LearningTip #20:
Writing Mentors
For Elementary School Students


By Elizabeth Rimkunas, M.S. (Reading Education)
Reading Specialist, Riverfield Elementary School
Fairfield, CT
Mother of Three Children

 
The KidBibs Virtual Bookstore!
For the convenience of our readers, and in association with Amazon.com, KidBibs offers the following related resources for secure on-line purchase:
Children's Book
Birthday Presents by Cynthia Rylant

Teacher Resource
The Art of Teaching Writing by Lucy McCormick Calkins

Autobiographies of Children's Authors
Author: A True Story by Helen Lester
Bill Peet: An Autobiography by Bill Peet

Children's Book About Authorship
If You Were a Writer by Joan Lowery Nixon

Cynthia Rylant is an author I trust.  She is a respected author, winner of the Newbery Award.  I have read and loved Birthday Presents over and over again.  I now read this lovely book as a writer instead of a reader.  In doing so, I notice the techniques Cynthia Rylant uses in crafting this text.  I notice the length of her sentences, many are short; her reliance on pronouns; her repetitive lines that pull the story together; and the birthday cake, described on each page.  Most of all, I notice how, through the use of simple language, she conveys a beautiful message of love for a child.

Just as I have used this book to influence my own writing, the question I hope will pervade my classroom is this one:  Is there a book or author that is helping me write?  Lucy Calkins, author of The Art of Teaching Writing, says to nurture reading/writing connections in our classroom, we need to invite students to know a book or an author so well the book or author stands a chance of affecting our writing.

In an effort to nurture reading/writing connections, it is time for me to rethink the teaching of author studies.  I share biographical information including author interviews on tape, unload an ever-growing collection of the author's work, create an eye-appealing bulletin board, and have my second graders write letters to the author.   I have all the fun: I have chosen the author.  Something is missing.  Primarily, I have forgotten that the purpose of a whole-class author study is to encourage students to conduct one of their own.  Herein lies the potential for mentor text. 

When we help students make reading/writing connections, they view themselves as writers of literature.  To deliberately adopt the strategies the mentor author uses, the student needs to believe he, too, is crafting a piece of literature that will be read by real readers (Calkins 1994, p. 280).  Our young authors already have the belief that they are authors; now we need to give them the tools and the community to support their efforts.

The writer's workshop is modeled after how real authors write.  One important thing we know that authors do is set up apprenticeships.  They are influenced and inspired by their heroes, their contemporaries and ones they idolized as children.  Therefore, it is natural that we replicate this in our writer's workshop.   Our writer's workshop provides young writers with a number of opportunities:

*  Time to read and experience a wide variety of literature selections, authors, writing styles, and literary genre. Surround the children with literature.  Provide children with plenty of time to read books that they've selected.  Allow children to read books over and over again.  This is how readers get to know authors.

*  Time to write.   Students take time to write.  They need time to collect "seeds" in their writers' notebooks.  In time, they will choose a "seed" to nurture, draft, revise, edit, and publish. Further, in order for children to invest themselves in their writing, they must be allowed to choose their own topic, storyline, and direction with their piece of writing.  Giving the child ownership is critical to her development as a good writer.

*  Purposeful and planful teaching. A touchstone text is the way I introduce my students to writing mentors.  After we have read the book, I use mini-lessons to help children learn about the author's style.  Each mini-lesson is devoted to one aspect of the touchstone text.  I can guide them to see qualities such as structure, voice, language, and theme.  Our goal becomes to talk well about good writing.  I want students to ask themselves, "What am I noticing?" and "What do I love about this part?"  While they're reading, they underline and highlight words, phrases, lines, and paragraphs.  Perhaps they can recall an occasion when another author crafted in the same way.  Students can look for examples of this technique in their own writing.  Lucy Calkins confirms, "Unless children are conscious of an author's techniques when they read, it is hard to imagine that they will deliberately borrow these techniques when they write."  Then we will see if we can name what the author has done (his crafting technique) and wonder why he did it.   We use a notebook to give the author's particular technique a try.  In a sharing session concluding the day's writing workshop, we can celebrate our efforts.

*  Mentor author and touchstone text.   Despite how much I love a piece, it may not become a touchstone text with a particular class.  If I read it well, perhaps it may!  Touchstone texts emerge, though they have qualities in common:

When a touchstone text emerges following repeated readings, model how to discuss the author's style and draw students into the discussion.  The touchstone text is an opportunity for the class to work around a text.  Meanwhile, we move each child toward selecting her own mentor author.  During conferences with students, one of the ways I will teach is to send a child to an author who I believe would be an appropriate mentor.  I will continue to praise children with sincere comments such as "This sounds like something that Cynthia Rylant might have written.  You have chosen such simple language to tell a touching memoir," or "You tell the truth just like Jean Little."

