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Mentor Texts for Project Connect

When my colleagues and I redesigned our school’s senior project, dubbed Project Connect, we wanted to emphasize connected learning concepts (see Helping Kids Get Connected). Doing so meant beginning to change our conversations about the texts we create in our classes and for their projects, so that students can begin to shed the notion that writing is a stagnant interaction between students and their teachers. We wanted them to focus on creating purposeful and relevant texts from their research and experiences, for real audiences and real communities.

This notion manifested as a requirement that students create two “Connect Texts” as part of their project. What distinguished texts as connect texts? Merely the fact that they were student-generated, from concept to completion, and that they were designed with the purpose of communicating with, and therefore connecting to, an existing community or audience. A student learning about and involved in filmmaking, for example, might use images and text to document her creative process for other filmmakers, or might compose a film script for her actors. A student studying the prevention of head injury in football might write persuasive letters to coaches, or create a presentation promoting safe practices for students athletes.

Again, the focus here is on students creating real and relevant texts that extend from their learning but serve a real and specific audience. Because student choice is paramount at almost every stage of this project, teachers were challenged to coach decision making rather than dictate every action. Without specific, top-down instruction about what to create, how to create it, and what the creation should look like, all but the most confident students, at one time or another, found themselves floundering through the decision-making process. What to make? How to make it? What technology to use? How to use that technology? And these are exactly the questions we want them to ask. What we didn’t want, and what we hope to reduce in the future, was the the unmotivated response: I don’t know. You tell me. Meh. 

Without definitive answers to "Meh," the teacher must be a coach, empowering students to make decisions by modeling metacognition using mentor texts.

Typically, we think of mentor texts as published exemplars writers use to deepen their understanding of the texts types they will produce. In mentor texts, they see how another author has implemented text features, structure, research, and graphics. They examine voice and style, typically with the intent to emulate it, if only partially. Herein lies our problem. Mentor texts typically assume that the student knows/has been assigned a genre or format. For Project Connect, however, we were attempting to avoid such micromanagement of writing decisions, teaching the students, rather, to make their own writing decisions. This focus dictates a different approach to mentor texts.

For Project Connect, we must approach mentor texts not just as text types, but as representations of a writer’s decisions about purpose, audience, genre, format, and style. An article is an article, yes, but why is it an article? Why didn’t the author create a cartoon? Or a film? This problem--that students typically lack the mental model for processing decisions writers making about text genre and format--is the one I am trying to address with the resource below. It attempts to provide our teachers with mentor texts and questioning strategies that will help them think through another author’s decision-making/self-questioning process, so that they can walk through that questioning and decision making process on their own.

The first section regards symposium presentations, which occur at the end of the semester. We are in the process of deconstructing our own notions of what presentations ought to be, unburdening our students of formulas and overly restrictive rubrics, so this part of the resource is aimed at helping all of us see elements of what a presentation might become. It asks students to analyze a TED talk using a series of generic questions that might be applied to any presentation, the notion being that they might reverse engineer the process as they plan their own presentations. I added an annotated version of the TED talk that offers a few of my own talking points. I also included a selection of optional mentor texts, including presentations (more from TED for now) and a variety of demonstration videos.

The second section focuses on Connect Texts. It seemed wise to offer two mentors here, since the possibilities are so vast, so I included an infographic I found on coolinfographics.com and a Voicethread, along with a series of questions about purpose, audience and format. This section also includes a short list of additional mentor texts, though I expect teachers will continue to talk students through a more varied list of possibilities. The purpose, again, is to mentor the initial decision-making process of writers exploring modes of communication.

The teacher/student resource is linked here. Feel free to copy and modify it. I know we will. Or you can just read it below...

 

Mentor Texts for Project Connect

Thinking about your Project Connect Symposium presentation.

Symposium intimidates a lot of students, mostly because speaking in front of peers, parents, community members and teachers can be frightening. The other fear factor is the uncertainty of it--not knowing what a symposium presentation should look like. The fact is, there is no single acceptable presentation format or style, so the question becomes, “What CAN your presentation look like?” The answer is up to you.

