The books that we select to inspire writing in our classrooms can open mirrors and windows for our students when they see their stories and experiences reflected back to them.
These books serve as models to support writers in learning concrete skills and author's craft. Having access to diverse books can impact students' sense of themselves as writers and their evaluation of whether their stories are worth telling.
Here are some activities to help you get started, along with highlights from Colorín Colorado's video interviews with authors Hena Khan and Juan Felipe Herrera, the 21st U.S. Poet Laureate.
Hena Khan: Writing "The Khanicles"
Award-winning author Hena Khan describes "The Khanicles", a newspaper she created based on the life of her family, and her realization many years later that something important was missing from the story.
Ideas for the Classroom
How can I support my students to draw upon their full linguistic repertoire in their writing?
Mentor texts are the poems, short stories, magazine articles, essays, and narratives that we introduce to our young writers to learn about writing and the moves that writers make in their work. Mentor texts can be digital, print, multimodal, or a collection of different forms.
Mentor texts not only serve as a tool to teach genre, text structure, and craft moves, but also as a model for the use of a translingual approach that picture book creators use in writing, illustrations, and overall publication (e.g., dedication, book covers).
Translingual writing views languages as a resource for making meaning and brings in the different ways that students may be using their languages. Writers make strategic, intentional choices about the use of language based on message, audience, and identities. Studying language craft moves and the creators' intentions behind these moves can support students in drawing upon their everyday practices in their writing as valuable resources.
For example, Ms. Forno, a 3rd-grade teacher in Texas, engaged her students in a class inquiry of the book My Papi Has Motorcycle (Quintero, 2019). (This book is also available in Spanish.) Together, they explored the book's use of English and Spanish through written text, speech bubbles (dialogue) and illustrations. She then invited students to "try" these intentional craft moves in their own writing for authenticity.
In my language arts methods courses, I work with my teacher candidates to interrogate a wide range of mentor texts that they will use in field-based experiences and in their future writing classrooms. Our examination includes discussions of the cultural authenticity (Fox & Short, 2003) of texts, including themes, text features, and languaging practices. My goal is to ensure that teacher candidates are critically engaging with texts and selecting mentor texts that are affirming and do not unintentionally replicate deficit perspectives of historically marginalized populations.
Culturally Responsive Writing Instruction
What kinds of writing activities can encourage students to share personal or cultural stories?
Students bring rich storytelling traditions, music, dance, and art practices into the classroom from their families, homes and communities. These are important entry points into expanding reading and writing opportunities in our classrooms. How do students draw upon these traditions and practices to tell personal stories, pass along history, raise consciousness, and make sense of their lives? Beginning with their practices and their personal stories and histories must be the foundation for our reading and writing curriculum.
One idea is through an oral history project in which students can interview a family member, neighbor, or community member about their personal life experiences. Students can learn how to write interview questions, conduct interviews, and weave together narratives from people's lives, to contemporary and historical events. At the end of the project, students can present their oral history at a special gathering that honors and celebrates the personal lives of each unique individual.
"How many of you have heard that story?" Teaching folklore through students' cultural experiences
Juan Felipe Herrera describes a project he oversaw for a Chicano folklore class in which students interviewed their families and compiled stories, jokes, and legends they had grown up hearing.
Juan Felipe Herrera reads "Imagine"
Juan Felipe Herrera reads the poem he wrote for his inauguration as U.S. Poet Laureate.
How do we engage families in classroom writing instruction?
Building authentic relationships and open communication is the first step to engaging parents and families in any classroom activity, including writing. Letters home, conversations at dismissal, and phone calls home can support building trust and learning about families and their everyday lives.
One way that I engaged parents in writing instruction was through an invitation to participate in an after-school writing program that I organized for my students and families. We met weekly, read and discussed bilingual mentor texts centering family and community, and then shared our own personal stories through drawing, writing and oral storytelling. This space fostered trust and true relationship building in which we learned about each other’s lives and experiences through the reciprocal sharing of personal stories. Additionally, it opened conversations about our literacy curriculum and children’s reading and writing development — and it created a network of support among parents and families.
Juan Felipe Herrera: Writing a "Lowrider" poem
Juan Felipe Herrera describes a poetry exercise he has used with students in which he uses a familiar item to help them create a poem.
Celebrating the writing that our students compose is a necessary and beautiful part of the writing process. Writing can be challenging and putting our personal stories into words, especially for the first time, can make us feel vulnerable. Providing opportunities for students to share their publications with one another in small groups or through a class "author share" can be a first step to building confidence in your writers and to bring ceremony to the work of the community.