Real World Mentor Texts

IMG_2549On Sunday mornings, my favorite thing to do is sip coffee on the porch while reading The New York Times (NYT) and The Washington Post. This weekend ritual is especially sweet in the summer months because there is no rush to get on to a long list of chores.

This summer my weekend reading has another purpose: finding real world mentor texts for my 8th grade students. Next year I am moving up from 6th grade to 8th grade English. One perk of this switch is a broader choice of topics and a deeper level of sophistication for reading.

With the 2016-2017 school year complete, I find myself looking to fill my teaching toolbox with mentor texts that will speak to older students. Fortunately, interesting mentor texts are all around.

In this Sunday’s papers I found several worthy examples:

  • a NYT SportsSunday front page story entitled, “Soccer’s Art of Calculating a Player’s Worth.” In the midst of the player transfer window, the NYT breaks down what the dollars mean. This article is great for soccer fans but could be paired with an article about trades in hockey and basketball going on now or an article about the famous Alex Rodriguez baseball contract that changed pricing in baseball.  In addition, I can hand this article to a student reading Kwame Alexander’s Booked.
  • a timeline of the 2016 U.S. election and new revelations. Today’s heated political environment is put in the context of revelations and their timing. What I like about this article is the format. The authors are able to distill a great deal of information into short sentences laid out on a timeline.
  • “36 Hours in Dubrovnik, Croatia” in the NYT travel section. Author and teacher Kelly Gallagher first turned me on to the value of these page-long articles. Each week the NYT offers a 36 hour guide to some location. I collect the articles and ask students to consider location selection, theme and what is most striking in the article. In the past my students have written their own “36 Hours in…” and comparing a few selections from the NYT is particularly valuable.
  • Another find in the NYT travel section is the “Surfacing” column. This regular series offers readers five places to go in some city around the world.  The series differs from “36 Hours in…” because the articles tend to be more thematic. This week features “Low-key Options for Nighthawks in Logan Square,” a location in Chicago where my son happens to live. My son is a night owl and Chicago is a favorite city for me so I immediately found the value in the theme.
  • “Why I Resigned from the Foreign Service after 27 Years” by David Rank in The Washington Post is found on the opinion editorial page. In the article, Rank, America’s senior diplomat in China, lays out his reasoning for leaving now. First, Rank describes his wealth of experience, his proud non-partisan stand, his close calls with danger as well as missed family moments. After the first few paragraphs, Mr. Rank is well positioned to state his concerns for America’s future. This article would be useful in a class discussion about what makes a strong position piece because it definitely has pluses and minuses.

These are just a few of the examples I found in two newspapers on a Sunday morning. Each day can bring new mentor texts if we just read with an eye toward writing.

On Sundays, we receive a weekly Blue Apron box that makes some week nights easier. the box includes recipes and all the precise ingredients to make quick meals. A few weeks ago, the box included a full color booklet entitled, “The Secret Story of Soil.” Filled with beautiful pictures this booklet included charts, a glossary and an article featuring a small farmer in northern California. As a former public affairs executive, I recognize the pamphlet as a clever marketing tool aimed at connecting the Blue Apron box with the local farm stand. However, as a teacher I find this piece of non-fiction writing illuminating. Other booklets have included “The Power of Pollination” about bees, “The Fight to Save Salmon” and “The Wide World of Wheat.”  My Blue Apron box has become a source of highly focused, non-fiction mentor texts! Students can look at content, source and reliability.

I am excited to see what other mentor texts pop up over the summer. If you have any go-to spots for real world mentor texts, please share your ideas in the comment section.


Bound In By Snow: A Reader’s Dream


All last week weather forecasters were bursting with glee at the thought of a historic snowstorm. No matter the channel, listeners were bombarded with warnings, emergency shopping lists and constant updates.

By Thursday grocery store shelves emptied, folks ate one more meal out before hibernating and batteries were at a premium in hardware stores. At my house, we double-checked all the necessary supplies and settled in.

The snow storm was slow and quiet at first. Friday afternoon brought delicate, confetti-sized flakes. Friday evening offered heavier but still gentle snow. Saturday held a steady, heavy stream of snow – colors of white and grey dominating the day.