What’s important is communicating a clear and valuable message to an interested audience. Key elements of a successful presentation are likely to include:

  • Use of relevant narrative (storytelling)
  • Use of compelling visuals aids, preferably digital
  • Incorporation of meaningful research
  • Engagement of audience

Ultimately, the audience must be interested in or care about what the speaker has to say, must understand the author’s message, and should, to some extent, buy the ideas the speaker is selling.

Using the Mentor Text

Mentors guide us, help us make our own decisions. A mentor text, or in this case, mentor videos, guide the decisions we make about the creation of our own texts. When you view this video linked below, consider the presentation not as something you must mimic, but as something from which you might learn. Observe the speaker’s tone and presentation of himself as an engaging speaker. What can you take from him? And what should you leave behind? What strategies do you see yourself using when you present at symposium? How will you tweak them? Adapt them? What’s missing that you still have to figure out?

To get the most out of a mentor text, you should give it a close viewing and thoughtful analysis. Watch the video linked below. As you watch, consider each of the questions listed:

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Why Videos Go Viral by Kevin Allocca

  • What is the speaker’s message?
  • How does the speaker engage his audience and maintain their interest?
  • How does the speaker use narrative/storytelling to communicate an idea?
  • How does the speaker present research to support or demonstrate an idea? Does he credit the source of the research? How?
  • How does the speaker use visuals to enhance his presentation? What does he NOT do with visual aids?

Then, for an annotated version to help you think through these questions, click here.

Finding Multiple Mentors

If one mentor is helpful, you can certainly benefit from multiple mentors. As you you envision and prepare your symposium presentation, ask the same questions of two or three of these how-to videos and TED Talks. You might find ideas for a completely different approach:

Demonstrations

Presentations

 

Thinking about Connect Texts

Perhaps the toughest challenge in creating a connect text is deciding what you want to create. I like to ask a few more questions in pursuit of the answer to that question:

  • What information or message do you need to convey?
  • Who needs to receive it?
  • What is the best way for you to communicate with that audience?

The answers to these question will help you decide what sort of connect text you want to create: a petition, a pamphlet, an infographic, a video, an interview, a series of tweets, a children’s book. The same answers will also shape the finer decisions you make in creating your connect text: how to use visual elements, what research to present and how to present it, how much text to use, and how to use it. Ultimately, the aim doesn’t change. You always want to affect your audience purposefully. Looking at a few mentor texts might help you think through your own decisions later on.

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Using the Mentor Text

Mentor texts for your connect texts are incredibly important. Initially, the goal is simply to understand HOW a writer might approach the creation of the text. As you view this infographic from coolinfographics.com, answer these questions to begin developing that understanding:

  • Who is the author’s intended audience? For whom has he created this text?
  • What is the purpose of the text? That is, what does the author hope his audience will understand, do, think, or feel as a result of viewing/listening to/experiencing it?
  • How does the author organize information in this text?
  • How does the author use visual elements to communicate a message to his audience?
  • How does the author use textual (spoken or written) elements to communicate ideas? What did he NOT do with text?
  • Why was the chosen format (infographic, voicethread, pamphlet) a good format for this author to communicate his message to his audience?

Is the infographic a good choice for you? Maybe it’s not. Check out a different type of text: a Voicethread. Voicethreads, a web 2.0 tool that allows the author to narrate a series of images, are a great way to combine textual and visual elements.

View this Voicethread mentor text and answer the questions above. (Hint: click the arrow in the bottom right corner to skip the viewer comments and focus on the original text created by the author.) As you analyze this Voicethread, remember that what you create need not be a Voicethread or an infographic. These mentor texts merely offer a way of thinking through someone else’s creative process, so that it might guide your own creative process. Still, it might be helpful to consider a few more possibilities.

Finding Multiple Mentors

Because the possibilities for your connect texts are so vast, it is important to consider multiple mentor texts. The same questions you answered before apply here as well: 

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Whatever format you end up choosing, you should look at several examples and steal the best strategies for your own product.