Thursday, February 21, 2013

Read Like A Writer

A successful way to help my students become better writers is to teach them how to critique pieces or read like a writer. This post builds on an earlier post about using student work as mentor texts. The best way for me to create authentic writing pieces to use during lessons is to use their own work! Their pieces create/inspire mini lesson topics which makes my planning easier.  

Recently I had students read a Time For Kids article on cheetahs and then write a quality (which means organized at this point in the year) paragraph about the information.  I wanted to see if the students would copy facts from the text or attempt to mix different parts of the text together to create writing that flows better. The results were about 50/50. Some still wrote info at face value while others tried to create interest. The best way I can think of to get students to see the big picture of paragraph writing is to have them critique both quality and improving pieces of writing.  I created a checklist for them to follow and then retyped 3 of their classmates paragraphs (usually I photo copy their writing and then cut & paste it to the template, but their paragraphs were to long for that this time). They then read the examples "like a writer" and were able to point out both good and needs improvement examples of organization, repetition, unnecessary facts, facts directly from the text, interesting leads, good word choice, boring words etc... This activity was a positive learning experience because I was not just telling them what to look at. They had to critique while thinking about each writing skill. I have used this "read like a writer" template (their are two templates for singular or plural examples) several times now and the students really like reading each others pieces.
I'd love to hear if you use these in your classroom and how your students respond. Our next writing piece is comparing & contrasting. Posts soon to follow!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Student Writing = Mentor Texts

There are so many wonderful published books to use as mentor texts when teaching a skill or concept, but try looking closer to home. When a strong classroom community is created, children love to share their own work whether it's a "4 star" piece or a "work in progress". We can learn from great examples of writing, but more importantly we can learn from pieces with imperfections.
When I was conferencing with a child, I noticed that she used you at least ten times in the first paragraph. I asked her if I could share this with the class and she was more then happy to have her writing used as an example. I immediately put the piece under the document camera and had an instant mini lesson on repetition and word choice. I asked a student to read the first few paragraphs and then we had a discussion on what they noticed about the piece and how the piece sound while being read (I often say to my class that if it doesn't sound right then something is wrong and you must try to figure out what it is). Many noticed the repetition of words and we also discussed other examples of writers' craft that needed to be addressed such as paragraph organization and the flow/sequence of ideas.
The class responded very well to the lesson and applauded Marissa for sharing. The key point here is that the class can learn from each other. When children can look at "real" examples of peer work it makes the assignment more approachable and kids get a sense of "If they can do it, so can I!"

You can also use student work as mentor texts before or during the draft stage of writing. After I introduce the piece that we will be working on and conduct a few mini lessons on writers' craft (such as, writing a lead, using text features, word choice...), I then have students read like a writer and evaluate writing pieces from the previous years.  The students fold a piece of paper in half and make a 2 column T-chart with the headings Great Examples of Writers' Craft and What Can Be Better.
(You can download or print this graphic organizer here Mentor Text T-Chart.) Students must read the mentor texts and look for examples of good writing as well as, what is it about the writing that does not seem quite right. I instruct students that they cannot be vague! Students cannot just write word choice in the great examples column. They must write down what it is that makes the word choice great by recording the descriptions used.  The same goes for finding what can be better. Students cannot just write punctuation. They must site exactly what is wrong such as, does not use capital letters  or  periods are needed to stop long sentences. This is not an easy skill to learn. Many examples of thinking aloud will be needed. After students get a hang of it, it is fun to see them act like the teacher and really think about elements of writers' craft.

After the students complete their T-charts, they keep it with their writing piece.  They must refer to it throughout the writing process to make sure they focus on good examples of writers' craft and stay away from the mistakes that they recorded.

Their are a few writing pieces that I tend to have the students complete every year and that is why I have a build up of student samples. However, you can use many forms of writing as mentor texts to a number of different topics. I often photo copy pages from writer's notebooks, essays from science/social studies class, short responses from guided reading groups and copies of other thinking/writing assignments. Determine the skill that you want students to focus on and find student samples that address it.  Trading writing samples with other teachers is also a great way to expand your collection of student mentor texts!  E-mail me if you are in need of samples for a specific genre or writing piece. I would be happy to see if I have samples to meet your needs.

I am interested to know, how do you use mentor texts in your classroom?
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