Think back to the last time you had to write a cover letter for a new job or the last time a colleague asked you to write a reference letter. What was the first thing you did? The first thing I usually do is Google “cover letter samples” or “how to write a reference letter.” No matter how many times I have to write one of these letters, I always look to a mentor text for help.
Choosing from the myriad of examples from the Internet can be overwhelming. And selecting mentor texts for your classroom can feel just as daunting.
Here are four simple strategies to make choosing mentor texts easier.
1. Choose something you and students will love.
There are lists upon lists of mentor texts you can find with a quick online search, but none of those texts will be very helpful if you and your students don’t love them. I’ve been using the short story “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros for over 20 years with both my upper elementary and middle school students. I never get tired of it because I love it, and my classes have always loved it too. (If they didn’t, I’d use a different text.) Because we love it, we’re willing to go back to it again and again and mine the text for techniques we can try in our own writing.
2. Be sure your students are represented in mentor texts, both in the writing and as writers.
I wrote a blog post about how my identity as a writer changed after I read Kelly Yang’s Front Desk. It was the first time I saw my experiences reflected in a novel. It made me think, “Hey, maybe I can write a children’s book.” When we ask our students to try new writing techniques, perhaps we should make sure they see themselves as writers. We can do this by using mentor texts where they can see themselves and their experiences. Here are a couple of my favorites:
Kids should also see mentor texts written by authors who reflect their identities like these:
Of course, we can also include texts that provide a look into others’ identities and lives.
3. Look for aspirational texts that are still within reach.
Mentor texts should help our writers grow and see what’s possible, but if they’re too challenging, they won’t be able to approximate the authors’ techniques. We want to make sure kids are inspired by the mentor texts and feel like the craft moves can be used in their writing.
4. Sometimes, the best thing to do is not choose.
Well, don’t choose too many. While attending a webinar with Carl Anderson and Matt Glover on writing workshop, Matt said, “The death of using a mentor in a conference is if you have to flip.” When we have too many mentor texts on hand but don’t know any of them well enough, it makes it challenging to find the page or the example we want during a conference. And if it’s not easy to use, we won’t use it. Look for texts that meet the criteria above and make sure it’s chock full of craft techniques you want to teach. As Rebekah O’Dell and Alison Marchetti ask in their book Writing With Mentors, “Does it pass the highlighter test?” meaning you can find lots of lines that you and your students will love.
For a deeper dive into mentor text, check out these resources:
- Craft Moves by Stacey Shubitz
- Wondrous Words by Katie Wood Ray (an oldie, but goodie!)
- Mentor Texts: Writing Workshop Fundamentals
Read more helpful articles like this one:
- How Can We Make Our Read-Aloud Curriculum More Inclusive?
- The Problem With Behavior Charts
- A 4-Day Shared Reading Practice for Upper and Middle School Kids