Except for a few flickers, our power held out. We sat inside safe, warm and content. When the storm came to an end on Saturday evening the outside world was blanketed with drifts of white downy.

Schools are closed for the fourth day today and tomorrow is another day home. The hectic pace of teaching, graduate school and daily housekeeping has ground to a halt. For a busy, organized soul like me this respite is unusual and frankly, magical.

This unexpected vacation from the daily routine has affected my reading life too. As a reading teacher, I read everyday. My students and I have taken on Donalyn Miller’s 40 book challenge again this year. As a result, we read broadly across genres and fill our class days with book talks and conversation.

With six days home and counting, I have slowed down to look at my “to read” list and selected books that cross genres. I am sampling a little bit of everything in a short period. So far, I have read realistic fiction, scifi, fantasy, a graphic novel, non-fiction history. And…I have at least two more days of unencumbered reading time!IMG_1329

In the summer, my reading is guided by the day’s whim, trusted reviews and the stack on my bedside table. It is rare during the school year to have days on end to read. The beauty of my present reading retreat is my brain is engaged in teaching current students. I know what they like, I have a feel for passages that will speak to the students and I can envision texts fitting into current instruction. I am reading for pleasure AND with a broader purpose.

As I sit at my kitchen table sipping coffee and listening to jazz music, I think ahead to the day’s reading, journaling and not much more. Perhaps we will venture out…perhaps not. One thing is certain, I can’t wait to see what the day’s reading will offer.

Mentor Texts: Finding the Bounty in a Book Chapter

books with stickies

Some books are so well-crafted that each chapter has the strength to stand alone. Books like The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, Wonder by R.J. Palacio, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse or Maniac McGee by Jerry Spinelli offer up chapters like jewels for reading and writing teachers.

One of my goals this summer was to read with an eye toward sharing shorter pieces of text. The #bookaday challenge pushed me to read more all summer long.  As a result of summer reading, I always return to school with a long list of books to recommend to my middle grade students.  This summer, however, when I sat down to read I always had a package of Post-it flags nearby (I even carry the flags in my purse if I am reading in the wild with a book!). My goal — to flag great short mentor texts — has helped me focus on the richness of individuals chapters.

I just finished reading Marjorie Agosin’s poetic I Lived on Butterfly Hill. The novel tells the story of eleven-year-old Celeste Marconi who lives in the seaside town of Valparaiso, Chile. Set during the violent rise of the dictator Pinochet, the book details Celeste’s escape to North America for two years and her parents exile into hiding. The author, whose own family escaped Chile, provides rich detail about life during upheaval.

Looking at my copy of I Lived on Butterfly Hill I see a host of multi-colored flags marking mentor sentences and chapters. Early chapters in the book vividly describe the beauty of a Chilean seaside town. In later chapters, author Agosin details the austere snowy winters of coastal Maine. The chapters can be explored individually for figurative language, cultural flavor and story arc. For more complexity, readers can compare the chapters to understand the importance of perspective and carefully chosen descriptive language.

At the start of summer I began a list of great mentor chapters.  One of the nice things about zooming in on chapters is the view it offers across texts. For example, earlier in the summer I read 90 Miles to Havana by Enrique Flores-Galbis. Inspired by the author’s own experience fleeing Cuba, 90 Miles to Havana tells the story of three bothers evacuated during Operation Pedro Pan in 1961. Here too I marked excellent stand-alone chapters to share as mentor texts. But now, I will offer a couple of those chapters in concert with chapters from I Lived on Butterfly Hill as a means to examine hardship and survival from different yet similar perspectives.

My summer reading offered several outstanding chapters about flight and survival so I will add chapters from Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan — as one main character flees the Nazis — and even chapters from Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool since the main characters are both fleeing personal loss when the book begins. A focus on chapters can yield a bounty of mentor texts and the means for building thematic short text collections.

Lesson Design: A View from the Student’s Seat


Yesterday I had coffee with two reading teacher friends.  Both women are creative, dedicated teachers who love to talk books. In the midst of the conversation, I shared a reading/writing workshop idea I am developing for the start of the year. I was brimming with creative ways to engage students in descriptive writing using mentor texts.

“Why are they writing this piece?” Sally asked.

I stopped and rattled off my objectives, “It’s a great opportunity for close reading, to explore figurative language, meaning through grammar, share summer experiences, etc.”

