Mentor texts for school (and life).

Don’t you just read a book sometimes, even just a passage of a book, or a sentence, and think – by jinogoes that is well crafted…I wish I’d written that? I am regularly writing other author’s words in my writer’s notebook to help spark my own creativity, or think about things in a different way, or pay tribute to the beauty of words when they are carefully combined.

This is one of the reasons we read after all, to be transported, by an author’s words, to a different time, space or feeling. When you really stop and think about it – writing is magical. I don’t mean it happens magically. We all know it happens only through the persistence of an author to slog through drafts and re-writes to capture exactly the vision in their mind. But I do mean that it has a magical impact on the reader.

It’s often said that writers must first be readers. They need to be exposed to a host of different styles of writing, genres and perspectives. Writers, like any other profession, need to be around those who already excel in the field. You wouldn’t send teachers into classrooms until they’d completed placements to observe professionals teach. You wouldn’t send a trainee doctor into surgery until they’d completed medical rounds and watched and assisted established surgeons first. Equally it is difficult to conceive of a writer crafting a work capable of transformative effects on a reader unless they’d spent substantial time in the company of such books by such authors.

This is why mentor texts are so important. Mentor texts are the gateway for students to spend meaningful time with authors. Listening to, discussing and recreating aspects of other author’s works is critical for students to see what the craft of writing is truly about and, when done well, what it is capable of.

Today I visited a Year 6 class. Their classroom teacher asked me to read a picture story book to them called The Island and allow them time to write an authentic response to the story. Before we began we talked about what an ‘authentic response’ was and what questions we could ask ourselves in order to develop our response. Everyone was set to go. I invited students to sit on the floor, closer to the book if they wanted to, and about half the students took up this offer.

I began to read. If you haven’t read or used The Island in class I highly recommend it, only for upper school students as the themes are mature. It is deeply thought-provoking.

The Island by Armin Greder is one of John Marsden’s top 10 picture books of all time. What a recommendation!

The combination of haunting pictures and a cruelly familiar storyline ensured that our discussion was robust and impacted the student’s first thinking. The story revolves around a stranger who arrives on an island, naked, on a raft. The island’s villagers are very wary of him and disagree on how best to ‘handle’ the visitor. Rumours start to fly about the stranger who they’ve caged in an empty goat’s pen.

‘He will come and eat you if you don’t finish your soup,’ a mother warned her child.

‘The children are scared of him,’ lamented the school teacher that night at the inn.

‘I am sure he would murder us all if he could,’ said the policeman.

‘Foreigner Spreads Fear in Town’ said the newspaper in big, black letters.

The authenticity of the dialogue and the clear text to world connections allowed the students to access a host of prior knowledge before creating and debating their own response to the book. While some students initially felt that the villagers had been ‘nice’ to let the stranger stay, other students disagreed, citing the language of hate and fear they employed in their discussion about the stranger. It was so interesting to observe students re-evaluate their initial thoughts as more points and further evidence was laid out by their peers. Many students originally thought that the villagers final, cruel reaction was ‘overkill’ and an unrealistic interpretation of humanity. Until other students pointed out the parallels between the story and real world examples like Nauru, and Trump’s border wall.

Using a picture story book like this to discuss how author’s strive to select and arrange their words in just the right manner to elicit deep thinking and encourage a shift of mindset, is more effective than 50 lessons of just talking about the craft of writing. We have to expose ourselves and our students to texts like this every day, or as often as possible, to show them what excellent writing looks like, sounds like, and what it does to the reader.

I hope you’ve all had a beautiful day full of meaningful words, organised just so. Time now for a cup of tea and another flick through Armin Greder’s incredible book. xx

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