The power of using student writing as mentor texts

“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.

MentorText_pg 126

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.

MentorText_pg 127

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.”

Kiana sample 1

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.

Kiana sample 2 copy

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.


We Can DoThisLearn 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.

Add comment August 31st, 2017

A welcome from Lynne and Rose

We mentioned earlier on this blog that Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli, authors of Mentor Texts and Nonfiction Mentor Texts started a new blog and website recently. Lynne and Rose wanted to personally welcome Stenhouse readers to their new venture, so here is a brief message from them:

Setting up a website and blog was something we have wanted to do for a long time. We have met so many wonderful teachers in the past few years that have come to our conference presentations or workshops in schools and who asked for ways to keep in touch with us. So, with a little help from colleague Kate Tiedeken, we have taken the dive into technology.

At the heart of Mentor Texts with Lynne and Rose ( is our blog. Each of us has a separate blog space where we can share our thinking on a variety of topics and let readers in on our current personal and professional experiences. We hope this space will help us dialogue with teachers to share ideas and reflections.

Two of the most popular features of our books, the Your Turn lessons and the Treasure Chest of Books, are also a part of our site. In Books Too Good to Miss we will be reviewing new books we come across and discussing how they might be used for writing or reading lessons. Of course, new books (and even some old ones we look at with new eyes) lead to new writing lessons that we will share with our readers as well. From time to time we will also review professional books on the teaching of writing or reading.

From time to time we will also give readers a glimpse into our writing notebooks – memories that are sparked, writing we are trying out, thinking we are engaging in or reflecting on.  Hopefully, our writing will spark an idea or thought that our readers can write from or try out themselves.

We hope you will visit our site to gain practical tips for writing workshop and be encouraged to write in your own notebooks. Teachers of writers are teachers who write. Please join us in our conversations!

Add comment January 19th, 2012

Quick Tip Tuesday: Good beginnings

In their recent book Mentor Texts, Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli show teachers how to use literature to help students become confident, accomplished writers. In this Quick Tip, Lynne and Rose talk about mentor texts for writing beginnings.

For all writers, the lead—the first sentence, the first paragraph, or the first several paragraphs that begin the story—is absolutely crucial. E. B. White wrote more than a dozen leads for Charlotte’s Web before he settled on a question written in dialogue form. His entire first chapter captivates the reader as Fern engages in a mental battle—a heated debate with her father—to save the runt, Wilbur, one of the story’s main characters.

The common ingredients of a good beginning include creating the mood by establishing the setting; information about the main character that reveals his hopes, thoughts, and feelings; and at least a hint of the problem, goal, or direction of the story. It’s like receiving an invitation to a party where you expect to have a wonderful time. Revisiting mentor texts can provide students with examples of well-crafted beginnings that they can try out with their own stories.

Linda Oatman High’s beginning for The Girl on the High-Diving Horse makes us feel like we are there in Atlantic City, in 1936, with the main characters, seeing it for the first time. She does this by including a rich description of setting that uses proper nouns and appeals to the senses. We know immediately how Ivy (the main character) is feeling.

Other books that begin by painting a picture of setting in the reader’s mind are Angels in the Dust by Margot Theis Raven, Wingwalker by Rosemary Wells, and Owl Moon by Jane Yolen. Another favorite of ours is Tulip Sees America by Cynthia Rylant because the entire book is basically a series of rich descriptions of setting.

