Mentoring: Sprouting Student Writers

I bought a bag of sweet potatoes some months ago. I added them to our meals over the course of a week. I never got to the last one. We must have grown tired of them, so I just let it sit. I began to notice shoots beginning to grow from the vegetable which shouldn’t have surprised me as we were actually eating the plant’s tuberous root. But it did surprise me, and I became fascinated by the direction the leaves began to take. I expect it will eventually grow as a vine and maybe sport some flowers.

Watching this sweet potato grow has made me think of our students as writers. There is so much inside them already that can sprout in their writing. Ralph Fletcher says it well in What A Writer Needs when he writes “Most students write far far better than they will ever know. We have to let children in on the secret of how powerfully they write. We need to let them take inspiration from what they already do well.”

How do we as teachers of writing help sprout students as writers? Going back to my tuber, I didn’t put it in water or feed it plant food. What I did do was put it on a window sill in the sunlight. What sunlight do the students need? Certainly not writing assignments structured around topics the teacher selects. The sunlight is our ability to mentor a writer in the process of writing what the writer needs to sprout.

In his chapter on mentoring in the above-mentioned book, Fletcher describes four abilities a mentor needs. A mentor values originality and diversity, even when the writing is not the kind of writing we like. A mentor encourages a student to take risks. A mentor is passionate. A mentor looks at the big picture.

What a Writer Needs is the book that our faculty began to read in a study group as we began to move toward a writing workshop model. Many of us concluded that we had never had such mentors ourselves as student writers. For me in grammar school it was diagramming sentences. And so we read and talked and began to write ourselves. And we began to mentor each other. And we began to build our own confidence as writers.

We gave each other sunlight to sprout our own writing sweet potatoes. We began to understand what it takes to mentor our students writers.






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