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Parent Tips

Teacher Tips

Homeschooling Tips

Parent Tips

1.  Read to your child on a regular basis. Read a wide variety of stories, genre, styles, and authors.

2.  While you're reading to your child, stop occasionally and have your child put the story in his own words. Discuss together how the author is telling her story.   Notice how she describes a character, setting, or situation.  Pay attention to the words that the author has chosen---for example, how did she describe the dog?   How did she tell you that the dog is big?  Etc.

3.   Nurture your child's author interests. Provide him with books written by his favorite author.  Allow your child to reread books.  This is how he gets in touch with an author's style and has the potential to use this author as a writing mentor.

4.   Encourage your child to write her stories down. I recommend having her write about personal experiences.  Provide a notebook for the child to keep her stories in.  Assist your child in polishing her favorite story.  After your child has communicated her story idea, help her edit the story for publication.  Encourage your child to give a family member or friend a "literary gift" (for example, a special poem, to celebrate a birthday.) Consider having your child submit her story to a web site or magazine that publishes children's writing.  KidPub, listed on the KidBibs SuperSites page, publishes children's stories.

5.  Read and enjoy your child's stories with him. Encourage him to take the time to develop his stories (at home and at school).  Expect better writing/ideas and fewer stories.  Help your child do what authors do.

6.  Share lots of family stories with your child.  This allows your child to see story in her own life experiences.

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Teacher Tips

1.   Write.  Let your students see you as a writer.  Share your writing with them.  Use your writing experiences to help your students understand what writers do.

2.  Read.  Let your students see you as a reader. Share your preferences, observations of author's style, reactions to stories, etc. with your students.

3.  Read to your students.  While reading, stop occasionally and discuss the author's style.   Help your students understand what the author has done and how he has done it.   Engage them in talk about books and the craft of writing.

4.  Provide your students with a variety of literature experiences; help them discover different authors, writing styles, and literary genre. Allow plenty of time for free-choice reading, sharing favorites, and re-reading favorites.

5.  Allow students time to write. Help them merge their reading and writing experiences in meaningful ways.   Read The Art of Teaching Writing --New Edition by Lucy McCormick Calkins.

6.  Encourage students with similar reading interests the opportunity to meet together and discuss their reading and writing. Model ways that they can analyze and discuss the author's writing strategies.

7.  Use autobiographies and web sites of children's book authors to help children get to know their mentor authors.   Two excellent autobiographies by children's authors are listed in the KidBibs Virtual Bookstore at the top of this LearningTips article.   The Authors and Illustrators on the Web page of the Children's Literature Web Guide lists author and illustrator home pages.   Click here to go to Cynthia Rylant's Home Page--it includes a photo scrapbook, information about her life, a list of her books, and things that make her happy.

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Homeschooling Tips

1.   Write.  Let your child see you writing---not just teaching writing.  Use your writing experiences to help  your child understand what writers do.

2.  Read.  Let your child see you reading---not just teaching reading.  Share your preferences, observations of author's style, etc. with  your child.

3.  Read to your child.  While reading, stop occasionally and discuss the author's style.   Help your child understand what the author has done and how she has done it.

4.  Provide your child with a variety of literature experiences; help them discover different authors, writing styles, and literary genre.  Allow plenty of time for free-choice reading, sharing of favorites, and re-reading of favorites.

5.  Allow students time to write. Help them merge their reading and writing experiences in meaningful ways.   Read The Art of Teaching Writing--New Edition by Lucy McCormick Calkins.

6.  Provide your child with an opportunity to meet with other homeschooled children to discuss literature, writing style, etc.  Encourage children to share their favorite books and authors.  Model how to share observations about writing style.  Move each child toward selecting his own writing mentor and touchstone text.  Help children merge their reading and writing experiences in their discussion and their writing.

7.  Use autobiographies and web sites of children's book authors to help children get to know their mentor authors.   Two excellent autobiographies by children's authors are listed in the KidBibs Virtual Bookstore at the top of this LearningTips article.   An Authors and Illustrators on the Web page of the Children's Literature Web Guide lists author and illustrator home pages.   Click here to go to Cynthia Rylant's Home Page--it includes a photo scrapbook, information about her life, a list of her books, and things that make her happy.

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Works Cited

Calkins, Lucy McCormick. 1994.  The Art of Teaching Writing--New Edition. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books.

The Reading and Writing Project. 1998.  Upper Grade Handout Packet.  The Sixteenth Annual Summer Institute on the Teaching of Writing.   NY:  Teacher's College, Columbia University.

Rylant, Cynthia. 1987.   Birthday Presents. New York: Orchard Books.

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http://www.kidbibs.com/

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