The beginning is also a writer’s chance to create a mood through the description of the setting. Consider these two beginnings that create a feeling of loneliness:
“Alejandro’s small adobe house stood beside a lonely desert road. Beside the house stood a well, and a windmill to pump water from the well. Water for Alejandro and his only companion, a burro. It was a lonely place, and Alejandro welcomed any who stopped by to refresh themselves at the well. But visitors were few, and after they left, Alejandro felt lonelier than before.”
( from Alejandro’s Gift by Richard E. Albert)

“Amber lived on a mountain so high, it poked through the clouds like a needle stuck in down. Trees bristled on it like porcupine quills. And the air made you giddy—it was that clear. Still, for all that soaring beauty, Amber was lonesome. For mountain people lived scattered far from one another.”
( from Amber on the Mountain by Tony Johnston)

Students can imitate these beginnings—first, in their writer’s notebooks—or they can simply try them out. Lynne often begins by asking her students to make a list of settings. Then she asks them to choose a setting and try to describe it through their senses, keeping in mind the mood they wish to create. Often she returns to Amber on the Mountain because it is a mentor text and the children are familiar with it. Sometimes it is easier for students to start with Tony Johnston’s beginning, placing Amber in a different setting, rather than composing one from scratch. Jessica, a fourth grader, chose to put Amber on an island:
“Amber lived on an island so small it stood in the deep-dark sea like a lost whale. Palm trees tangled on it like monkey tails. And the coconuts made you giddy—they were that delightful. Still, for all the spectacular sights, one thing put Amber in her darkest mood. There were few hut-like houses near hers—less friends, more tears.”

Some students will return to a previously written piece and revise their beginnings to add a description of setting that also creates mood. This strategy of using the author’s syntax is described in detail in Your Turn Lesson 1 at the end of Chapter 9.

Often authors begin a book with a description of the main character. Sometimes, they include a physical description as Judith Schachner does in The Grannyman:
“Simon was a very old cat. With the exception of his nose, most of his parts had stopped working long ago. He was blind and deaf, and his bones creaked as he climbed up and down the stairs.”

Sometimes they talk about the characters’ likes, dislikes, or traits. In Amazing Grace, Mary Hoffman opens with a description of what her main character loves:
“Grace was a girl who loved stories. She didn’t mind if they were read to her or told to her or made up in her own head. She didn’t care if they were in books or movies or out of Nana’s long memory. Grace just loved stories.”

In The Recess Queen by Alexis O’Neill, the main character is described through a trait:
“Mean Jean was Recess Queen and nobody said any different. Nobody swung until Mean Jean swung. Nobody kicked until Mean Jean kicked. Nobody bounced until Mean Jean bounced.”

Sometimes an author even begins with what other people say about the characters as Jerry Spinelli does in Maniac Magee:
“They say Maniac Magee was born in a dump. They say his stomach was a cereal box and his heart a sofa spring. They say he kept an eight-inch cockroach on a leash and that rats stood guard over him while he slept. They say if you knew he was coming and you sprinkled salt on the ground and he ran over it, within two or three blocks he would be as slow as everybody else. They say.”

Add comment March 8th, 2011

Questions & Authors: Taking writing outdoors

The outdoors is not just for science classes anymore. Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli, authors of Mentor Texts and Nonfiction Mentor Texts, offer some ideas for allowing students to discover nature through writing, sketches, and poetry. Children have a natural curiosity about colors and change and harvesting this energy makes for “joyous learning” and creates artist-writers with keen observation skills.

As teachers of writing, we recognize the benefits of extending our classrooms into the great outdoors – whether that is an urban, suburban, or rural setting – and allowing our students to rediscover the intricate complexities of nature with eyes of the artist-writer. With great joy, students take their nature journals to sketch, record observations, create poetry, or to write simple truths. Often such excursions outdoors occur in the spring, when teachers and students are itching to answer nature’s invitation. One of the advantages of keeping a nature journal throughout the school year is to be able to compare the subtle or sometimes more dramatic changes that occur with each season. There is as well, a comfort in knowing that change is expected, accepted, and can be quite beautiful.

