Mentor Texts and the NC Graduation Project

Recently, a friend and colleague who teaches 12th grade English approached me about a troubling situation.  Her students had turned in drafts of their research papers for the NC Graduation Project, and she had provided feedback to all of them on how to move forward.  One particular student became upset.  He said that he had worked really hard on his project, and he could not believe all the corrections he must make.

The teacher took what he said to heart.  She knew that he had put a lot of effort in to his paper, but it was so far from her expectations.  As an instructional coach, I know I don’t always have the answers, but I understand the power of questions.  After a few questions, I asked the one that led to our “A-ha” moment:  “Have students ever seen a completed research paper for graduation project?”  Well, they hadn’t.

This leads me to the power of using mentor texts for teaching writing.  A “mentor text” is simply a finished example of a particular genre or style of writing.  If you would like to study mentor texts more deeply, you can always check out the work of teacher/author Kelly Gallagher who has written extensively on them.  I have learned much about mentor texts from my colleague, middle school instructional coach Kendra Jarvis (@KCameronJarvis).

The teacher and I decided to collaborate by introducing the research paper when she had a new class of students during the second semester.  We asked former student authors for permission to use their completed graduation project papers for instruction.  They agreed.  We did remove their names and replaced them with fun pseudonyms.  The paper I used for the lesson I taught was on the health benefits of martial arts and written by Tony Stark.  The paper met the classroom teacher’s requirements, but it still had room for improvement.

Here is what happened in the lesson:

1.  Real Collaborative Inquiry

Instead of giving students a rubric for evaluating the paper at first or telling them what I thought about it, I asked them to work with a class mate to find (1) what was effective, (2) what recommendations they would they to the writer, and (3) what questions they had.  Students had the option of collecting their thoughts on 3-column charts or through text codes and annotations (E-effective, R-recommendations, ?-Questions).  Many students raised good questions about the format of in-text citations, and how often/where they should be used.  Some discussed ways the author could have varied his sentences after noticing a series of sentences beginning “Karate is…Karate is…Karate is….”  In addition students praised the well-crafted first paragraph, understanding that the author clearly stated his thesis and prepared the reader for the information in the paper.   Organization was also a strength.

2.  Beginning with the End in Mind

Early in the lesson, I asked the students, who have all heard about the impending graduation project since 9th grade, “Have you ever seen a finished graduation project paper?”  Not a single one had.  As Stephen Covey said, highly effective people begin with the end in mind.  These students had no idea of how the end of this long research road would look.  After reading and discussing the mentor text, I literally saw the students’ stress diminish.  They all said that they believed that they could accomplish their own papers, now that they had seen a finished one.

3. Formative Assessment Increasing Knowledge and Motivation

Once students had seen a finished paper, they became more motivated to ask questions about the process.  Because we were not focused on what was “right”, students’ questioning and ideas flowed in a safe, collaborative learning environment, where even the teachers were questioning and learning from students.  Instead of beginning with a barrage of lessons about correct citations, students first learned the purpose of citations.  Then, their questions drove the instruction.  Their motivation increased because they were now the ones steering the learning.  Later, I shared the NC Graduation Project Paper Rubric with students.  I asked them to make note of where they had noticed effective writing that the rubric also valued.  I also asked them to mark elements we hadn’t discussed.  Areas we missed became the topics of future lessons because students and the classroom teacher now understood that those areas would be their “blind spots” in the writing process.

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