Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Importance of Mentor Texts in the Writing Process

The longer I teach, the more I realize how heavily I depended on mentor texts as a student. As early as first grade, I remember reading something (or sometimes seeing) and then writing my own version of it. I went through phases of feeling guilty for "copying" and then not, but now as an adult I look back in amazement at how successfully I used this strategy on my own without the direction of teachers or parents.

I wrote and rewrote many versions of Alice in Wonderland in lower elementary grades. This rewriting was based on the movie; it wasn't until middle school that I actually read the Lewis Carroll classic. Sometimes I was the "Alice" and sometimes my friends were. I considered it a gift to them if I wrote them in as the protagonist.

In middle school, I was obsessed with short scary stories. I read as many as I could get my hands on even though it meant nightmares and being scared to go upstairs alone in our house. At the time, our family had its first computer and I enjoyed typing/copying the stories onto the computer, printing them and then illustrating them. I would also record myself reading the stories so I could play back the tapes at night after I was supposed to be asleep. Sometimes I would paraphrase the stories and submit in Language Arts class for a grade. I felt like I put enough of my own spin on them to make my own. But when I would get them back from the teacher with 100s on them, a part of me wondered if she knew they weren't original.

Sometime during 7th grade I read A Girl From Yamhill by Beverly Cleary. This was the first memoir I vividly remember reading. I had read some Ramona books in elementary school and I was intrigued to see how Cleary's real life experiences were reflected in her fiction. I was also fascinated by the fact that someone could entertain a reader with an account of their life. I set about writing my own autobiography right away! I worked on it the most at home and in Study Hall. I attempted to record EVERY memory I ever had. Even for a twelve-year-old, it was quite a task. I finished my Plano, Texas years (birth-5) and made it well into my Long Island years (5-10) before I felt too overwhelmed to go on. I still have it, of course. Maybe someday I'll type it up.

One last influential text was Whisper of Death by Christopher Pike. Within the story were other short stories about characters in the book. These short stories were written by another character with the intent to harm them. Apparently, her words were magical and could make things happen (man - I can't believe the crap I used to enjoy reading). In her short stories, she would never use a character's real name, instead she would name them another name that started with the same letter. I immediately began writing my own stories about the people at school that I felt hurt by. I knew my words didn't hold the same kind of power the fictional character's did, but it gave me a sense of power over people who were being mean to me.

As I look back, I wonder why I wasn't influenced by the texts I was seeing in class. I'm sure my teachers were providing meaningful examples, but nothing really sticks in my mind. I wonder if it was the fact that I located my mentor texts myself and so they therefore had meaning to me.

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