In Praise of Mentor Texts: Admittedly, my best ideas for writing lessons are adaptations I make based on great pieces of writing from authors I admire. Case in point: this lesson. If you have explored my mentor text resource page here at the website or my 7 Elements of a Differentiated Writing Lesson Workshop Materials, then you know I categorize and explain to my students three distinct ways I use mentor texts when I'm teaching them. I classify my mentor texts as idea mentor texts, structural mentor texts, and style mentor texts. This lesson makes partial use of the book as an idea mentor text, but it's also part structure mentor text. I tell my students, after sharing just a few pages from "31 Uses for a Mom," that we will be borrowing from the idea of the book ("Sort of") and also from the structure of the writing ("Sort of"). I adapt two elements of the mentor text to match my assignment, and that ability to adapt has become second-nature to me because I've done it so often. If you're uncomfortable making adaptations, then stop feeling that way. "Borrow some ideas and adapt the rest" is a motto I share with my students to help them develop true creativity.
Teaching Noun Phrases with the Mentor Text: So--in a nutshell--Harriet Ziefert's"31 Uses for a Mom" is a list of 31 clever and illustrated job titles that you could apply to most mothers. That's the idea; that's also the structure. I borrowed both from this mentor text. I choose--when sharing--to focus on just a few of the listed items from the book, after I explain that these are specific duties/job descriptions that emphasize the "skills" of motherhood when one has a child. Most of the duties are summed up in one word (like use #2, which is "chauffeur"), but I tell my students I expect them to create a list of noun phrases, not just a one-word noun. I point out use #17 ("tooth puller") and #18 ("party planner"), and I explain that a noun phrase isn't just one word; it's a noun with--at least--one modifier. I like these two examples from the book because all four words in these two noun phrases are actually all nouns, but the word tooth and the word party are actually being used as adjectives because they further describe the un-described nouns (puller and planner) that follow them. Most nouns have the ability to also serve as adjectives, so we discuss that fact a little. OK, more than a little. I give them a simple noun, and I ask them to partner-up and come up with three noun phrases wherein the noun I have given them is suddenly being used as an adjective. For example:
- I give them "river" as a noun, and they come up with a list like "river captain, river crossing, and river monster." Don't let them give you riverbank or riverboat--because those are actually compound words--and that's a great discussion just waiting to happen. The students learn they can check to see if they've accidentally used a compound word by using the dictionaries that are kept under every students' desk in my classroom as part of my vocabulary routine/workshop.
- I give them "pencil" as a noun, and they look in the dictionary, and they realize "pencil sharpener" is not a compound word. They will give you things like "pencil holder" and "pencil pouch," but I like to suggest they go less practical and start thinking of noun phrases that might make great story titles, like "The pencil bandit" and "The pencil disaster." Notice we've started adding articles (The, A, and An) to introduce the noun phrases with those two examples, which you need to point out to your students so they hear and can start using that grammatical term during this assignment. This idea of creating a great noun phrase as a potential title is explored in this lesson at our website.
- When I give them "teacher" as their third noun, they sometimes turn the tables on me. They smirk as they share noun phrases aimed at me like "teacher torture" and "teacher cruelty" and "teacher hypocrisy"; I was duly impressed with the students who gave me "teacher hypocrisy" that one year. By the way, if they come up with "teacher's gradebook" or another noun phrase that requires a possessive 's' and apostrophe (which almost always happens when I give them the word teacher), it's another chance to teach something grammatical. I tell them, "You're right, you've made a noun phrase because it has more than one word, but when you add an apostrophe and an s to any noun, you're actually turning it into an adjective; all possessive nouns actually serve as adjectives in noun phrases." In that quote, I purposely put in italics all the terminology I add to our running list for this assignment, explaining that when they are brainstorming and revising, these are the terms I expect to hear them using in conversations with each other and with me as they create and improve upon their lists of job descriptions. If you leave out the revision step, you leave out the opportunity to listen in on your kids' discussions to see if they are really using the grammatical terminology you have asked them to.
