If teachers need a model for inexpensive, authentic and game-changing writing instruction, they should look no further than the big box Swedish household goods and furniture company Ikea.
Ingvar Kamprad, the company’s founder, created a brilliant formula: Take your average homeowners, invite them into a vast and winding labyrinth of well-designed and appointed model rooms, then make recreating those rooms simple, affordable and satisfying.
Even the most design-challenged seeker of the latest in home fashion comes away from the experience a little more Kelly Wearstler and a little less Edith Bunker.
Kamprad’s genius? He understood not only the power of mentors but also the ways in which humans instinctively and intuitively seek them out. His billion-dollar corporation, then, is a mentor for décor.
In fact, there are few aspects of our lives in which we don’t naturally seek out mentors. Fashion magazines help us choose the five “must-have” seasonal wardrobe pieces and teach us how to mix and match them; delicious restaurant meals turn us into weekend-warrior cooks seeking to make that perfect soufflé (and chefs cash in on this penchant when they publish “Sunday Suppers at Lucques” or “Chez Panisse Café Cookbook”); home and garden stores line their aisles with enviable planter boxes exploding with thrillers, fillers and spillers — shade or sun, you decide.
The formula is the same every time: Provide a well-crafted mentor, give people the time and opportunity to observe and study, then offer up the tools and materials for DIY.
And that’s exactly what mentor texts drawn from real-world sources can provide our students. I only wish I’d figured that out sooner.
A Revelation 20 Years Into My Career
I spent years, probably the first 20 of my 27 in the classroom, dutifully ticking the boxes of my school district’s writing scope-and-sequence.
Informational-writing assignments were research papers on topics ancillary to the novel I was teaching. Personal writing was the college essay. Argument writing was a researched piece following the classical model. And let’s not forget the grand crus of ELA — the literary analysis. This writing assignment, the English teacher’s gold standard, concluded nearly every literature unit I taught, serving as the capstone writing and reading experience.
I do not think I was alone.
In districts that heard the writing-across-the-curriculum call and answered earnestly, as ours has tried, students might be treated additionally to writing letters to a congressperson in social studies, cutting and pasting together an STD brochure in health, or doing a research report on Marie Curie in science.
But students rarely experience being allowed to write with voice, choice and authenticity in school because we rarely ask them to compose that way.
My motivation to rethink how I interpreted our scope-and-sequence came when I realized my students were bored with what they were writing and so was I. But at the same time, our reading choices were more vital and varied than ever before. From new sources of global fiction to experimental, cross-genre forms of nonfiction to the explosion of online publishing venues — whether casual daily personal blogs or erudite poetry journals — I realized there was a lot more out there than we were taking advantage of.
My classroom of writers was looking tired and worn. I knew I had to offer them more.
The New York Times as a Weekly Source for Writing Inspiration
I have come to understand that when we ignore the fruitful bounty of mentor texts we not only rob our students of their natural human instinct to seek out texts that matter to them, but we also disassociate their writing experiences from the one of the chief reasons writers write — to communicate with others in the real world.
The writing scope-and-sequence in my classroom, then, transformed from a traditional curriculum map into a mentor map, and the source I’ve turned to most often has been The Times. With its well-crafted articles on high-interest, timely and wide-ranging topics and genres, it is a regular source of inspiration.
My colleagues Jennifer Tannous, William Melvin and I have used The Times to create writing experiences in our 10th grade, 11th grade and AP English classrooms that allow students to practice and master the required writing skills — but now via texts that are much more diverse, authentic and exciting.
Here are 16 examples, but by the time you read this we may have experimented with many more.
Times Informative and Explanatory Mentors
“Letter of Recommendation” in The Times Magazine
Letter of Recommendation celebrates “the overlooked and the unappreciated.” Students write their own after reading models on everything from dog tricks to washing dishes, stuffed animals and Old English.
“What _______ Can’t Travel Without” from the Travel section
Students can use this column, about what well-known people like Janelle Monáe, Bill Nye, RuPaul and Megan Rapinoe take with them while traveling, to write their own; interview another student and write about his or her travel needs; or even write one for a character in a novel they are reading.
The “Sunday Routine” column in the Metropolitan section
Students write about their own “Sunday routine,” using examples like “How 50 Cent, Rapper and Actor, Spends His Sundays.” (Note: For an example of how another teacher uses this column, check out this Learning Network Reader Idea.)
“Modern Love” from the Times Style section
Students write their own “Modern Love” piece by telling the story of an important relationship, romantic or otherwise, in their own lives. They can also learn from the “Tiny Love Stories” feature, which is “Modern Love in miniature, featuring reader-submitted stories of no more than 100 words.”
The Possibilities Are Limitless
While the list above represents writing experiences students have had in my classroom and in some of my colleagues’ classrooms in the English department at Central Bucks High School South, the possibilities for mentor texts from The Times, as well as from other real-world sources, are limitless.
For example, another of my colleagues, Ken Bui, spent some time this semester with his AP Language and Composition students studying the Trader Joe’s weekly circular Fearless Flyer for interesting syntax patterns and other inventive uses of words and language to create a desired tone and voice. (See? Shopping can be a professional development tool.)
In fact, once students begin digging into real-world mentor texts, they start to see that the writing categories they learn in school are artificial and limited. For example, the infographic-writing experience I’ve slotted into the opinion section above could just as easily be in the informative category, depending on the particular skill or skills the teacher is hoping to foreground. Likewise, the review assignment could certainly fulfill skills in the opinion category depending on what the teacher would like to emphasize.
But regardless of the mentor text or the targeted skills, the methodology stays the same. Students study a mentor carefully, taking it apart to see how it works. They identify, examine and discuss numerous examples from the text, noting everything from organization and structure to content elements specific to the genre, to stylistic and rhetorical tools aligned with the voice and tone, to myriad other writerly features that link with the desired scope-and-sequence skills.
To do this, students might annotate texts, imitate smaller sections of texts over a series of days, or analyze specific writing skills — such as studying a particular type of punctuation mark or looking at purpose statements — using the mentor texts as samples. Then, students get to work, making choices about what their own texts will include and what featured elements from the mentors they want to imitate.
You bet. We’re back at Ikea.
Imagine the writing-class version of your students spread out in their living rooms, parts scattered in an organized way around them, photos and instructions taped to a nearby wall, wrench in hand.
Soon, you will have thrown away the 30 literary analysis papers on “The House of Mirth” and will have entered a house where each room brings a new and different surprise — and lots of stylish comfort.