We’d like to suggest two books that can serve as mentor texts to set the stage for a study of color in nature. Nature’s Paintbox: A Seasonal Gallery of Art and Verse by Patricia Thomas (2005) explores the seasons with specificity of color and word. Beginning with winter, penned in black and white, Thomas recreates each season with extraordinary description and insight.  Her craft is filled with specific nouns and verbs, hyphenated adjectives, use of ellipses and dashes, variations in print, and wonderful rhymes and rhythms. Consider her extraordinary explanation of the pastel colors of spring:

blurry, furry,
baby-chick, baby-duck colors…
fresh-green-fuzzy, baby-leaf,
baby-fern colors…
soft colors, showing slowly,
perhaps so the surprise
of color in a black-white world
won’t hurt your eyes.

Red Sings from Treetops: a Year in Colors by Joyce Sidman (2009) explores how colors paint the landscapes differently depending on the season.  Notice how the writer paints green:

Green is queen
in summer.
Green trills from trees,
clings to Pup’s knees,
covers all with leaves,
leaves, leaves!…

Green is tired,
crisp around the edges.

Sidman’s text invites the reader/soon-to-be writer to savor words such as dolloped, squishy, lustrous, cerulean, sequined.  Her use of alliteration, personification, exact adjectives, onomatopoeia, colons, ellipses, and hyphenated adjectives make this text desirable for any age level.

Invite your students to compare and contrast both the text and the artwork in these books and think about ways the authors’ observations of the seasons could help them to shape their own thinking.

As students participate in their “outdoor” classrooms, a few guidelines will make their experience more rewarding and productive.  Here are some practical tips:

  • Take a tour of the area students will be using and talk about some possibilities for keen observation.
  • Invest in clipboards for your students so they can write in their books while standing or even leaning against a post or wall.
  • Visit local paint stores to acquire sample color strips that students can use to match the subjects of their observations to a specific shade.
  • Model how they can study one object from several vantage points. It would be a good idea to do a sketch here as well and include some labeling  (You can share this drawing when you go back inside)
  • Tell them you will be observing them, perhaps taking candid shots for a “Nature’s Walk” bulletin board display or to be included as black-and-white prints for their own nature journals. You could also create a videotape.
  • Perhaps suggest trying to write in the persona of the object the writer is describing (My Light by Molly Bang, Sierra by Diane Siebert, and Voices of the Wild by Jonathan London are some good mentor texts for this purpose).
  • Consider a rule of no talking in the outdoor classroom.  Students should save the talk for inside when they are able to compare notes, drawings, and interesting observations and descriptions.          

Searching for specific hues and tones satisfies the natural curiosity about color that children have from an early age. It helps students develop specificity in their writing and fosters a deeper appreciation of the world around them.  It is joyous learning!

1 comment August 13th, 2009

Podcast: Using nonfiction to engage kids

“School situations should mirror what’s happening in the real world, and kids should be writing real-world stuff–they shouldn’t just be writing for their teachers…nonfiction opens up that range of possibilities.”

We recorded our latest Author Conversations podcast with Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli, authors of Nonfiction Mentor Texts, at the IRA Convention in Minneapolis. Listen as Lynne and Rose talk about how nonfiction engages kids and how mentor texts build on this engagement by showcasing the passion and voice of nonfiction authors in a wide range of genres.

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Add comment May 18th, 2009

Poetry Friday: What is Purple?

Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli use My Many Colored Days, Color Me a Rhyme, and My World of Color, along with other poetry books to help their students think about and make connections to colors in their own poetry. These poetry books help children think about colors not just as something they see, but something that also involves smells, sounds, tastes, and feelings.

In Mentor Texts: Teaching Writing Through Children’s Literature K-6, Lynne and Rose share a poem created by a group of third-grade students about the color purple.

What is Purple?
Purple is a violet singing a sweet, sleepy lullabye.
It is the taste of grape jelly spread on warm wheat toast.
The purple smell is the night sky on April Fool’s Day.
Medicine trickling down your throat is a purple feeling.
Purple explodes in your mouth like Fourth of July fireworks.

The full moon on a misty May night has a purple glow.
Purple is a forgetful two-year-old with a mind of his own.
It is the shy feeling that hides deep inside your heart.