Inspired by the "teacher" list of noun phrases in the third bullet above, I now ask them to create groups of four, and they have five minutes to create a list of "7 Job Titles for Mr. Harrison," explaining that every item in their lists must be a noun phrase, not just a noun. I write about my students all the time in my writer's notebook, and they love the opportunity to turn the tables on me (though they could write about me anytime in their own notebooks, which many of them had over the years--and I've post some of my favorites at this ego-driven Pinterest Board). Of course, they create many nice titles for me in their groups of four, like "Writer's Notebook Keeper" and "Vocabulary Enthusiast," but I seem to appreciate the clever, more mean ones, like "The Dictionary Dictator" and "Grammar Nazi"; both of those noun phrases, by the way, had enough impact to stick for an entire school year, and I secretly kind of liked both of those nicknames.
Explaining the Writing Task with a Writer's Notebook Exercise: As I've said many times, I find such value in having my own writer's notebook because it allows me to practice some of the writing assignments--like this one--on different topics than I assign to the students. Case in point, a few years back--when I first found the "31 Uses" mentor text by Harriet Ziefert--I decided to borrow the idea to create a noun phrase-based tribute to our border collie mix: Pudge. Dena and I decided we'd have dogs instead of children before we ever married (Is there any better motivation for birth control than teaching other people's middle school-aged children?), and we both entered the marriage with a really great dog. I came with Butch, my senior citizen of an Australian Shepherd, and Dena brought Pudge, who was quite a bit younger than my Butch. We both fell in love with each other's dogs. I had written plenty about Butch in my notebooks over the years, but I hadn't written about Pudge yet. I decided Pudge deserved a list of "job descriptions" based on the three or four years I had come to know him, so I created the list at right (click on it to see it in bigger form). I didn't know how many items the list would become when I began drafting it, but I am glad I stopped at seventeen because that pretty much filled up the whole page in my notebook.
What I tried to do (which I think the picture book does really well if you concentrate on combining the selected word/noun phrase with the 31 pictures) was remind Dena and myself of a specific "Pudge story" or remind ourselves of a unique trait that we always celebrate about him. For example:
- Cherry-Tomato Connoisseur refers to a specific story about the day I was working in the garden, and I watched him pull and sniff four cherry tomatoes off my growing vine until he found the perfect one that he wanted. I'd fed him ripe cherry tomatoes since I'd met him, but when picking them himself, he showed a little more "vegetable snobbery." He only ate the best ones he picked, and the others lay on the dirt.
- Veinless Wonder refers to a specific story about the week after he'd been diagnosed with diabetes, and Dena and I tried miserably to measure his blood sugar three times daily per our vet's instructions. We discovered that his veins were incredibly hard to find and poke, and as we often do, we gave him a yet another new nickname: "The Veinless Wonder."
- Front Door Inspector refers to a more-generalized unique trait that none of our other dogs have ever had. We have a front door that's made up of more "swirled glass" than wood. Pudge found a few places in the swirled glass where, if he held his eyeball just right up to a spot, he could almost clearly make out people and cars moving by outside. When a car would drive by, he'd see the blurry flash, then go hold his eye up to the spot for 15-20 minutes, just hoping the car might return so he could get a better look at it.
- Kleenex Bandit is another more-generalized unique trait that none of our other dogs have ever had. We are fortunate to be able to afford a really sweet housekeeper who comes twice a month to dust and vacuum for a really reasonable price. Lucy also empties all the garbage cans in the house--all of which have protective covers because Pudge is our dog who would rifle through the trash cans if they didn't have protective lids on them. Lucy takes the garbage bags out of the garbage receptacles and leaves them in an accumulating pile until she take the whole cluster of bags out to the big trash can outside. Pudge learned to stealthily approach her pile of bags when she would round a corner, and he would quickly try to find a Kleenex that he could steal and take to a corner and (gross!) consume it. We came home one day and found Lucy just finishing up her work, and she said with a smile while shaking her head, "That dog is very bad. He steals the Kleenex when I am not looking!" We both know how this nickname came to be. When people ask, we each tell them the story in our own way.
Now do you see what I did there with those four examples? Each of the items on my list come with a specific story or a general habit that I can describe orally when asked. I didn't just write "Protector" because he was our watch dog, which he was; instead, I wrote "Tortoise Protector" because when we put our tortoise out on the lawn to graze grass and dandelions, Pudge would always go join him and make sure he stayed safe, and he'd "tell on him" if the tortoise left the lawn and began searching for an escape route under our impenetrable fence-line. The second word in the noun phrase allows me to talk more specifically about why I loved my dog and his uniqueness.
