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From the Classroom: Personalized Mentor Texts to Inspire and Elevate Student Writing with Independent Reading Books

This month’s From the Classroom post comes from Lauren Heimlich Foley, a 7th grade English Language Arts teacher at Holicong Middle School in Central Bucks School District. If you feel inspired after reading Lauren’s post on mentor texts, please comment below and also consider sharing your own favorite lesson here on the blog. Click here to learn more.


GRADE / SUBJECT

7th Grade English Language Arts

LENGTH

Approximately 20-25 minutes occurring throughout the school year

PURPOSE

Last year, I devoured The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini: his books became a constant source of inspiration—fueling my writing, providing minilesson examples, and driving book talks. When I shared Paolini’s ideas, style, conventions, and craft with my students, I modeled how to “read like a writer,” and in turn, my seventh graders began noticing and emulating the way the authors of their Independent Reading Books wrote.

During one writing conference, Caleb declared, “I want to experiment with one-word sentences like in Hatchet.” Skimming the book’s pages, he pointed out “Divorce” and “Secrets” and explained, “Gary Paulsen uses these words to build questions, mystery, and suspense for readers.” The next day he shared his mentor text and revisions with the class as our minilesson. Caleb’s final poem highlighted five words: “Victory. Freedom. Peace. Unity. Hope.” In his reflection, he stated, “The best part about [Paulsen’s] writing is the one-word sentences he adds in. It creates emphasis on the words. I [accentuated] the words of what the [Allied] soldiers [on D-Day] are fighting for because to them these words are really important.”

Intrigued by the power of personalized mentor texts, I considered ways to foster independent reading as a writing tool and dedicate instructional time to observing word choice, voice, sentence fluency, and other stylistic decisions in students’ individual books. Additionally, I wanted to create more opportunities for students to teach one another, take charge of their learning, play with writing, consider risks, and become stronger readers and writers.

NOTE: This lesson can be adapted to use with any text:

  • Fiction, nonfiction, or poetry
  • Whole-class, book club, or independent reading
  • Any age and reading level (picture book, YA novel, or adult book)

HERE’S WHAT I DID

  1. Students read their Independent Reading Books during writing workshop on Tuesdays and Thursdays for roughly 15 minutes.
  2. I demonstrated “read like a writer” by choosing and explaining exemplar words, sentences, and passages. Some excerpts were pre-selected to highlight a certain technique, and other days, I found something during class and placed my book under the document camera.
  3. Early in the school year, students collected their observations in notebooks and participated in face-to-face conversations with a partner or table group. However, they only explored a small sampling of books. I wanted students to share their findings with the entire class, so everyone could see a variety of techniques.
  4. In preparation for our November Short Story Genre Study, students noticed the way their authors used punctuation, developed characters, revealed themes, and included researched details. To record and distribute this information, they used online discussion boards in Canvas, our school’s Learning Management System (LMS). If my school had not gone 1:1 and adopted a LMS this school year, I would have explored other options such as Padlet, Google Forms, post-it notes on a bulletin board, or large poster paper hung around the room.
  5. As students read, they submitted their observations and perused their classmates’ posts.
  6. Once students began writing, they returned to the discussion boards, searching for examples to help them create their pieces. (For the scope of this unit, students used whole-class mentor texts, Book Club Books, and Independent Reading Books.)
  7. Now, roughly twice a month, we use the discussion board feature in Canvas for independent reading observations. After students read, they return to their books and choose a particular feature they want to remember. Students share, discuss, respond to, analyze, and study their books in a variety of ways. For example, students may post a technique introduced in a minilesson or a literary device previously explored in a whole-class text. They may highlight a section of their books that stands out to them or exemplifies Vicky Spandel’s 6 Traits of Writing or the Notice and Note Signposts.

See samples of students’ responses by clicking each image below!

WHAT WORKED

Students love choice, they love to talk about what they are reading, and they love online social interaction. Combining these elements enabled my seventh graders to read like writers, share author craft, and elevate their writing.

Listening to my students helped maximize engagement. Since student feedback revealed that they missed face-to-face conversations—yet found the discussion boards helpful—I built in a few minutes for students to meet with a classmate and learn more about a book and strategy after they posted their observations.

This ongoing class work placed students at the center of their learning: students taught one another new information, reinforced whole-class lessons, and influenced their peer’ book selections. With an average of 25 students per class, my seventh graders provided many more mentor texts through their posts than I could have offered. The informal book talks were an added bonus, for as students emphasized the writing of authors, thumbed through one another’s books, and swapped ideas, students naturally added titles to their “To Read Next Lists.”

Moreover, this assignment supported higher-level thinking. As students reread their books, selected textual evidence, and explained their observations, they evaluated their author’s craft. Returning to the discussion boards throughout the writing process, encouraged students to employ new skills, and metacognitive reflections asked students to consider how the techniques improved their writing.

Check out more student work below!

NEXT STEPS

I’d like to implement a “Next Technique List” to help students remember their favorite mentor sentences selected by their classmates. Not only will my students be able to track what techniques they wish to try, but also it will help inform my whole-class minilessons, small-group instruction, and individual student conferences.

Also, encouraging students to sign-up and share a passage from their book would create writing presentations and leadership opportunities. The format would be similar to a book talk, but instead of students simply urging their peers to read the book, they would prompt them to try out an aspect of the author’s writing. Students would meet with me beforehand to prepare, and the notes would be available online for all students to review.

Have you used something similar in your classroom? Do you have additional ideas, questions, thoughts? Please share in the comments below!

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