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Monday, 26 January 2015

Mentor texts and the art and science of lighting fires through writing

This week in our class we are engaging with the topic of mentor texts and are taking up the questions of what are they, when would we use them, and why do they matter?  Reading along with this topic Shelly Peterson’s (2008) chapter on Writing Non-Narrative in Content Areas in Writing Across the Curriculum, she explains that she uses the term “non-narrative instead of nonfiction” to focus “on form rather than on whether or not the content is factual or imagined” (p. 21).  In this chapter, she provides a range of examples of non-narrative forms and ideas for writing and provides some useful mini-lessons on identifying features of genres that are meant to inform, persuade or to instruct or direct.

In our class today, we sorted through the mentor texts you chose and we thought about the usefulness of such classifications, as well as where some texts defied easy categorization. After brainstorming, our class came up with key ways to use the mentor texts to help students learn about different genres. Notable moments were finding websites that allow you to adjust reading levels for informational articles, videos that exemplify different approaches to introducing a concept, and the unique ways people put their mentor texts on their blogs.

While the mentor texts you chose are for your students, the mentor text I chose for you is about teaching.  Roy F. Fox’s (1997) “Spiders, Fireflies and the Glow of Popular Science” from Stephen Tchudi’s The Astonishing Curriculum: Integrating Science and the Humanities Through Language is be a piece of non-narrative writing that is meant to inform. I chose it because it is about a teacher who teaches writing through what I would say is the most engaging way possible: by asking students to write on a topic that fascinates them.

Fox begins his chapter with a little story about the power of using sound to interact with mystery. He shares how he begins with a poem about a firefly at a book club talk to discuss a collection of poetry about nature. Asking his audience to choose their favorite poem from the collection that all touched on some mystery, as he had done when he selected the story about the firefly, the participants were fully engaged and moved from reading their chosen poem to sharing what fascinated them and what they remained curious about. Fox asserts, “teachers of many disciplines and levels, from biology to art, from junior highs school to college, should ask their students to select a mystery (which is somehow relevant to the course) and write a descriptive popular science article about it” (p. 127).  Taking up the topic of demystifying science writing with integrating study of science, humanities and society, Fox encourages us to develop teaching that immerses students in what is best about science: “commitment, curiosity, discovery, focus, precision, knowledge and facts” (p. 128). “At the same time,” Fox writes, “students are absorbed in what is best about the humanities: commitment, exploration, creativity, and clear communication motivated only for purposes of sharing information” (p. 128). Arguing that creating an assignment like “Writing a Popular Science Article” bridges the two cultures, Fox underlines that the most significant element of the assignment is personal, passionate curiosity. He notes that while experienced writers already know what their passions are, students may not know, and, thus, they are the ones who most need experience in the nurture between authentic involvement and effective expression. Therefore, in his article, Fox shares his own process of nurturing this dynamic by sharing his practice of having students get started on their Make a Mystery Make Sense project and then engaging them in a range of writing and oral response activities. 

While at this point you may be thinking ‘okay, there are some students who would run with this project but there are others who are impossible to engage’, Fox shares that the hardest part of this assignment is to help students discover the mystery that ignites them and “some students never catch fire.” This is a tough situation, but Fox asks us to take heart in at least helping students to understand that “personal fires feed real inquiry” (p. 134).  And, at least, this is a beginning.  As we continue to think through teaching writing cross the curriculum, maybe holding onto this is also a  good beginning even while we strive to create classrooms where writing to learn and learning to write will foster passion and personal interest in the process of learning, which Fox exemplifies through encouraging his students to interact with science in a humanizing way. 

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