I love the book "31 Uses for a Mom," but I'm just borrowing the idea and structure of the book and--for my intents and purposes--I'm improving on the idea by requiring more descriptive noun phrases (and not single words) because my list--unlike the wonderful book--requires students to understand all the grammar that goes into thinking about what a noun phrase actually is. I also don't have the benefit of an illustration to accompany each item. Now...you can certainly allow single-word descriptions and have students do an illustration for each item, but I want my students to learn the power of a few words that inspire a specific story. I consider my list about Pudge to be more like a list of potential short story titles, I suppose, and I want the reader of my list to ask me to tell them more about the story behind the title. A good writer is also a good oral story-teller. The creation of this list should be "fuel" for your students to be able to share their stories out loud with friends or the person the list is about. A mentor text should spark an idea, but then you create your own unique twist to the writing match your personal class objectives, and being able to tell a captivating story out loud is one of my objectives for my students.
So...I'm now working on a new list for my mother for this upcoming Mother's Day (May 10, 2015). If it turns out to be not too personal, I may post it here at the website on Mother's Day, so check back to see if I decided that it should be shared with anyone besides my own mother. Here are a few of the noun phrases that may or may not make it to the final list. Do any of these remind you of something about your own mother?
Charmed Pinochle Partner
Speed Bump Ignorer
Picture Book Performer
Dark Chocolate Hoarder
So...however you choose to adapt this idea, I think it makes a great way to pay tribute to someone or something, and it gives you the opportunity to teach grammar and practice oral story-telling. It can be a writer's notebook challenge, or it can become a published piece of artwork to present to one's mother...or father...or friend...Check out all of Harriet Ziefert's' other books; she's really played with this thematic idea.
An Adaptive Idea from my Teacher-Friend, Holly Young: I'm a lucky man; in twenty-six years in education, I've worked alongside some of the best teachers in my community in a variety of ways. One of those teachers is my wonderful friend Holly Young, who runs her Making Mathematicians website as a place to encourage more math and writing in classrooms where students write across the curriculum to prove understanding of numerical thinking and problem solving at a better depth.
Holly and I had sushi lunch a few weeks back, and she told me her youngest son will be graduating from elementary school this June, and there was a special yearbook being created where parents could submit pictures and write short tributes to their children's accomplishments. Holly never likes to follow the rules, and so she asked me, "What's a unique way our family can write a tribute to Carson." I texted her photos of favorite pages from Harriet Ziefert's "31 Uses" book, and I sent her a link to my tribute to my dog, Pudge, and Holly was off and running with her own adaptation of the idea. She sent me the final product the other day and gave me permission to share it because it's a great tribute to a great kid from many different contributors.
At right is the portrait of Carson (age four) that she sent her co-contributors, and if you know Carson, he is always that happy and goofy. She asked family and friends and teachers to think of a unique way they would describe Carson's face, and to come up with a description so that depicts a fond memory of him.
Here are some of my favorites from Holly's final product; she ultimately had a dozen or more people contribute a description, and she labeled her final product with the name of the person who had created each description of how they would remember Carson's face:
- The Presidential Portrait Painting Peer (from Carson's 2nd grade teacher)
- The "Gal-getting" Wink (from Carson's older brother)
- The Determined Da Vinci Dimple (from Carson's 3rd grade teacher)
- The Lord of the Rings-loving Leer (from Carson's dad)
- The Cheshire Cat Snicker (from Carson's 6th grade teacher)
- The "King of Board Games" Smirk (from Carson's Aunt Sherry)
- The Any-Excuse-to-Make-and-Wear-an-Elaborate-Costume Chortle (from Carson's mom)
A Final Word about this month's Lesson: I just always like to remind you who follow my website that I don't post these lessons to provide a script or an exact framework for how this lesson should run. I provide some of my ideas and some of my big objectives, and my hope of hopes is that you adapt the idea to fit your needs, your students, and your ideas. My friend Holly is an amazing teacher because she naturally adapts others' ideas (like mine above) so that it becomes her own thing...and that is why my math-teaching friend and colleague is also one of the best writing teachers I have ever met. Writing teachers are amazing adapters; it's something you simply learn to do with a dash of creativity and a smattering of wisdom from experience.