, and all of us feel that twinge of discomfort laying ourselves out on the page for others to see.
So, for those of you who are still leaning into the comfort of those well-loved favorites mentor texts, think of this as an invitation to finally dare to write in front of students. Here are a few tips to get you going:
Tip 1: Zoom in on little bits of your work with one focus. Yes, using our own pieces to model is key, but that doesn’t mean we are always drafting the whole piece at one time. The best way to keep students in tune with a strategy we’re sharing is to model that strategy only with just a bit of the piece.
Tip 2: Show that the struggle is real. When we’ve planned and rehearsed our lesson, it is easy to make the writing we’re doing seem effortless, when in reality that’s not the case. Even when you have an idea of what you’re going to write, be sure to tuck some thinking pauses into your work. That will show students that writing doesn’t always flow. We all need time and space to decide which words will actually land on our pages.
Tip 3: Talk to make your thinking visible. Using our own writing to model how writers plan and then bring those thoughts to the page requires us to do more than just move the pen in front of our learners. It requires us to open our minds and name out what we are thinking through each step. As you write, make your process clear by sharing the how and why of each writing move you make. This sounds a lot like, “Hmmm… First let me think about… I’m thinking… Maybe I can… Now I’m thinking… Next let me… I can try…”
Tip 4: Don’t play it safe. If we are asking our students to write the real stuff, we have to as well. Write the story that is hard to tell. Write the essay that taps into your truest beliefs. Write real for them because it is the only way they’ll write real for you. I often model with mom fail moments, the moment my father told me he had cancer, and moments that I’m less than proud of but taught me an important lesson. This type of writing makes me real to the kids, and can hopefully give them permission to share the hard parts for them too.
Be bold and vulnerable. Plan and be messy. Let them see you sweat. Write.