Step Away from the Red Pen - Part 5: Feedback Using Mentor Texts

Here’s what it used to sound like when I used mentor texts in my writing workshop early on:

Me: Take a look at this piece from Cynthia Rylant. Do you see how she used figurative language in her writing?  You should use figurative language just like Cynthia Rylant. Off you go!

My students: I don’t get it (a glazed look in their eyes and a wrinkle of confusion above their noses).

I realized my feedback when using a mentor text was ambiguous and therefore confusing for some and frustrating for many others. I reflected on why this was happening. There were a few things I needed to do to make my mentor texts a strong tool for feedback.

  1. My students needed to read it like a writer, which meant they needed to read it like a reader many, many times before it became a text to study closely for writing techniques.
  2. My students needed only a handful of mentor texts, not a different one for every lesson I taught. I needed to have two or three go-to texts that we knew inside and out.
  3. I needed to not only name the technique the author was using but also explain and demonstrate the strategy that the author (likely) used. This was the trickiest part for me so I created a step by step process. I follow this process whenever I am using a mentor text.

Here’s what I do. First, let’s take a look at one small excerpt from one of my favorite informational texts: Oh Yikes!  The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty by Joy Masoff. This comes from the section entitled Dastardly Dentistry. Take a moment to read it (and be shocked or maybe a bit grossed out by the content). 


Credit: Oh Yikes! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty by Joy Masoff


I suspect that after reading this selection you experienced why it is essential to experience mentor texts like a reader first.  The best writing is that which you cannot resist reacting to! Now that we have gotten that out of our system, we can prepare it as a mentor text. Here are the steps I follow:

  1. Study a selection as a writer, looking for techniques that the author use that we as writers might try as well.
  2. Describe the strategy that the author used.
  3. Name it as a step by step and jot it down.

Here’s my thinking process when preparing “What Time is It? Tooth Hurty!” as a mentor text.

  • I noticed that Joy Masoff used a mixture of shocking facts and everyday language. Specifically, she listed some facts about her subtopic and then chose when to add in language like “rat brain gum”, “average Joe”, and “folks.”
  • Since I don’t know exactly what Joy Masoff’s process was, I made one up! I imagined what she did to include specific, shocking facts and then bring in everyday language. I listed this as a step-by-step to share with students so they can replicate the process. The strategy is the key to making feedback with a mentor text practical.

Writing strategy for Oh Yikes! The Encyclopedia of Everything Nasty

Let’s try it again, this time with a simpler text. I love to use the Houndsley and Catina series by James Howe with lower grades. This excerpt comes from Houndsley and Catina and the Quiet Time. Take a moment to read it and think about what James Howe does to create pauses for the reader.


From Houndsley and Catina by James Howe


Maybe you noticed the first sentence standing all on its own without a bunch of other sentences with it. This makes the first sentence stand out.  Now we need to imagine what James Howe did to create that pause for us. Since we don’t really know, we can imagine what his process was.  Maybe it was:

  1. James thought that the first sentence of his story was the most important and he wanted it to stand out.
  2. James decided that white space around an important sentence makes it stand out.
  3. He wrote down the sentence and then did not follow it immediately with other sentences.  Instead, he left white space and then wrote a few sentences together. 

Here is the strategy that I might share with writers:


Writing strategy for Houndsley and Catina


In this series of blog posts on feedback, notice there was not a red pen needed. Feedback that works does not require a red pen approach, though it can be simple and practical for both the teacher and the writer. I hope this series inspires you to keep the writer at the center of your feedback as you take on the role of mentor writer in your classroom community.