Thursday, January 17, 2019

Seabury's Writers Use Mentor Texts to Hone Their Craft

Recently, a colleague told me a story about how young artists can improve their
sketches by looking closely at the thing they are being asked to draw. By asking
questions about a leaf they are trying to draw, for example, and seeking the
answers in the leaf, students' drawings grow to include the correct number of veins
and the right length from the tip to the petiole. Through revisions and consulting the
mentor text (the original leaf), the image of the leaf the child is drawing slowly
becomes a leaf recognizable to all viewers.


This growth comes through struggle, through attention to detail, through effort,
and through revision.


This week, in English class, the Seabury Middle School students have been
attending to detail in an effort to hone their writing skills. Collectively, we read
award winning feature stories written and annotated for journalism students
by Jon Franklin. Individually, students selected Pulitzer prize winning feature stories
that interested them. With both our group texts and the individual texts,
students had a clear purpose in mind for their reading: they were to read like writers.


Here are some of the tips the students discovered from analyzing the choices
the award winning journalists made:


1) Establish time, mood, place, and character early in a story--like in
the first few sentences.


2) Flashbacks can be really useful. Try not to have more than one per story.


3) When you want to move forward in time, but you have to skip ahead,
use the weather (for seasons), a comment about months or years passing,
or some other transition. Do not ignore the fact that your reader needs to
know when the story is happening. If you have to be overt, be overt.


4) Add details so your reader can imagine being there.


5) Make your reader care about your character. One way to do this is
to make the reader feel what the character is feeling.


6) Use suspense to add drama. Shorter sentences can sometimes make a
scene feel more suspenseful. So can reminders about the time or some ending
approaching.


7) Weave symbols throughout the story instead of just plonking them in.
(This might be easier done in revision).


8) The complication (the central problem for the character) and the resolution
have to match up.


9) Try not to make too many assumptions about what the reader already knows.
It is okay to give the reader some background knowledge.


10) Stick to the truth, but know how to use background knowledge to embellish
with accuracy.


Students reverse outlined the major complications and resolutions in each of their
stories and looked at the outlines Franklin provided. Students will spend more
time discovering how to shape their stories next week when they begin outlining in earnest.


The students have also selected sentences that they admire from the articles
that we read, and we will analyze those sentences more closely when we get
to the revision and/or editing steps of the writing process. We will return to the
mentor texts throughout the writing process, just like the young artists. Our goal,
though, is not to duplicate content so much as to learn about organization and style
and know what options are available for the students' own writing.


At times, inquiry is broad and expansive, and at times it is narrow. Asking what
we can learn from mentor texts is an important type of inquiry. Students know
what appeals to them in the writing; they know what seems to be working.
Asking questions about why and how improves their questioning skills, their
reading skills, and their writing skills.


When students received this assignment, I asked them what they needed to do
in order to be able to write a feature story, and reading successful examples
was one of their ideas. In this way, the students took ownership over their
own learning, and they used inquiry to improve their writing.