“But why should they care? What is THEIR purpose?” Sally asked again.

I realized that I was so focused on my bright ideas that I stopped looking at the all important question: Why should the students engage and invest in this effort?

Lesson planning must start with the WHY. In Shades of Meaning, Donna Santman talks about her early years of teaching as a swing from one skill instruction to another. Experience helped her design a framework that begins with guiding principles. For example, “The world is complex and we can use reading to develop the ability to see connections between seemingly contradictory ideas.”  Lesson planning must begin with the end goal — how will this work help the student grow as a reader, a thinker, a communicator? Will the student own and invest in the work?

To be honest, lesson planning in the summer doesn’t feel as personal because student faces don’t pop in my head as I plan — I am not thinking about how Maria or Camille or Marco will approach the work.  I can’t wait to attach faces to the work and make it more personal. But for now, I will start with guiding principles that give each student purpose. I will remember to always view things from the student’s seat.

The Beauty of a Sentence


I recently finished reading Jeff Anderson’s wonderful Mechanically Inclined.  He offers a smart, systematic approach to introducing grammar and usage into writer’s workshop. For me, one of the true gems of the book is a focus on mentor sentences.

A sentence can say so much. In countless fiction books, one sentence often crystalizes an idea to drive home the author’s point. I often tell my students when I read a gorgeous sentence, I go back to look at the words, at the construction because even though I know all the words…I would not have thought to string them together in that fashion. Great writers are artists and we need to appreciate their art. But equally important, students need to study mentor sentences so they can grow as writers.

For the past month I have been collecting sentences to share with my students. With some sentences I have a lesson idea in mind. With other sentences I am eager for the students to help me uncover what makes the line memorable. Sometimes, I will share a string of two or three sentences because the magic is in how the sentences work together.

As Anderson points out, looking at a sentence takes a short amount of time but the rewards can be bountiful.  Good mentor sentences help students examine author’s craft. Why did the author use a comma? Why that particular adjective? After all, good writers use grammar and style to speak to the reader. The construction of a sentence is at the heart of meaning.

My students will start looking at sentences the first week.  My mentor sentences will lead to students finding their own powerful sentences to share with the rest of us. Then, students can use these guides to polish their own writing.

Here are some of the beauties I found in my reading so far this summer:

“I had heard of Billie Holiday, the jazz and blues singer, but I’d never really listened to her sing. Her voice mixed with the music like molasses with warm butter.”                                                                                                Jack, Navigating Early (p. 63)

“Humans have so many words, more than they truly need.”                      Ivan, The One and Only Ivan (p.143)

“The energy inside the factory was palpable. Machinery clacked and wheezed. Wheels and cogs married.”                                                           Echo (p59)

“Had father not been holding him, he too might have floated away on the wind, like a dandelion’s white-seeded parachutes.”                            Friedrich, Echo (p.58)

“Hirohito tried to show no change in his face, but he was changing on the inside, where people change when they’re sad or angry.”                Delphine, One Crazy Summer (p. 123)

“The long grass of the dunes tossed its brown seed heads. The smaller pebbles, the ones that were almost sand, skittered across the beach.”  Circus Mirandus (p. 33-34)

“You’d see the shiny, crow-black hair that hung smooth as paper from the top of her head to the bottoms of her earlobes. And you’d see the petite — pixieish, Miss Mallory called the — features of her face.”                                 A Tangle of Knots (p. 13-14)

“At the beginning of summer it always feels like there’s so much time ahead: whole empty calendar pages of sunshine, warm sea breezes, midnight thunderstorms, and running barefoot in the grass.”                   Lily, A Handful of Stars (p. 96)

Now, finding great mentor sentences is like discovering sea glass on an early morning beach walk. I know I have found something shining that I can’t wait to show to others.

Happy sentence hunting!

His Own Bookshelf: One Student’s Quiet Goal

shelf of books

Some lessons in life strike so deep and so true that it is easy to return to the moment.  A couple of years ago I had a student (let’s call him Jonah) who loved books.  Jonah wanted to be part of any conversation about books. He asked friends for recommendations, listened eagerly whenever anyone talked books and kept a “to read” list that was pages long.

In addition to being a book lover, Jonah was a well-liked classmate — always sensitive and encouraging with everyone in the room. It was impossible not to like Jonah.

