Guest Blogger: Trevor Aleo
Teaching writing often leaves me feeling like a perpetual Goldilocks. Some methods I try feel too rigid—removing student’s ability to cultivate their voice and hone their craft. Other methods feel too squishy, lacking the structure needed to scaffold students’ developing skills. Every now and then though, I’ll land on something that is just right (well, right enough anyway) that strikes a comfortable balance.
One of those “just right” learning sequences uses color coded mentor texts.
Mentor texts can be considered any text that can be used as an example of good writing that helps writers inform their own writing moves. Here are some resources for using mentor texts that writing instructors might find helpful, and here’s a podcast on how to use mentors texts to talk about race and identity in the ELA classroom.
Color-coded mentor texts help my students understand the relationship between each distinct element of a persuasive text. Based on my experience as both a high school English teacher and middle school writing workshop teacher, it provides students with enough support and scaffolding to guide their writing, without succumbing to template temptation or overly scripted sessions.
To start, it’s really important that students are made aware of the concepts that will anchor their learning. One of the keys of effective writing instruction is ensuring students develop a conceptual understanding of the writing process. Without gaining a deeper awareness of the thinking that informs their writing (i.e. metacognition), students aren’t able to transfer what they learn to new texts.
The learning sequence can be broken up into three distinctive phases, developed alongside my coauthors, Julie Stern, Krista Ferraro, and Kayla Duncan: acquire, connect, and transfer. It’s a simple mental model we’ve devised for just any discipline or domain, and it’s been fantastic for me in writers workshop. Teaching students to transfer their understanding of craft to their own work is the lifeblood of any composition course, after all.
I’ll use an essential question from my recent position paper unit to illustrate—How do claims, evidence, and reasoning impact an argument?
The Acquire Phase: Making Meaning of Individual Concepts
The acquire phase of the learning sequence is all about helping students understand the individual elements that comprise an argument, one at a time. Considering claims are the North Star for their respective evidence and reasoning, and we started there. Instead of offering the definition of a claim or citing a single example, I provided students with a ton of examples of effective claims about a variety of engaging topics. Then, first in breakout rooms and later as a class, we noticed and noted the key attributes that were present in each example. Using these as our criteria, we constructed a shared definition of an effective claim.
(New to the notice and note signposts reading strategy? Access free resources here).
This inductive process allows students to construct their own meaning with guidance from their teacher. Simply memorizing the definition of the term “claim” doesn’t do much to help students identify an effective one and it certainly doesn’t help them learn how to write one.
Inviting students to see the attributes of an effective claim for themselves across multiple examples helps them take more ownership and develop deeper conceptual understanding.
For the final lesson in the phase, I modeled a few claims of my own, explaining my thought process along the way. Students were then invited to write their own claims, which they shared with a peer for feedback, then with me for further development. This Model-Practice-Feedback sequence was repeated for reasoning and evidence, with each new concept being added to our hyperlinked anchor chart along the way.
Anchor charts are created during a lesson. As teachers model the strategy or skill, the important points are written on chart paper; or during remote instruction, teachers can use digital tools like Google Docs, Jamboard, or Google Slides to showcase those important points.
Depending on students’ comfort and familiarity with the concepts in question, this phase could be a quick review or a slower inquiry.
The Connect Phase: Studying Mentor Texts
Now that students understand the “components” of a solid argument, they’re ready to explore their relationship in a mentor text. This is where lightbulbs really start turning on! I had several articles of interest for students to choose from and this year they settled on an article defending Netflix bingeing—pretty apt for 2021!
To begin, I read the first half of the article aloud and explained my thought process, highlighting examples of claims, evidence, and reasoning using a color coded system for each. As the article went on, I started asking more questions of my students—is this a new claim or an elaboration of a previous one? Do you find this evidence compelling? Does this reasoning meet our critical attribute criteria from the Acquire phase?
The learning experience culminated in students highlighting the last few paragraphs on their own writing using the color code system.
Of note, the color selected to represent these elements is unimportant, and you’ll later see an image that shows evidence as green and reasoning a blue.
However, this was about more than labeling and identifying. Students also had to explain some of the deeper “why/how?” questions to demonstrate their understanding of the reasoning behind the author’s choices. This ties the experience back to our essential question and helps students develop an understanding of the relationship between concepts, not just the concepts in isolation.
Students received feedback on their annotation and were then given the opportunity to curate their own mentor texts and explain the relationship between claims, evidence, and reasoning in each.
What’s powerful about this process is that it helps students recognize the variety of ways organizational text structures are developed and deployed by authors. Instead of handing them rigid line-by-line templates or asking them to feel their way into the squishy world of organization, students are able to recognize the variety of ways claims, evidence, and reasoning (counterclaims came later) can be organized to form an argument. Intentional choices guided and informed by the conventions of the genre were what truly mattered. For more on this genre oriented approach to writing, check out these resources on functional literacy pedagogy.
The Transfer Phase: Applying What They've Learned
To start the final phase, I returned to our anchor chart and modeled some paragraph writing, through a think aloud, taking particular care to explain the relationship between the claims, evidence, and reasoning in each example. Afterwards, I chatted with the students about things they thought I did well and areas I could improve. I love to model vulnerability and fallibility as a writer. It demonstrates the same kind of traits I want my students to exhibit in environments they feel safe in. This also helped solidify students' understanding of how claims, evidence, and reasoning all work together to form a cohesive argument.
Following our discussion, I had the class return to a position paper rough draft they wrote before we started the Acquire-Connect-Transfer learning sequence. It was pretty amusing (and rewarding!) to hear the wry chuckles and comments about how “bad” their original pieces were. This revisiting and revising of their previous work and thinking was great for helping them see how far they’ve come in their understanding. Students were then asked to focus on revising a single paragraph, which they labeled using our shared color scheme. When they were content with it, they did a round of peer feedback followed by more feedback from me. This completed our Acquire-Connect-Transfer learning sequence, and students spent the rest of the unit revising their position paper, peer editing, meeting in small groups, and doing 1-on-1 conferencing with me whenever possible.
The growth that students showed from the beginning to the end of the unit was impressive. Equally important was their ability to logically explain the reasoning behind the choices they made. Even students who are in the process of developing their grammar, usage, and mechanics of writing in English said their understanding of persuasion and argumentation was miles beyond where it was previously. Here’s an example of an exit ticket written by one of my students to showcase their understanding.
Make Writing Visible
Making the writing process visible is one of the most important things we can do for students. Using templates and scripted forms of writing doesn’t only lead to formulaic submissions, it also blinds students to the deeper patterns and structures that experts use to organize their writing.
However, we can’t assume that students will notice texts’ patterns and structures without guiding their attention to them. Asking students to deconstruct mentor texts, color code different elements, and explore their relationship can be a powerful learning experience.
I also highly recommend checking out Angela Stockman’s work on make writing, for additional strategies to make the writing process visible. She has some great tools and resources for helping students map out text structures using sticky notes and loose parts.
In addition to making the writing process visible, it’s also great for students to develop an awareness of the goals of each phase of their learning through explicitly outlining the Acquire-Connect-Transfer model with them. My co-authors and I explore the power and potential of this model to scaffold student ownership, metacognition, and learning transfer in our upcoming book Learning That Transfers: Designing Curriculum for a Changing World.
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