“Nothing motivates like peer models,” says Janiel Wagstaff, author of the recent book We Can Do This! Student Mentor Texts That Teach and Inspire. In this guest post she shares one example of how a peer model influenced other writers in the classroom.
The Power of Using Student Writing as Peer Mentor Texts for Teaching: One Story
by Janiel Wagstaff
A funny thing happened one day in a first grade classroom. The students were writing opinions about somethin g they would like to see changed in the school, in their classroom, at home, or anywhere they felt change was needed. As I was circulating, checking in with writers, acknowledging the positive aspects of their writing, Colby’s conclusion caught my eye.
I asked all writers to stop and give me their attention as I read Colby’s short piece aloud. When I came to the ending, I read it once, then twice. “Writers, what do you think of this conclusion?” Many students starting laughing, then talking about whether or not they like milk with their lunch. “See, writers, these few words, ‘Who’s with me?’ catch your attention and get you to think about whether or not you agree with Colby’s opinion. Seems like a good way to end an opinion piece, after all when we write opinions, we want to share them to see what people think.”
Within two minutes, Brenna had borrowed Colby’s language and ended her piece very similarly.
I read Brenna’s work aloud, as well. “Writers, this is fascinating! One writer comes up with something that works, we share and talk about it, and other writers are inspired to do the same or something similar in their pieces. Let’s talk about Brenna’s opinion. Who is with her or against the idea expressed in her opinion?”
After a brief discussion, again within just moments of resuming writing, Kiana’s conclusion showed the mark of also being highly influenced by Colby’s model. She ended her piece with, “Isn’t that funny?;” a short three-word sentence begging response from the reader or listener.
What occurred among these first grade writers within these few minutes? The power of peer models had once again done its magical work. There is no denying the effect peer models have; there is just something special about a peer’s work that immediately catches students’ attention and propels them to try similar moves in their writing. I think of it as the, “Well, I can do that, too!” mindset. The subconscious thinking might be, “If someone like me can do it, this is within my reach.” Given such affirmation, students confidently take more risks in their writing.
Opportunities abound for using the writing we have right at our fingertips; that is, the writing of our own students, for explicit instruction about skills, strategies, writing elements, and craft moves. Indeed, the following day, I more formally revisited Colby and Brenna’s pieces, pointing out under the document camera how conclusions should have purpose. We started a poster to collect examples of purposeful endings, reminding students to ‘read like writers,’ (Calkins, 1994) with eyes wide open to find the gems within the texts we read.
Having perused all the students’ opinion writing, I noticed there was one more teaching point that had immediate relevance. Many students’ pieces could be improved if they elaborated on the reason for their opinions. I asked Kiana if we could use her piece under the document camera and work on it cooperatively to explore a question about her reason. She eagerly agreed, as I find students almost always do, and another teaching point was born of student writing. When we read her piece aloud, I asked, “Writers, what question do we naturally want to ask Kiana?” A sea of hands shot up. Calvin answered, “Why? Why don’t you like your seat?” His classmates shook their heads, “Yes, why?” I jumped in, “We naturally want to know more about her reason, ‘I don’t like where I sit.’ ‘Well, why don’t you?’ If you and Kiana were having a conversation, you would ask her that. So, let’s ask her, since ultimately we want to know and knowing this will make Kiana’s opinion clearer and stronger.”
When Kiana replied, ‘Taller kids sit in front of me,’ we worked to find a logical place in her writing where she could add this elaboration. I reminded students how to use a carat, Kiana worked her piece right in front of them, then I invited them to go back and reread their piece to a partner to see if there were opportunities to make this kind of addition. Naturally, I circulated, celebrated on the spot, and the next day, we used another peer’s writing to more formally point out how the process of rereading to a partner and asking questions helped the writer improve his piece. All the students had invested; all were interested and engaged.
Using peer models for instruction creates a palpable sense of excitement within the classroom writing community. Highlighting students’ pieces in this way helps them feel valued and celebrated, like their voices and their processes matter. This boosts student-confidence and energy levels. “When students see others like themselves taking risks in their writing, persevering, problem-solving, crafting and succeeding, they become empowered. The models reassure them that they, too, are writers with important ideas to share and the ability to write well. They, too, can do this.” (Wagstaff, 2017)
Let’s take one last look at these first graders’ texts. Are they perfect? No. Do they meet the standards for first grade opinion writing? Yes, the elements of opinion writing had been introduced prior and we even pushed beyond them where it was logical to do so (elaborating on our reasons). More importantly though, they are the students’ owned expressions and they served to stimulate conversation about their thinking and writing processes. When we use students’ pieces as mentors, we’re not looking for perfection, we’re looking to simply learn from one another, while celebrating approximation.
In the end, a “funny thing” really didn’t happen in this first grade classroom. I’ve been using students’ writing as mentor texts for years. It is one of my primary “go-to” strategies for writing instruction because of its many benefits. The increased engagement along with the students’ empowerment not only boost learning and growth in writing, but drive the purposefulness and genuine caring in the writing community. This is a place where students want to be. This is a place where students grow stronger together spurred on by the magic of one another’s words on the page.
Learn much more about using students’ writing as peer mentor texts in Janiel’s book: We Can Do This: Student Mentor Texts That Teach and Inspire, K-2. It contains the work of student writers across genres, with over 70 critical teaching points that commonly occur in K-2 writing classrooms. Janiel also shares keen insight into how to use your own students’ work as mentor texts along with pointers from her career-long work with young writers.
References: Calkins, L.M. (1994). The art of teaching writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Wagstaff, J.M. 92017). We can do this! Student mentor texts that teach and inspire. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.