“What’s he building in there?” Tom Waits asks in a scratchy voice as haunting as it is evocative while watching his neighbor in “What’s He Building” I often use this voice to invite kids to take a peek at the internal structure of a mentor text.
“What’s he building in there?” I thrust a highlighter and an essay under the nose of one of my students.
“You’re weird,” she says. Eye roll.
“Thank you,” I say. Curtsy.
In English class, we often read for meaning instead of looking at how the text is “built.” As they read, it’s important for students to get in the habit of asking not only what, but how as well. Why did the author make these choices and not those? How did the author settle on this framework and not another? Students need to see every piece of writing as an artifact of someone’s decision-making.
To start this process, I hand students a copy of any text (essay, vignette, blog, etc.) and some highlighters, and I instruct them to get in there and root around. Look at how the writer built this. Dismember the sections, look for patterns and arrangements, figure out how the composition was composed. It’s a very open-ended activity, but I do offer students some questions to guide them.
Fifteen Ways of Looking at a Mentor Text
Title of Mentor Text : _____________________________________________________________
Author of Mentor Text: ___________________________________________________________
Type of Mentor Text (essay, blog, tweet, article, etc):_______________________________________
In this exercise, don’t analyze the text’s meaning, but examine how the writer “built” the text. As you read, look at how the writer puts the text together
- Before you read the text, just look at it. What do you notice? (For example, Is it a long or short text? Does it have a long or short title? Are the paragraphs long or short? Are the sentences long or short? Are there subheadings? Are there pictures? Are there infographics? Charts?)
After you read the text through once, go back and “deconstruct” how the author built the text. You are looking for the internal structure, kind of like looking at the walls, joists, windows, doors, or floorplan of a house.
- How does the writer begin the text? Do you think the beginning is effective? Why or why not?
- How does the writer end the text? Do you think the ending is effective? Why or why not?
- Are there facts in this text? List just a few.
- Why do you think the writer uses these facts? (For example: to support, to explain, to inform, to convince, etc?)
- Is there a story in this text? In one sentence, describe the story the writer uses.
- Why do you think the writer uses this story? (to contextualize, to give an example, to support, etc?)
- Is there a thesis statement in this text? Is the thesis actually written in the text or does the reader have to infer it? Write what you think the thesis statement might be.
- Are there argumentative claims in this text? List a few of the claims the writer makes.
- Why do you think the writer uses these claims? (For example: to support, to explain, to inform, to convince, etc.?)
- Do you notice any organizational patterns? (For example, are there “sections” or “chunks” in this text? How would you label these sections?)
- Why do you think the writer uses these patterns to organize the text?
- Does the writer blend story, information and argument? If so, how does the writer move between story, information, and argument?
- Does the writer use transitions to keep the reader moving from section to section? If so, why do you think the writer uses these transitions?
- How does the writer keep the reader reading? How does the writer engage you? What “craft” moves does the writer make?
Here’s a LINK to these questions in hand-out form.