Our classroom library is fairly large (1,500 books or so) and students are encouraged to read away.  The classroom library belongs to the students and the guidelines for library management are reset with each year’s class. During Jonah’s year the students agreed that to ensure everyone had a chance to read the hottest titles in the classroom, we establish a “three books at a time” limit.  Most of my 100 or so students had at least two or three books checked out regularly. It was wonderful to see the classroom library so well used.

Of course there were always exceptions to the book limit.  If we were heading into a holiday break, students could grab extra books and if a student read quickly everyone was fine with that student checking out the next three or four books in a series.

As the school year progressed, Jonah kept checking out more and more books.  He always assured classmates that he was bringing a couple back the next day but he just had to start the book in his hand. No one objected.

Late in the year I pulled Jonah aside and noted he had a fair number of books out. Fortunately, Jonah’s classmates had filed out of the room before he responded.

In a quiet voice, Jonah said, “Ms. Sanderson I know I have a number of books checked out. I have a small shelf at home next to my bed and it is so exciting to look over and see my own bookshelf filled…I have always wanted my own little collection and having these books all together makes me so happy. I have never had my own books.”

“I will be sure to bring books back tomorrow. Part of me feels bad for keeping these books since I have already read some of them,” Jonah added with his head down.

Jonah is a reader, a true reader and he had never had his own books. For him, happiness is a small shelf filled with books next to his bed. Being a reader is part of his self-definition.

As I look around my own house I know that the things I collect – the things I hold dear – say a lot about who I am and what I value. At twelve, Jonah made a statement loud and clear about what he values.

I told Jonah to leave the books right where they were. I told him the books had found a rightful home and my personal library was filled with gift books too. That afternoon I went to the bookstore and replaced the titles that had now become part of Jonah’s library.

It makes me happy to think about Jonah and his bookshelf. It makes me appreciate the books stacked on my own bedside table. Thanks in part to Jonah I will never take books for granted…isn’t that a gift?

Nesting: Building a Reader Friendly Environment

August is a good month to think about cozy reading spots.  At least once a day I find myself seeking out the perfect spot for reading a book. If the day is not too oppressive here in Northern Virginia I often head to the screen porch.  A comfy chair and a glass of iced tea provide the backdrop for countless happy reading moments at home.

Students need a cozy spot for reading too. During the first week of school last year I shared Amy Hest’s The Reader with my middle school students. Lauren Castillo’s lovely illustrations show a boy and his dog packing up for a snowy adventure outside that culminates with the two friends sharing a book in the ideal wintry locale. I ask my students to talk and write about their favorite reading spots. Some students are quick to name a place or two but others have never found a spot to call home.

Right now I am giving a lot of thought to my classroom environment.  With 120+ sixth graders sharing the classroom daily I need to give careful thought to creating a space that breeds freedom and work at the same time.

There are certain non-negotiables in the classroom space.  First, the classroom needs to have a reading corner. I do not care how old the students are…they need a reading corner. This location is a gathering place — an open space to read, lounge and move around.

IMG_0865 Since this picture was taken, the classroom reading corner has grown to include more comfortable chairs and a greater area. The space needs to accommodate 25 or so students when we gather.

The room also needs a place where students can look for or share book recommendations at the drop of a hat.  There is always a wall open for book suggestions. Students share books in blog posts, book talks and shelf talkers but it is important they own the wall space for talking about books too.

IMG_0875Most importantly, comfortable reading spots are in the eye of the beholder. My students can make themselves at home anywhere they want in the room.  As students squeeze into small corners, lay across desks or grab a pillow to find a solitary space, they are designing their own reading moments.

IMG_0082 IMG_0578

For the next few weeks I will have fun hunting for new chairs, big pillows and throw rugs to help feather our classroom nest. Yes, I will need more desks this year as our student population grows but reading will continue to reign in this middle school classroom.

Nancie Atwell talks about the reading zone as a place where students “left our classroom behind and lived vicariously in their books.”  Getting into the reading zone can be tough in the confines of a 45 minute period amid a fast-paced middle school day. My goal is to help ease the path to reading by giving students the freedom to move about, own their space and read away!

