Review: Mentor Authors, Mentor Texts

mentor authors

Mentor Authors, Mentor Texts would be a useful book for most classroom teachers, but especially for workshop teachers. It consists of 24 short pieces that can be used as mentor texts with students. All were written by Ralph Fletcher, and he includes “Writer’s Notes” for each piece.

Most of the pieces are autobiographical, but there is still a range of genres: poetry, memoir, fiction, a picture book, and some nonfiction. A couple of pieces include extensive revisions, including a section on “Creating Hello, Harvest Moon,” a picture book. I had never thought about teaching this genre before (at least not on a college level), but I was intrigued by his revision process. He includes the initial draft he sent to his editor along with her very long and detailed critique. Fletcher got mad after reading her letter and put the manuscript away, only to be urged by his agent months later to pull it out and try again. I think the editor’s feedback letter along with his thought process for revision would be extremely helpful to share with college-level writers, and I might use this piece in my own classroom this fall.

Fletcher also shares his thinking about using mentor texts in the classroom in a helpful introduction. At various times in my teaching (and sometimes within the same semester!), I have been guilty of both problems he describes: “teachers who do very little to connect young writers to exemplary texts, and teachers who do too much.”

He advises teachers to move “from whole to part” rather than part to whole (“beginning with a specific skill, strategy, or craft element and then looking for a text that illustrates that one thing”). Many of the lesson plan books I’ve looked at on using mentor texts take exactly this part-to-whole approach and identify exemplary mentor texts on the basis of one specific feature or craft element it illustrates.

Fletcher’s idea is much more fluid and open: “Instead of directing students to pay attention to this strategy or that technique, what if we invite them to look at these texts and enter into them on their own terms.” If we allow students to “connect with whatever aspect of the text they find the most intriguing or compelling,” they will focus on what they are ready to see and learn. He suggests that teachers have students read texts for pleasure and for craft, mark up craft elements, and talk about what they notice.

And he provides some questions students might ask themselves as they read.

  • Is this mentor piece one I can learn from?
  • What do I love? Or not love?
  • What is this writer doing that I have never done in my writing?
  • Why did the writer do this or that? What was his thinking in the decisions he made along the way?
  • What seems most surprising here (in terms of how it is written)?
  • What is one part that I admire? Or don’t admire?
  • Does this mentor text have any takeaways—something I can take/borrow/steal for my own writing? If so, what?

Reading these questions reminded me of the need to step back more in the classroom, to make more space for students to develop insights about texts. I thought of Katherine Sokolowski’s wonderful post on “Trusting Myself to Teach.” When we trust ourselves to teach and our students to learn, we can read a text with our students, ask them, “What do you notice?” and let discussion go where it wants to go, trusting that insights, observations, noticings, learning will happen.

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