This post by author, Lola Schaefer, is the second of a two-part guide to using picture books as mentor texts in classrooms. (The first part offered insights and guidelines for working with picture books in primary classrooms.) (:3
Picture books are amazing. Not only are they a source of enjoyment and entertainment, but in the hands of a proficient writing teacher, they become so much more. Writing workshop is an organic form of writing instruction. It is modeled after the process that all writers use. During writing workshop, there are several opportunities for direct instruction. Two of these are the mini-lesson and the teacher-student conference.
Teachers who offer writing workshop to their students in grades 3, 4, or 5 realize that they can’t possibly know everything about the art of writing. However, they do know that well-written picture books can show students much about the craft of writing and the mechanics. These teachers use picture books as mentor text.
Mentor text simply means using part of the picture book text to show examples. Intermediate teachers use passages from these mentor texts to show strong leads, development of ideas and concepts, specific word choice, or a number of other craft elements or writing mechanics (grammar, punctuation, sentence structures, transitions). Since only a small portion of the mentor text will be used at one time, these writing teachers read their selected picture books out loud at the beginning of the year to familiarize the students with storylines, characters, nonfiction formats – just for the pure joy. No formal teaching happens at this time. They simply share these picture books to revel in the art form.
However, during a mini-lesson, which is a 4-7 minute lesson that focuses on one aspect of writing, the teacher will refer back to one page, or a few sentences, or a lead, or an ending from one of these books to encourage the students to take risks and try strategies that could help them achieve stronger texts of their own. Not all mini-lessons rely on a published picture book, but many do. A mini-lesson is one of the instructional components that makes writing workshop so powerful.
Proficient writing teachers also refer to mentor text during a one-on-one writing conference. If a student requests help with adding details to develop her nonfiction piece, a teacher can reference a nonfiction mentor text to find examples of how that particular author added information in an interesting way. If a student needs assistance with crafting a stronger lead, the teacher might bring three different mentor texts to the conference and discuss how each lead engages the reader and lures the reader into the text. From these examples, the student might take away some strategies that help him draft his lead.
Intermediate teachers do not need fifty or more picture books to use as mentor text, although I’m sure that some have that many or more. Since one mentor text can be mined for many of the elements of strong writing, the language arts teacher only needs 12-16 books that he/she can access quickly, enjoy using again and again, and are large enough to be used in a group setting. Here are a few of my favorites that I use during classroom demonstration lessons:
The Dunderheads by Paul Fleischman – lead, ending, word choice, tone, voice, detail, description, plot
Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles – word choice, details, description, character development, sentence structure, plot, voice, tone
Living Sunlight by Molly Bang & Penny Chisholm – voice, tone, word choice, narrative nonfiction, lead and ending, fluency, description
My Name is Sangoel by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed – lead and ending, plot, details, word choice, character development, voice
Rosa’s Bus by Jo S. Kittinger – focus, lead and ending, word choice, details, organization
The Secret World of Walter Anderson by Hester Bass – focus, elaboration, details, fluency, storytelling, description, word choice, voice, tone
Ubiquitous by Joyce Sidman – poetry, informational text, details, word choice, fluency, elaboration, organization
Yatandou by Gloria Whelan – description, elaboration, point of view, word choice, details [Note from L.B. - We were unable to get Yatandou for our store, but we're working on it. In the meantime, we found it available here and we carry these other books by Gloria Whelan.)
Students need lots of examples to support them as they take risks as writers. Well-crafted picture books provide beautiful examples that mentor our children through the process. In this way, they learn from the best and their writing will soar.
Lola M. Schaefer is the author of more than 250 picture books and a dozen professional resources for educators. She visits elementary and middle schools across the country as a consultant, offering writing demonstration lessons in classrooms and staff development to teachers. To learn more about Lola, her books, and her work in schools, visit: www.lolaschaefer.com