Opening The Door To Real World Book Connections


One of the first books on my list to book talk this fall is Kate Messner’s engaging All the Answers. The main character Ava is a worrier.  Her fears often get in the way of showing others the vibrant person she truly is on the inside. In truth, most of us let a fear get in the way now and again.

For middle school students life is often about risk and reward. Where do I fit in? What will happen if I step outside my comfort zone? What defines me? These are heady questions for 11-14 year olds. A great way to broaden student thinking about how people deal with these questions is relating the well-crafted fiction they read with real life stories.

CBS Sunday Morning ran a story on July 19th about a woman in New York who set out to conquer 100 fears in 100 days.  Like Ava, she is a worrier. For a class at New York’s School of Visual Arts, Michelle Poler created a 100 day project to address something most of us experience: fear.

Michelle flew on a trapeze, held a tarantula and a snake, fried food and even jumped out of an airplane.  Not surprisingly, what Michelle found was she had the strength inside all along.  The point of this story dovetails nicely with Kate Messner’s message in All the Answers (although Michelle’s real life story lacks the magic pencil in All the Answers that will hook my students!). But, as students reflect on Messner’s book they can see a real life example in action, allowing them to come one step closer to addressing their own fears.

This summer I am consciously looking for real world connections to the books my students read…and the connections are everywhere! My goal is to start the year with a long list of paired texts.  So far, my list includes poetry, news clips, articles, podcast stories, environmental print and music.

To build the list, I must be very intentional and read broadly…something I ask my students to do! My car rides are filled with NPR, I look at newspapers and magazine with an eye toward connections and I seek out sources from friends.

As a lovely silver lining, the connection between my personal reading and the stories around me is becoming more and more organic. This is a useful skill for students of any age.

What does community really mean?

community bulleting board

This summer I have given a lot of thought to the word community.

I live in a lovely town outside of Washington, D.C.  On Saturdays I can venture down the street to the Farmer’s Market where I am sure to run into several neighbors and friends. Community is easy to spot in this thriving corner of town.

In September, I will happily return to the classroom to join a community of teachers – like-minded people striving to built the best educational environment for students.  My classroom too will be a community of readers — one of my favorite places to reside!

I find myself in community on Twitter, at conferences, when tutoring young readers,  participating at the food bank or simply being with my extended family.

Community is many things. But, the larger question that lies beneath the warmth of community is: what is our responsibility as the member of any community?

Students in my classroom this year will focus on what community means to them.  What communities do they inhabit? What does each community mean to them? How can they improve life in that community? What is our responsibility to others in our communities?

I am learning that by taking time to examine the communities I am a part of…I feel more responsible but at the same time I feel empowered.  I want my students to feel empowered!

This year we will stretch far beyond the walls of our classroom to really look at who we are in community.  The global read aloud, a class podcast about community, service projects and more will mingle with the daily tasks of reading and writing. School should not be something you “go and do” for a handful of hours. Real life must weave its way through the halls, into conversations and off the pages of books.

I believe our job as teachers is to equip students to be global citizens — caring, compassionate, motivated citizens.  My hope is that a year of inquiry will help us read more, understand more, connect more and take steps to make positive changes in the communities around us.

**Writer’s Note:  I started this blog last summer but let it fall by the wayside. Thanks to a push from the very talented Katherine Hale, I am excited to enter the blogging world 🙂

A New School Year Resolution

As August winds down, I find myself waking up earlier and earlier.  I head out to my porch with a cup of coffee, the computer and pages of notes.  You see these days my mind is buzzing with ideas for the start of school. I have designed and redesigned the first week’s activities. My blackboard site has a new look and I am planning a twitter future for my classes!

Summer is the perfect time to refresh and revitalize oneself.  But, as I approach a new school year I am mindful that busy days are ahead.  Before I meet my new students I am making a pledge to find the time each day to reflect on my daily teaching practices. What did the students learn? Is there a better way to share the information? How is the class community growing?

As I set up my classroom I will make room for a very short list of reflective questions next to my chair.  Additionally, I will set aside time to answer these questions each day.  Planning lessons ahead is wise but adhering to plans without taking into account the interaction of students is foolhardy.  I can’t wait to see how my focus on reflection changes my teaching.

I am so thankful for the quiet days of summer. I hope to find moments of summer at the end of each teaching day.