Ruth Culham talks about ‘mentor texts’ and her upcoming webcast with The 39 Clues authors
By Guest Blogger on March 30th, 2011
We have a guest with us on OOM today! Ruth Culham is an incredible teacher (and advisor to Scholastic) and creator of the Traits of Writing framework of instruction. She’s joining several authors from the wildly-popular The 39 Clues series on Tuesday, April 5th, for a free video webcast for classrooms designed to model and inspire good writing in kids across the country. Called Decoding Writing with The 39 Clues, the webcast will connect kids with “mentor texts” and “mentor writers” to help energize student writers. An educator guide is available for use during the webcast.
The webcast will be broadcast live on the Web at 1 p.m. (EST) on April 5th, and you can sign up online for that. The webcast will also be made available for video replay later in the day at Scholastic.com/decodingwriting.
Ruth was kind enough to answer a few of our questions in anticipation of the big event next week. Hello, Ruth!
OOM: Tell us about the concept of mentor texts. How do they help students become better writers?
RUTH: We study the work of artists to become better artists ourselves. We watch NBA basketball players to see how they move, handle the ball, and shoot so we can improve our own game. Why not study great writing to learn how to write? After you read a piece for the enjoyment of it or for the information it contains, a second or third pass through can be for you, the writer. How did the author capture my interest so easily? How was the piece structured so was easy to follow? Were there words and phrases I noticed in particular? Questions that writers ask themselves as they draft and revise can be answered as they read and study the work of writers they admire. It’s a natural process and the good news is there’s a never-ending supply of great texts to explore as readers and writers.
OOM: You visit schools and talk to kids a lot. Why has The 39 Clues caught on with so many of them?
RUTH: One of my favorite things to do is to visit a school and teach a model lesson on one of the traits of writing to students of all ages. Of course, it goes well because the kids are totally prepared for me and told to behave, so I get to waltz in, show them some cool things, and waltz out. No paperwork, no grades, no scheduling nightmares. None of the everyday hassles that full-time teachers face every day. What I’ve noticed, however, is that teachers often have the kids put the book they are reading on their desk for me to see. The students and I begin by talking about their favorite books and why. There is always such a range – and they always have such passionate reasons for why they like certain books. It’s very heartening. Not surprisingly, popular books are from The 39 Clues series. Students love these books and when one begins talking, others who haven’t read that particular title, rise up and shush the speaker–they don’t want to know what happens, preferring to discover it for themselves. There’s just enough mystery and intrigue to hook them. The writing is clear and powerful. The characters are well-developed and students really relate to them. They love the novelty of the books – there’s nothing else like them out there. And though it’s a series with soon-to-be 11 books now, each one is fresh and original — yet familiar and comfortable. It’s the perfect storm for readers.
OOM: We hear often that reading books helps people become better writers. What are some simple things parents and teachers can do, and questions they can ask, to help kids learn about writing through reading?
RUTH: Reading. It’s the magical act that transforms lives. One of the lovely benefits of reading is that the reader soaks in the language, the rhythms of the text, and how the ideas are expressed on every page. It may not be a conscious thing, but if you read, you learn how good writing works. It’s that awareness of what writing sounds like, feels like, and looks like that makes it such a key to writing well. Writers are readers. To give kids books that they love, and give them time to read is a precious gift. Parents can read and model for kids. They can read the newspaper and share sections kids might find interesting. Magazines, pamphlets, users guides, recipes, directions, forms–whatever is in the parent’s life can be read and talked about. It will make all the difference. Teachers can tell kids about what they are reading and why they stayed up far too late the night before because they just couldn’t stop. Reading is so much more than understanding the words, it’s getting caught up in the ideas that turns a kid from a beginning reader into an avid reader. And once that happens, everything the child reads becomes a teaching tool about writing. Everything. It’s so exciting to think of how easy this process really is. Every day read something to your young writer. Don’t ignore stories and novels, but don’t limit yourself to them, either. There’s a world of good writing out there.
OOM: What about this webcast coming up (Decoding Writing with The 39 Clues)? Are you excited about it?
RUTH: Oh gosh, yes. I’m thrilled to be talking about writing with authors whose works I’ve long admired. I’m a children’s book junkie – you should see my house. They are everywhere. Whenever someone comes by with child, I make sure they go home with an armful of new books that catch their eye–such a lovely treat for me, too. My favorite books are chapter and young adult books (though I have a room full of picture books, too), so when an opportunity comes along to join forces and share mutual passions for reading and writing with some of the best chapter/YA authors in the country, it’s like the night before the first day of school for me. Even after teaching nineteen years, I could never sleep that night. I was too excited about what was about to happen for me and my new students. That’s how I’m feeling about the webinar. I guess this makes me a book geek, and I’m just fine with that.
OOM: What advice do you have for teachers and parents who want to work together to encourage their kids to become strong writers?
RUTH: One thing I’ve learned over the years is to be specific. You can’t just say to a student, “Good job,” or “Nice work,” or even “It’s not working” and expect him or her to understand why you have that impression of their work. You have to be clear and use language they understand: ”Your idea is makes good sense because you focused it and added in details that really work; your sentences have a nice rhythm and flow because they are structured well and are varied in length; your piece is a pleasure to read because you took time to edit it for conventions.” Or, “I got a little lost in paragraph 2. Let’s try reordering the information so it is more logical; There’s a lot of good detail in this piece so now let’s think about how to word it so your knowledge and enthusiasm for this topic comes through.” Whether it’s good or bad news, it needs to be specific. Help has to be offered, or the detail of why the piece works well has to be explained. Students will repeat what works and fix what doesn’t. They can’t do that with knowing the truth of their piece. This is where the traits are so powerful. They give us that language. Students, teachers, parents can all be on the same page–it’s easy. Everyone can have a copy of the traits scoring guide and whether it’s at home or at school, consistency will rule the day.
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