Thinking: Mentor Texts and Digital Composition

My friend, Franki Sibberson, has me thinking about mentor texts and how they can be used in the classroom for digital composition with students. She has me thinking because we are part of a group trying to pull together a proposal for the NCTE Conference in November, with a focus on elementary levels.

And since I was already doing this thinking, I figured I would adapt that same idea for a session I will be doing next fall for the New England Reading Association around New Literacies. The idea of using some “mentor texts” that can provide examples, and inspiration, to students who are working with digital tools for composition seems more important than ever, given where we are in the development of technology in learning environments (relatively early in that stage, I would say).

So, I’ve wracking my brain a bit, thinking of how I have done this without really naming it as “mentor texts” all that often. Here are some of the things that I came up with:

  • When we launch into our Digital Science Picture Book Project, I always turn to The Magic School Bus series for help. If you look closely at the original series of books (and even some of the Scholastic series), the various levels of text and information going on all over the place — the paper multimodal-ism — you realize quite quickly how layered it is. And for our digital books, which uses digital tools to layer in animation and information and a fictional story, the Magic School Bus books provide a perfect launching point, particularly because of the array of other non-book materials that followed the books: video games and television shows, etc. Here, the concept of science told through story with a sense of humor is a great mentor text. (See my work around Digital Picture Books at the National Writing Project’s Digital Is website.)
  • Last year, I decided I really wanted to have my students write a challenging story that brought the reader into the fold. I had them create Make Your Own Ending stories, using a wiki, in which stories would branch off in various directions for the reader through the use of hyperlinks. The mentor text we used to demonstrate this was one of the Make Your Own Ending novels (which are now being revamped and re-issued, I see). We also talked about some of the Goosebumps series that did the same thing, often through the use of Second Person Narrative (which was a lesson plan within the project, and great way to talk about Second Person). I also recently reviewed a graphic novel series that does the same approach, combining narrative text with graphic text, with the reader making choices on which way to go. (See my website about making Make Your Own Ending stories in the classroom).
  • Making stopmotion movies is very engaging for students, but they often need a sense of how long and how meticulous one needs to be to produce a quality video. Therefore, we often turn to the creators of Wallace and Gromit, watching some of their short videos (and noticing how polished they become over the years) and then, I show them a neat behind-the-scenes look at the making of The Curse of the Were-Rabbit feature film as a mentor “text.” From there, they film and publish stopmotion movies (usually, with a literary theme) to the Longfellow Ten collaborative website.  (See my Making Stopmotion Movies)
  • An Exquisite Corpse Story is a collaborative venture in which one person begins a story, and another adds to it, and then it gets passed along. (The Folding Story activity that I have written about recently is a small version of the Exquisite Corpse). Last year, we turned to a website that featured a year’s worth of well-known authors (at the Read.Gov website) whose task was to write a new chapter to a story every other week. Although we did not last the year, my students followed the story closely for about three months, and were writing right alongside the published authors, too. We even podcasted a Voicethread of a chapter as written by students. This mentor text, which unfolded for us online, then led to a collaborative story project in which we used a wiki for writing. That activity was strictly voluntary, but they had the Exquisite Corpse saga (in all of its strange glory) in the back of their minds. (see the Voicethread podcast).

And I expect to keep thinking …

Peace (in the sharing),

  1. Hi Kevin,
    Amy Laitinen and I will be teaching a Writing Project Advanced Institute in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan this summer titled “Using A Mentor Text to Create a Digital Story.” Thank you so much for providing this list; we will definitely play around with some of these ideas. If you have any other resources that you think we might be able to present to the group, please let us know! We are in the process of putting together our syllabus, and would like to include ideas for all grade levels. We plan on using your book Teaching the New Writing (as we did in a previous course) and also Because Digital Writing Matters. Amy and I both enjoy following your blog. We are inspired by how you find the time to explore, write, teach and balance family life. You rock!!!

    • Wow
      Such kind comments.
      Good luck and if I dig up more, I will try to send it your way.
      Thank you for using our book and if you need a “virtual visit” to the class, let me know.

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