For the Love of Mentor Texts - Teddy Kuhn



Welcome to another guest post in my series For The Love of Mentor Texts here at Teach Mentor Texts. I love to talk about the power of mentor texts to impact our writing but I'm thrilled to have friends share how they use mentor texts for a fresh perspective. Today I'm excited to welcome Teddy Kuhn to to share how she uses cartoons to inspire students to write.

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Elaborating with Cartoons as Mentor Texts

Students can give opinions all day long, usually very strong and sometimes logical opinions.  The point is opinions are natural for humans, we grow up being asked; what’s your favorite? What’s the best? Was that scary? Funny?  So why is it in argumentative essays student writing often feels flat and bland?  If you’re like me, you’ve read thousands of essays where students’ arguments are simple repetitions of an opinion.   And if you’re like me, you write on the paper, “Why?” and “What does this show?” and “Tell me more about this.”


Finally, you get to the end of the stack and instead of being relieved they’re all graded, you’re frustrated because no matter how many times deepening questions have been written, or written “TELL ME MORE”, students just don’t “TELL ME MORE”.  So it finally dawned on me (It took a while) that maybe students don’t know HOW to tell me more or what could be said.  It was time to start really thinking about what elaboration is and what it does because it is more than just more.  


In the early days I began with comic strips straight from the funny pages of the newspaper.  I gave kids a copy, let them read, listen to some giggles and asked “Is this funny?”


We practiced this a lot, with a lot of cartoons, it’s quick and students like it.  Best of all it did help with their writing.  However, with Common Core the standards for argumentative writing became more rigorous and more defined than they previously had.  I needed to step my strategy up, because even though it helped students see what elaboration looks like, it didn’t help them understand what it truly does.  


That’s when George Hillock, Jr’s book Teaching Argument Writing truly saved the day, week, unit, all of it.  This is really a remarkable book! It has become one of my staple professional development books.  Hillocks helped me really understand the components of argument writing and how they work together.  The book helped solidify what I knew, taught me the new language of CCSS and gave me the tools to actually teach it.  LOVE, LOVE this book, find a copy!


Anyways, Hillocks suggests using crime scene cartoons! (Is there anything more satisfying than finding out you were on the right track??) I use Lawrence Treat’s Crime and Puzzlement, each cartoon in this book comes with a brief story that includes more clues.  Share it with students and simply ask, “What happened? Was this an accident?” As students begin developing theories guide them to the picture and ask, “How can you tell?” This time when students are asked for more, I was really asking for a comparison. Students are really answering, “How does this compare to what you know about the world?”


Suddenly their answers will include ideas about how this evidence shows it couldn’t have been an accident because it would be impossible to occur naturally.  And, almost like magic, students are answering, “why?” and “telling me more” using logic, warrants and reasoning, even if they don’t know it yet!  I’ll later use these cartoons and conversations to define the key elements of argument writing.  Students are more likely to transfer this elaboration when they know exactly what that element is, does and sounds like.




Unfortunately, if you do teach younger students these cartoons aren’t appropriate.  I recommend the classic Goofus and Galant cartoons. Ask students which character is doing the right thing and which is doing the wrong.  Then, to encourage elaboration and reasoning, ask students, “How do you know that’s the right thing to do?” Students’ answers will include their experiences and values in comparison with the characters, so even at a young age the elaboration and reasoning muscles are being strengthened!


I recently discovered Zen Pencils and love how they are taking inspirational or thought-provoking quotes and turning them into cartoons. It really brings them to life and helps give readers another lens to consider as they discuss. If you aren't familiar with this site, I definitely recommend it as well.


A big thank you to Teddy for taking the time to share her love of mentor texts!

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