#DigiLitSunday: Mentor Texts for Digital Writing

This week’s theme for DigiLitSunday, facilitated by Margaret Simon, is “mentor,” and I was reminded of a blogging project that I took part in a few years ago, in which a handful of us educators explored and blogged about using mentor texts with students that would lead to opportunities for digital writing and composition. My fellow explorers were Bill and Franki and Troy and Katie and Tony.

Bill Bass, who was facilitating much of our discussion, had set up an RSS site to pull all of our posts together into one space. Unfortunately, that space was hosted in Posterous, which kicked the can and died a few years ago. So I have been reading through some of my own posts, to remember what I learned and discovered.

Mentor Texts and Digital Writing: the handout by KevinHodgson on Scribd

(This handout comes for a workshop I once presented at a conference in Massachusetts.)

I suppose it is a given to say that mentor texts are always important. They provide an entry point into the unknown for many students. At the start of the year, I asked my students: How many have ever used Google Docs or Slides? How many have used Garageband? iMovie? A blog? I was lucky if I had one or two hands go up in each of the four classes of sixth graders that I teach.

We often start at Ground Zero when it comes to introducing digital writing to our students (unless you are lucky enough to have colleagues downstream who connect with technology and writing. Both of those people whom I counted on for that exposure in early grades in my building have retired or left our school.). Given the lack of exposure in school setting for students and digital creation, this means that mentor texts provide a place to talk about what is happening in a piece of digital writing, and then the mentor text itself provides a path for “emulation,” which hopefully leads to branching off into individual discovery and creation.

In re-reading some of my own posts on digital mentor texts, I see many ideas still in play in my mind on the topic of digital writing.

  • There is the use of texts in online spaces such as YouTube that can pave the way for my own experimentation, which then helps me consider my students’ engagement in digital writing. Sometimes, my own creation, and reflection, become the mentor text (and if there were failure and struggle points along the way … even better).
  • There is the use of picture books as a primary mentor text for digital pieces because picture books come at art and writing and storytelling from such interesting angles. (Of course, finding the right one — like The Magic School Bus series — is key). I suppose this could now be digital picture books, but I am thinking of traditional picture books where that push the edge of possibilities.
  • There is assessment, and ways to collaborate with students on what they see in a mentor text in order to build an assessment tool for what they will create. Assessment still befuddles many of us when it comes to digital writing, but I think we have more tools in place now, and there is a solid shift to remembering to keep an eye on the learning and not the technology itself.
  • And there is the danger of emulation, of every student project becoming a clone of the mentor text (either the teacher’s shared project or something else) and how to think about moving beyond that problem. The “mini-me” possibilities always surface when students are trying to something new. The role of the teacher is to find each student’s starting point and guide them beyond that point. This is a real struggle for many students, who are taught to do exactly what the teacher expects, and no more.

In some ways, this re-reading and sharing brings me full circle again to the power of curation — the choice of mentor texts matter, and the time spent in finding the right text for the right lesson (or the right student) is so important. It becomes the scaffold for moving beyond the mentor text itself. In fact, if successful, the student work will only hint at the mentor text, and perhaps only you and they will know where the infrastructure of ideas came from.

Peace (emulate, replicate, appreciate),