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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?

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.


Quickly Tracking Learning and Conferences

Quickly Tracking Learning and Conferences

Conference notes, small group notes, tracking class habits and behaviors, recording students’ growth towards reaching standards and benchmarks… As teachers, we often struggle to find our own just right way to manage all these notes efficiently and effectively. Hopefully, we get a little better each year.


This year, I made another revision to my process that has made a huge impact: using one color to note the date I confer with a student until I see everyone, then I change to a new color.

Simple. But this little change makes it so much quicker for me to scan over a class and see who I need to confer with next.


Over the years, I have developed a pretty smooth combination of paper and digital notes. I use various paper systems depending on the purpose, but mostly I have a stack of class lists on a two column table and black small group record sheets. I print out a bunch so I can easily move to the next sheet in the moment when I’m ready.

I use the class lists mainly to record when I confer with students and if it was a reading or writing conference. This helps me quickly see who I need to meet with next, and what we might focus on, reading or writing. I also use this for anything I want to check in on the whole class quickly: titles of books, writing volume, stages of the writing process… 



I use colors for my small group planning as well. One color for the planning: who, teaching point, and method of teaching. Then another color when I meet with them to add my notes.

Recently, I noticed that one of my grade eight classes did not have the same strong community feel that my other class had. I used the same class list to record the students’ sports, activities, and service groups they were involved in. This helped me group students for English work who might already have a relationship from their afterschool activities. It also provided a quick cheat sheet for me to check in more casually with students as they came into class early. 

You can also see my sticky note here that I made before school: who I will see in a small group and conferences today.

About once or twice in a unit, I will create a paper class checklist. Right now, I have one to help me record students’ speaking and listening skills in their book club conversations. Again, I use a different color each class and note the date in that color. I know these are little snapshots, so I am not looking for everything every time. I have a coding system I learned from a colleague many years ago: / is evidence and I add to it with each additional attempt. 0 means the student is struggling and I need to support them.


In the previous unit, Literary Essay, I created a paper class checklist to help me quickly note what students were and were not yet doing in their essays (they wrote three). Then I pulled small groups to give feedback and teach. This is so much more efficient than writing up feedback for students. Also, by giving feedback in small groups, I get to teach them with a model and see right then as they try it if they are getting it or still need more support. 


In addition to these paper systems, I use Evernote to record the key information from one-on-one conferences. One of my colleagues taught me to use the voice to text feature and pointed out that she was more deliberate with the clarity of her teaching in conferences since she knew she would be saying the key points again in ear shot of the student. I have also noticed the power of students hearing the key points (compliment and teaching point) one more time. It also has helped build trust as they know what I am recording from our conversation.

I use one notebook per class, one note per student. I add the most recent note to the top with a quick date. One benefit is that I can do this on my phone (mostly), ipad, or laptop. Another benefit is that the EAL teacher who works with some of my students is shared on the notebook and adds her conference notes there too. 

No matter what you try, it’s always good to pause and ask, “why?” What is the purpose for your notes? Are they helping you meet the needs of your students in this unit of work? Are they helping you balance your time across the class? Are they helping you synthesize students’ growth and areas to focus for reporting to parents? Some notes can be quick and messy. Some notes need more detail. Hopefully you can find a system that is efficient and effecitive. 

Some notes can be quick and messy. Some notes need more detail. Hopefully you can find a just right system for you that is efficient and effective.