What the Heck is a Mentor Text?

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My colleague is an incredible English teacher and for the past couple of years she has been teaching her students to write well by letting them explore examples of great writing, mentor texts. When she needs to teach them about introductions, she lets them read texts with dynamite introductions. When she needs them to focus on adding detail, she lets them read texts that are written with tons of interesting detail. When her business and technical writing class needed to write resumes, they read great resumes. The best part of reading mentor texts is that they don’t just copy a writer’s style, they find traits they like in a variety of texts and try to make them their own.

I wanted to bring this idea to my Spanish 4 classes. These are students who have been building proficiency through LOTS of input for 3 years and are now ready to begin polishing what comes out. They are no longer afraid to speak or to write, they know they’re good!  I tell them as often as possible!  Now they need to start using all those seeds I planted along the way to grow into high intermediate and low advanced proficiencies.

How does it work? This week, as we are preparing for our final exams, we did past tense mentor texts. Remember what Laura Terrill says about grammar. If you have to teach it in L1, they aren’t ready for it. Day one was kind of a scramble because I had put everything into Nearpod and then students’ apps weren’t updated and they couldn’t access the slides because I had incorporated new features (tech is always so much fun). Since I had lost my main vehicle, we resorted to the old school method of  watching a couple of YouTube videos on the Smart board to see the “chart” and then talking, in TL, about the endings and which verbs they go with. I modeled for them how they would describe what they “used to be like” and then they wrote. 

On day 2, I used their writing as the model texts. I wanted to focus on seeing preterite and imperfect together in context so we looked specifically at passages like this: When I was 8 years old, I lived in a rural area. We had a lot of land and I liked to play outside. One day, my mind told me that I should climb a tree to play football. It said “You are 8 years old, this is a good idea”. I climbed the tree and I fell out. It was a bad idea to listen to my mind.

We went through the verbs we’d use and why, talked with the student about his experience (in TL), and just got a ton of past reps! Then they wrote about their favorite Christmas memory. I wanted to see where they were with using preterite and imperfect together. Remember, they haven’t had formal instruction on these verb names nor their charts. We have worked the endings, we have learned tons of past tense verbs in context,  and they have long been writing in the past tense based on “feeling”… but I want them to start to notice now. Some will go on to study at the university level and the reality is that they will need to be aware that their world is about to shift into a language class filled with grammar drills! I don’t want it to come as a surprise.

The third day, we talked about technology then and now. My goal for the day was to discuss what we used to use versus what we use today. This time our activity was oral but my model was still the mentor text. I gave them examples and then set them loose on Pixabay to find images that represented their past and present technology. When it was time, I modeled again with my images (a walkman and my Alexa) then let them start! They were all super cute and we got a ton of repetitions of past and present in context. The most amazing though was my student from Vietnam. She moved to the US in 6th grade and has very clear memories of her life before. For her past technology she picked a candle and talked about how her family had been so poor in Vietnam that they lived in a neighborhood without electricity. Today, she uses lightbulbs! 

Our last day was a chance to read a biography (From Vidas Impactantes by Kristy Placido). We read and then compared this historic figure with someone famous today. This is a task that often appears on ACTFL’s AAPPL exam which they will take in late February! By this time, they were really demonstrating that intermediate ability to say something wrong, hear it, correct it, and continue. 

Chances are good that you’re already using mentor texts in your classroom. My goal in the new year is to keep trying to use them in more effective and impactful ways! Happy last week of school to everyone who (like me) goes back on Monday!!

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