“Sharing examples of stellar student work is a time-honored tradition for helping students understand how to improve, but new research suggests that, in some cases, it can turn off struggling students.” Study: Showing Students Standout Work Can Backfire: Education Week, By Sarah Sparks Education Week Feb. 16, 2016
True story: My seventh grade English teacher introduced us to poetry by reciting “Paul Revere’s Ride” while galloping around the room. “That, children is a poem,” she breathlessly proclaimed. “Your homework is to write a poem.” It was like showing us a multilayered wedding cake, then handing us a pile of eggs and a bag of flour and telling us to go for it. I wanted to write like Longfellow, but it was so far out of reach that instead I copied a poem out of a book and turned it in. I got caught. What can I say? Desperate situations lead to bad choices.
There’s a bit of magical thinking around the whole topic of mentor text, particularly when it comes to poetry. Roll a cart of poetry books into the classroom and kids will naturally blossom as poets, no instruction needed. While it was discouraging enough for me to try and emulate a dead poet, according to Sparks’ research, it would have been worse if the writing target had come from a classmate. It probably would have been some cheerleader. I can feel myself curling up like a water bug just thinking about it.
Co-create Mentor Text
Indeed, we begin every writing session by sharing a sample by a professional writer. But quickly we move on to bumble through the process of co-creating our own Version 1. We make mistakes and encourage risk taking (after all, it’s just Version 1). We work together through the messy process of assigning words to our ideas, bringing in ideas from all directions, tossing some out as being clichéd, prioritizing information. Then, and only then, do we ask kids to try it on their own or with a partner. Co-creating encourages an “I can do that,” atmosphere in the classroom.
Below is a wordy, rambling Version 1 of a poem using personification written with eighth grade students at Eastlake Middle School in OH. Often first drafts have tense issues or point of view mix-ups. We acknowledge we are making mistakes along the way.
Later we work together to do a little trimming on our co-created Version 1. Then we invite students to do some trimming of their own work. The next step would be to rearrange things, make the poem our own. Add artistic writing elements.
Finally, students share their own Version 2s., talking through the process as a writing community. Little steps, improving our communication skills, sampling each other’s concoctions. Not those stilted cakes with fancy frosting swirls and tiers, but the best kind of cakes. The ones with dents and crumbly parts. The ones we make on our own.