Also check out Lynne and Rose’s new book, Nonfiction Mentor Texts: Teaching Informational Writing Through Children’s Literature, K-8.

1 comment May 15th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Finding the small moments that inspire great writing

Student and writers are often told to write what they know about. “This sounds deceptively simple until it is tried,” writes Mark Overmeyer in his book, When Writing Workshop Isn’t Working. “What do we know?” He suggests that the most obvious place to point students is their own lives. Students might feel that they are too young to write a memoir or look back at their childhood while they are still in it, but with the help of mentor texts teachers can guide students to find the small moments in their lives that are worth writing about.

Many children’s authors write memoir very effectively. The most effective titles I have used to model the idea that stories come from very small moments include Owl Moon by Jane Yolen and Fireflies by Julie Brinckloe. Both of these books are deceptively simple. Before I introduce Fireflies, I tell students that Brinckloe could have written the entire book in one sentence: I saw a bunch of fireflies and caught them and then let them go. I then ask them to listen carefully to see how the author stretches the story to make it interesting for the reader. Owl Moon and Fireflies help students to see that they have stories in their own lives and that they can begin looking for small moments to write about.

One way to convince students they can write effective memoirs, and even enjoy it, is to maximize the chances for success during short mini-lessons. Think of an experience you can share that may resonate with the students in your class. I often tell the story about taking care of my friend’s cat, Milo. Milo stayed at my apartment, and one day when I went home I couldn’t find him. I had done laundry early in the morning in the laundry room down the hall, and I worried that he had gotten out and I didn’t notice. I describe looking for him everywhere, and then finally discovering him playing with the soap in the bathtub. This moment works well as a story because I can add many details about looking for the cat, and I can describe my feelings of worry and relief. The texts mentioned above, Owl Moon and Fireflies, are gently emotional pieces that I have found students can identify with. I intentionally avoid big moments: weddings attended, birth of a brother or sister, or death. These are very appropriate for a memoir, but for helping students to feel they have something to say in a short amount of time, these topics tend to be too large.
After sharing my story, I ask students for some title ideas. “Missing Milo” or “Where’s the Cat?” work better as titles than “The Cat” because they help limit the time frame to just a few minutes. I ask students to think about a story they might write about, and then to share titles. Putting a few of these titles on the board is normally enough to get everyone started, and then I let students write.

Below is a sample of some titles for small moment stories from different grade level groups:

“Where’d She Go?” – a fifth grader’s story about losing her sister when she was supposed to be babysitting.
“Scavenger Hunt” – a fifth grader’s story about cleaning up after the dogs in the backyard.
“Frosting Trouble” – a second grader’s story about licking all the frosting off the cake at her birthday party.

Sometimes, students want to tell your story instead of focusing on their own. I have worked in many classrooms, and unless I am very specific, I can receive four or five stories about trying to find a pet cat, and invariably, the cat ends up being in the bathtub, playing with the soap. I tell students that they can tell a story about a pet, but they must focus on a different set of details.

“Your story cannot be about finding your car in the bathtub,” I tell them, “even if this really happened. Think of something else you can tell me about your cat.”

Below is a story by Dorion, a third-grade student at Sunrise Elementary:

Once I had a cat and I took the cat food out of the cabinet and took the cookies out of the pot and I put the cat food in the pot and the cat had the cookies. Then my brother Michael asked my mom if he could have a cookie. And my mom said yes. And my brother reached into the pot and he said mom the cookies are all mushy something went wrong. And he took some out and ate it and he said it was bad and it tasted like kitty food.

Dorion’s story is about something that happened in just a few minutes. He writes with detail from the very beginning, and the ending we anticipated makes us laugh when we get there. Dorion was successful because he chose a moment in his life that he can remember, and he is able to create a story from it.
Not all successful writing experiences have to come from student’s lives. I have used many different writing activities over the years to spark student interest and confidence in writing.

Add comment February 3rd, 2009

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