Saturday, August 17, 2013

Celebrate the Positive with Mentor Texts

As I am attempting to unpack boxes and rearrange my new classroom space, I came across one of my previous teacher evaluation forms.  I cringed when I saw it, and I'm not even sure why I have saved it (except maybe for some comic relief or to raise my blood pressure).  Here's just a brief snippet from this horrendous evaluation: 

Domain C: Teaching for Student Learning (Needs Improvement)
C2:  Mrs. Shouldis used a little kids book to teach a reading lesson to fifth grade students. Mrs. Shouldis did not use any OAA practice questions during lesson.  

Just typing this makes me furious.  There are so many comments I could still make about this evaluation (even three years later), but I just want to focus on the "little kids" book reference.  The book that I was using to teach 5th grade students about character development was Mr. Lincoln's Way by Patricia Pollacco.  In no way would I consider this book a "little kid" book, even though it is a shorter text containing picture.  There are some huge ideas embedded within this text.  Not only is this a great text for teaching reading ideas and strategies, but it can also be used as a writing mentor text and a mentor text for life.  

I recently read Bullying Hurts: Teaching Kindness Through Read Alouds and Guided Conversations by Lester Laminack.  He provides an impressive collection of picture books that can be used for read alouds to help teach kids about acceptance and diversity.  He also provides great lessons and conversation starters about each of the issues discussed in these books.  The ideas within this books are deep, and can help to develop and nurture open-minded citizens.  These are books that I would consider to be mentor texts for life.  These books are small text with big ideas.

Mentor texts seem to be most closely related to the area of teaching writing.  This just seems like a common sense approach to teaching writing, in ALL grade levels.  I truly believe that kids need to be taught the correct way to write, and that as teachers we need to focus on how real writers write.  What better way to do this than to use picture books to help celebrate real writing.  I do think there is a place and time to teach editing, but I do not think it requires daily review and practice.  Too often, I have been in classrooms where daily language reviews are taking place, instead of actual writing.  Students are editing a piece of work, filled with crazy errors, and then graded on their ability to correct this inauthentic piece of writing.  Why?  I love Jeff Anderson's solution to this idea!  In Everyday Editing he discusses inviting our students into the writing process.  Show them how to correctly uses certain grammar or punctuation and them invite them to do it within their own writing.  Using mentor text is a perfect way to show writers how to properly use proper grammar and punctuation.  I fear that by focusing writing instruction on the editing process, by finding errors, we are scaring away some very talented writers.  I am still nervous, in terms of publicly publishing my thoughts out of fear of incorrect grammar or punctuation, and I can't even imagine how some of our young developing writers feel.

As I am teaching my three young children social skills and manners, I explain and provide examples of how I want them to behave.  I do not provide them with ideas of how not to behave.  If one of them misbehaves I will sit down and talk to them about what THEY did and how to change their actions next time.  On those glorious days where they are perfect angels all day, I celebrate the wonderful things they have done.  Never do I stop and talk about ways they might one day act in undesirable ways, and what to do if that happens.  I hope for the positives and only address the undesirable behaviors IF they act in that way.  I use many mentor texts to help guide these discussions.  At times I will select certain books that exhibit positive behaviors, especially if one of my children have been struggling to exhibit that positive behavior.  

Parallel this idea to teaching writing.  I teach my students how to write in ways that can be celebrated.  I will also share mentor texts that exhibit the skill I am teaching that day.  I will then celebrate the ways my writers are correctly applying those skills within their own writing.  It is only when a student incorrectly applies that information that I will conferring with that writer and have them talk about that skill as it applies to THEIR writing.  I do not take time out of my day to stop and talk about the incorrect way they MIGHT use punctuation or grammar.  Instead, I try to keep my focus on celebrating the positive.  Using mentor texts is one of the best ways I have found to make sure that I am continuously teaching and celebrating what real writers do.  

High school all the way down to kindergarten, I encourage all teachers to incorporate pictures books into your classroom.  They are not just books for "little kids", but they can provide and inspire positive ways to think about life and life as writers.  

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