“What do you notice?” Writing Like the Experts

In our classrooms, we spend time brainstorming and coming up with interesting and personalized writing topics. We take hours to gather relevant research. We invest the time in helping students plan out their ideas. We create that new Google Doc (and promptly remind students to name it and avoid that 300th “Untitled Document”), and we stretch our fingers for maximum dexterity while typing. But as soon as the time to begin a new piece of writing starts, there are always those few hands that shoot up. I know exactly what they are about to say: “I don’t know where to start.” All too often we spend our time in class breaking down those long-term projects into meaningful tasks, but for some reason it doesn’t translate when it actually comes time to putting the pen to paper (or fingers to Chromebook) for the final product. In order to become proficient writers, our students need multiple opportunities to read and analyze mentor texts to help encourage them to write like authors, historians, scientists, and mathematicians. Using mentor texts is a great way to give students a place to start.

Mentor texts are not a new idea in education, and educators often hold on to student work as exemplars for years with good intentions of sharing these texts with future students. However, more than once I’ve stumbled across my forgotten student work samples in the shuffle of an ever-expanding Google Drive or in the back of my filing cabinet. This is your reminder that these are an integral part of your unit plans! Anne McKeough (2013) lays out clearly that just reading a text isn’t enough, but we must also examine a piece of work from the writer’s point of view as well:

“Students approach text differently as readers and writers. When they approach a text as a reader they read for the sake of gaining new information, novel experiences, and interesting viewpoints. When they approach the text as a writer they turn the text inside-out to see how it is made, how it is held together, and what makes it work.”

Breaking it Down

At the beginning of the school year, my ELA classroom focuses on mentor sentences. Jeff Anderson’s work, Patterns of Power and Mechanically Inclined are the influential texts that got me started with this type of grammar instruction. Mentor Sentences are the focal point of my teaching each year, and they provide students with a starting point they need to examine small pieces of writing with a unique lens. They give us an opportunity to see great writing blown up, and a chance for us to mimic the writing moves established authors make. All the while exposing middle school students to potential books and authors they might enjoy over the course of our time together.

When I’m ready to teach a new skill, my lesson planning starts by carefully searching for an interesting sentence from a text that will showcase how an author uses a particular skill in their writing. Then, I ask the question that my students will hear over and over and over again throughout the year, “What do you notice?” I remind them that there is no wrong answer, and I always get a few unique replies: “There are 18 vowels in this sentence!” Eventually, they start to focus in on the grammatical components we are getting ready to study or the word choice or figurative language the author is choosing to express their ideas. Then we have the opportunity to practice the writing move together and eventually independently throughout the week. Every week or two we expand on our knowledge by copying down sentences that combine a new skill with a review of something we’ve looked at in a past lesson. When we practice writing, we can now mimic the writer’s moves and our blank page isn’t quite as daunting.

Don’t teach ELA? Mentor sentences are not just an ELA thing! Do you want your students to apply their knowledge of a math concept and write their own word problems? Give them a few different word problems, and rather than asking them to solve, ask them, “What do you notice?” Help them break down those sentences and analyze what they might have to include to write a quality word problem for their classmates to solve.

TIP! Jamboard is a great tool for annotating mentor sentences. Jamboard allows students to highlight, circle, and leave notes as a reminder of the different elements they notice in a sentence.

Looking at the Big Picture

Before beginning a final writing assessment or a project of some sort, this is where the larger mentor texts come into play. A week is spent carefully reading and analyzing numerous examples of high-quality work. These might be examples from previous students, excerpts from books, or texts from newspapers, magazines, or other print-based resources. Depending on the end goal, mentor texts can also take the form of TED Talks, podcasts, videos, infographics, or other visual texts.

The first reading, listening, or viewing of the text is almost always just for enjoyment. Then we dig in. I ask, “What do you notice?” and students work collaboratively or independently to review the text a second time highlighting and annotating along the way. Once students have combed through the text, we discuss paragraph by paragraph or scene by scene pointing out the moves the author made. When students fail to notice what I want them to see, I simply point it out asking them to highlight or note those components on their own copies.

These mentor texts serve as a jumping off point for students. They give them a chance to see how respected authors use different types of attention grabbers to hook their reader. They help them see varying ways to effectively explain their evidence in a CER. They make it clear how headings and other informational text structures can help their readers better understand a concept. When students look at that daunting blank page and ask me where to start, I can remind them of the mentor texts we’ve examined and invite them to try mimicking the moves of those authors. As educators, we must not only give our students the chance to see great work, but we must also take the time to read that work through the eyes of a writer, historian, scientist, or mathematician to help our learners write like the experts.

Jessica Weibler has been a middle school ELA teacher for 7 years in the Chicago suburbs. She is passionate about literacy and currently holds a degree in middle level education along with a reading specialist degree. Jessica advocates for middle school students as a board member for the Association of Illinois Middle Schools and through adjunct work at a local university.