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Using Mentor Texts

By now, you have all heard me mention my celebrity crush, Kelly Gallagher.  Unless you are an English teacher, you have probably never heard of him.  He is both an English teacher and an author of numerous books about teaching reading and writing.  Although I have never met him in person, he has been my mentor and inspiration for the past few years.  

One of my favorite books that he has written is Write Like This.  This book encourages teachers to provide mentor texts  to guide  student writing.  He argues that students need good writing to emulate.  I agree!  Over the past few weeks I implemented one of his lessons and am pretty excited with the results. 

 One of the writing types that seventh-graders must learn is the informational essay.  Last year I had students pick a teen issue from The Outsiders to research and write about.  I had about 40 essays on child abuse, 50 on smoking, and another 30 on peer pressure.  You get the picture!  Let me tell you, grading those essays was like a root canal without Novocain.  Not only did I read the same thing over and over again, but the students were not truly excited about what they were writing about.  

This year I used Gallagher's idea of using the column "Who Made That?" which appeared in the New York Times as inspiration for my students.  I started off by reading an example I thought my students would like-"Who Made the Slip and Slide"? After we read it, we talked about what the writer DID in his piece?  We discussed the following:

How is the piece organized?
What is the purpose?
Are there graphics or pictures?
What kind of information is included?
Does the writer reference or quote experts?
How does the writer begin and end?
How long is it?
What kind of language does the writer use?

For homework, student had to write down fifteen topics that they might be interested in finding out about.  The next day while they were working on something else, I circulated around the room and highlighted my favorite three on their lists.  I highlighted topics that I thought would be most interesting to research but also took into consideration each student's personal interests.  Of course, the ultimate decision was theirs!

After they chose the topic, I spent some time talking about credible sources, as well as teaching them to do a specific  search on Google for educational domains.  Eventually they had to print three or more articles on their topic and bring them to class.

In class, I gave them this note taking handout.  We agreed on the focus questions to write in the boxes. I then modeled  note taking for them on the screen.

Once they were done with their notes, it was time to look at another mentor text.  This time I chose "Who Made the Windshield Wiper?"  Following the reading, I went through the same procedures as with the Slip and Slide piece.  

I gave them quite a bit of time to read the articles, take notes, and ask me questions.  A few of them realized an article they chose was not appropriate for the assignment and needed to find another one.

Eventually they began writing their essays. I taught them how to introduce their sources using this handout.  They were required to use the sentence starters in their essays.

Finally, they submitted them to and eventually published their work to our classroom blog! I actually loved reading these essays!

Here are a few of my favorites:  

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