Using Mentor Texts in Science

Using Mentor Texts in Science

During an option professional learning session on conducting one-on-one conferences with students across all subject areas, I used a video of one of my conferences with an 8th-grade writer to help the teachers unpack the purposes and structure of a conference. The video happened to show me using the mentor text with the students to help her name techniques she could apply to her writing. This sparked the idea of using mentor texts for lab reports in the mind of one science teacher.

After successfully creating a mentor lab report and using it with one class, Polly invited me to come observe how she launched the mentor text with another class.

Polly started the lesson by inviting the students to name the purpose of a lab report. One student said, “A lab report allows someone else to repeat the experiment.” Polly elaborated on this by saying, “And so, we want to write our lab reports in a way that will make it easy for someone else to follow the steps and repeat the experiment. So today, I have prepared a mentor lab report to help guide your work as you write yours.”

She paused and reminded the students of how they use mentor texts in English class to give them a vision for their work and to find and use strategies for improving their writing. 

Polly digitally shared the mentor lab report she had created and asked the students to read through the procedure section. They needed to notice and make a note in their notebook three to four strategies the writer of that experiment used to make it easy for others to repeat that experiment.

After about 10 minutes of independent study, Polly brought the class back together to share out the strategies they noticed. Students added to their list as other shared. 

She then sent them off to conduct their experiment and write up their procedure using the strategies they had gathered from the mentor text to make it easy for someone else to repeat the experiment. 

Once students were writing up their procedures, Polly was able to confer with groups, partners, and individuals efficiently with the help of the mentor lab guide. She kept coming back to the original question, “What strategies did this writer use to make it easy for someone to repeat this experiment that you could use in your writing?” Sometimes she started a conference off by asking, “What do you notice between what you wrote and what is written in the mentor text?” 

These questions allowed the students to name strategies and set their own next steps with increasing independence. This also meant that Polly wasn’t repeating the same tips to multiple students. She found that she was able to see more students and that the students’ lab reports were written with more clarity.

Many literacy teachers use mentor texts regularly to help students envision the work they will do and find their own strategies to improve their work. Where else across a student’s day might we use mentor texts?

The Literacy Exchange: One Model for Collaborative Professional Learning

The Literacy Exchange: One Model for Collaborative Professional Learning

Our Middle School English department recently joined two other international Middle School English departments for our 3rd annual Literacy Exchange. Our mission: To facilitate sustainable, meaningful, and affordable professional development designed for teachers by teachers.

It all started over four years ago when our three department heads met each other in NYC at one of the amazing Reading and Writing Summer Institutes put on by Columbia Teacher’s College. They began meeting online a few times each year to share and collaborate. Eventually, the idea to bring our departments together for a two-day-home-grown learning experience was born.

Because we were designing the learning for our teams, we were able to create relevant learning experiences for our teachers based on their strengths and areas for growth – much like we do for our students. The first year we had a strong focus on conferring with readers. We had a day of study and then a day of practice mixed in with reflection and sharing tools. The second year we focused on nonfiction reading with the framework of text sets. Once again, we had a day of study and then a day of practice in classrooms and study. As we prepared for this year’s Literacy Exchange, we all felt our teachers were ready to be pushed into more hands-on practice.

Modeling a Mini-lesson

So this year, we had a “Lab-site-palooza.” Day one we had three lab sites: one to model a read aloud and small groups, one to model a mini lesson and small groups, and then finally one for teachers to practice either the read aloud or the mini lesson and small groups. The next day, teachers had two more lab sites to practice.

We wanted to make sure that each teacher was able to practice the skills that built on their strengths but also pushed them to their next steps in revising and refining their practice. One of our team members, Scott Riley, drafted a self-assessment learning progression for teachers to use to reflect on their skills and practice as literacy teachers. As a team, we revised the document so it better matched the work in each of our schools. Teachers used this to reflect and then set a goal for the two days of the Literacy Exchange. They found a goal partner from their own school to share and coach each other into how they would work towards this goal.

Then, throughout the Literacy Exchange, teachers used their goal to frame their observations and their practice. Before each practice lab site, they named their goal to their team and asked them to watch for specific skills or behaviors to give feedback on afterward. We framed our feedback conversations on the structure of a research-decide-compliment-teach conference.

We wrapped up our time together with some independent, reflective writing and then brief celebration with a popcorn share. Each teacher shared out with the group a specific compliment for their lab site partner. It was so fun to see teachers’ smiles as their partner named their intentional work toward their goal and how they had grown in their practice.

The team is now looking to next year and coordinating school calendars to choose dates. But we are also wondering how this model could be transferred to other departments and other schools. Our conversations are focused on asking, “What are the elements that make an exchange like this work?” We are still thinking about this, but here are some of our initial ideas:

  • Having most or all of a teaching team participate builds momentum and increased application into daily practice. What would this look like in Elementary/Primary school?
  • Having a common starting point in our learning across schools allows the learning to be relevant to all participants.
  • Having common pedagogy rather than common curriculum allows the learning to be practical and hands on. What would this look like for Math or Science?
  • Having coaches who can facilitate the exchange creates a clear, focused learning experience.

While these common elements seem to be important for an exchange, we have also recognized that the diverse voices and experiences each school brings are equally important.

What would an exchange look like for your team? Who might you connect with to investigate potential shared starting points?


Thank You Notes as Strategic Compliment Feedback

Thank You Notes as Strategic Compliment Feedback

On the Receiving End

This afternoon I received this lovely thank you note from the four grade five students I mentored during their Exhibition of Learning. It made my day! They took time to hand write it and add their personal touch to the cover. But as I read their notes, my heart grew even fuller. Their specific thank you notes made me feel valued, and they helped me see what they saw as most helpful in our work together. Next year, when I take on another group, I’ll make sure to keep doing the things these grade fives found useful. 




They may not realize that their thank you note was a strategic form of compliment feedback. But their teacher does, and she worked with them to study mentor thank you notes and craft their own.  She wants to be sure each mentor feels the time they spent working with their groups was worthwhile so we will put our hands up again next year she needs mentors. I know I will.

Being Strategic

Several years ago, one of my colleagues and close friends, Amanda, taught me the power of handwritten thank you notes in the work we do with teachers. Every summer, I stalk up on thank you cards and keep them stashed in my desk, nightstand, and travel bag. 

As a Literacy Coach, I use handwritten thank you notes to give compliment feedback to teachers. I am always on the lookout for other opportunities to encourage teachers, show them that they are valued, and nudge them to keep doing the good work they are already doing by naming it for them. This is the same thing we do in our one-on-one conferences with students. We research, then give a compliment by naming something the student is doing that we would like to see them transfer to other work in the future.  

In the beginning of the year, I do lots of drop in classroom visits. After the first one, I write a thank you note and offer one or two compliments that focus on what the teacher was doing
and how that impacted student engagement, trust, or learning (things I know each teacher values). Once we move into coaching cycles, I’ll wait and write a thank you note at the end of our cycle.

Some Tips

I carry a notebook and pencil for all my coaching work and take notes much like I would while researching student work in a conference. When I am back at my desk, I reread my notes to help me craft my thank you note. Opening up our classrooms can make some teachers nervous, so I try leave it on their desk before they go home at the end of the day.