Thursday, January 22, 2015

Leaning on My Reading Life When I Write: Let's Make Mentor Texts Kid-Determined

Walter Dean Myers (M.A. Reilly, July 3, 2014)
I. What We talk About When We Talk About Reading

A lot of what I write about begins while I'm reading/listening to text. Imagine that's true for you too. I read daily, often, a significant amount.

It's difficult to think about wanting to write, let alone doing it, without being a reader.  Let me say here that I use the term, reader,  in its broadest definition and I do so on purpose. I'm not talking about the close reading that is the mandate being acted out in schools as if that single method represented all of reading. So not true. There are so many ways to read and little reason to be stingy.  We ought to broaden our ways, not shrink them to a single method. It's actually kind of foolish to read in only one manner. No one I know does this.  Different texts, different purposes, different moods shape how we might want (or need) to read. Why keep this a secret from the kids? Let's teach children that power, not keep it from them.

I'm not limiting reading to putting eyes to a page, either. It's 2015 and the ways we can read continue to grow. So before we go further, think of reading as interacting with a text be it with your eyes, fingers, or ears. Think of reading as a full body act. Think of it more as co-authoring the work, rather than just consuming it. 

II. Learning in Grade 4

There's this boy in one of the fourth grades where I am working who I understand has had some struggles with reading and writing. 

He intrigues me. 

He appears to be at a critical turning point, putting together what he knows as a reader to help him with his writing and leaning on his writing knowledge to help him read better. 

Smart kid.

A couple of critical noticings:  

He has a teacher who doesn't shy away from the challenging-to-teach child. I have observed at other schools, in other classrooms children who are instructionally ignored.  They sit doing some form of busy work. This boy's teacher is not like that.  He's all about best ensuring that this youngster learns to read in credible ways and privileging the work most needed to help the child gain the skills, strategies, dispositions and muscle to read and write well.  The teacher's insistence and attention are paying off, as is the child's work. He is gathering his literacy confidence and skills around him like the cape of a superpower.

So one Tuesday morning, I was leaning over the boy's shoulder at his invitation and reading a passage he had recorded in his notebook. You couldn't miss the pride in this young boy's face.

"Really good piece. Its got such voice. You know who that writing reminds me of?" I asked.
"It sounds like something Water Dean Myers might write. Do you know who he was?"
The boy smiled, lifted his notebook and uncovered a Walter Dean Myers' book. "He's my favorite author."
"Not surprised you are reading him given the voice I hear in your work."
I'm reminded watching this child how important our reading lives are to the work we do as writers.

III. Mentor Texts

I read a lot about mentor texts and much of the time the domain of mentor texts belongs to teachers. There are countless books and blogs dedicated to explicating mentor texts that teachers can use with students. 

I love reading about these books and at the same time I think limiting mentor texts to teacher tools is largely a mistake. Yes I can and do share texts (print, digital, audio) I love. I share ones that have helped me to write and/or inspired me to write or forced me to write. But I don't share these as texts for my students.  I want them to simply know I lean on what I read to write.  More important: I want them to understand the habit of how text leads on to text--be it as reader or writer.  I want them to feel and know that power. I don't want them to experience that through me.  That feels too much like a form of servitude.

So I'm thinking about asking this child to co-present when I introduce his class to the idea of leaning on reading as writers. I am hoping he'll join me and perhaps talk a bit about the way he leans on Walter Dean Myers' works when he writes. I know I plan to bring a ton of books, comics, audio and visual texts with me that I hope the children might enjoy and find inspiring, perhaps--necessary. I'll leave these for the year so that they can take their time with these works. I'm hoping we have time to learn some of the ways children lean on their reading lives when composing.

In the interim, I ordered a copy of the print I made that tops this post that I'll be leaving in the classroom for this child and his peers. It was a collage I made last July when Myers died. I'll let you know how the lesson goes and the many things I learn from these kids and their teacher in Newark. 

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