I love going to conferences and workshops. They’re so invigorating. Sometimes an idea I have is confirmed, or I’m reminded of a strategy or activity I haven’t used in a while. But the best sessions are those where I learn something new that I can immediately use in my teaching and moves my thinking about a topic forward.
This happened on Saturday at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Saturday Reunion. Carl Anderson’s session on analyzing informational texts for teaching points to support student writing caused a noticeable shift in my thinking about these books.
Anderson, author of the classic book on conferring, How’s It Going? (Heinemann, 2000), opened his talk by reminding us that using mentor texts is essential if we want our students to write well in any genre. They have to “imagine the shape of their drafts.” In order to do this, they’ll need lots of exposure to models of the genre before they write.
Teachers should look at possible mentor texts through several lenses, including meaning, structure, details, voice, and conventions. Anderson’s words came back to me a few hours later while I was browsing the shelves at Bank St. Book Store. Astronomy has always fascinated me, so Jessie Hartland’s new book, How the Meteorite Got to the Museum (Blue Apple Books, 2013), caught my eye. As I flipped through the pages, I realized I was reading the book differently that I would have just the day before. Many elements of the book’s structure and style popped out and grabbed my attention.
Told as a cumulative story in the tradition of “The House that Jack Built,” How the Meteorite Got to the Museum combines scientific facts with the daily lives of the people whose path the meteor crossed, making the story more interesting and engaging to readers. Hartland infuses the story with humor with lines like “Your car was in an interstellar collision!”
The Peekskill Meteorite’s descent to Earth is described with vivid details that include all the senses. Witnesses’ reactions are chronicled with a variety of verbs each time they’re mentioned, as is the meteorite’s journey itself. Hartland’s colorful, engaging illustrations, which remind me of Maira Kalman’s work, include diagrams, maps and other typical of non-fiction features.
All of these touches give this book a depth that will draw kids back to it again and again, a depth I might have missed if not for Carl Anderson’s ideas about analyzing mentor texts. How the Meteorite Got to the Museum is an ideal mentor text for 3rd or 4th grade students who’ve been writing informational text for a few years and are ready to stretch their writing wings and try a new text structure. And they’ll learn a few facts about meteorites along the way.