As part of a unit on following instructions, I read the picture book How To Lose All Your Friends by Nancy Carlson to a fourth grade class. Inspired by this amusing list of social mistakes, the students eagerly picked up pencils to begin their own how-to lists. The results we shared 25 minutes later were creative, funny, and highly original. Some of the students made a text-to-text connection to the middle grade novel, 101 Ways to Bug Your Teacher by Lee Wardlaw. Others wrote lists for annoying brothers or sisters. The two teachers in the room made up lists to annoy their students. Everyone had a great time.
Writing models also known as mentor texts are widely used in writing workshop. All writers benefit from studying and emulating the work of a favorite author. However, sometimes it muddies the waters between copying and doing your work. What do you say to a second grader who proudly shares a story entitled “Puppyzilla” with entire sentences lifted directly from Dav Pilkey’s Dogzilla?
It’s a delicate situation considering the young writer was encouraged to use Dogzilla as inspiration for her story. While students understand, even at a young age, that they shouldn’t copy answers on a test, the distinction between writing one’s own version of a story idea and plagiarism can be hard for young writers to grasp.
I tackle this problem by taking the student aside to compare the student’s work with the writing model. We identify sentences that were copied and acknowledge a mutual love of the story.
“You’re right! That is the best part of Dogzilla. But those words belong to Dav Pilkey, not you.”
Some of my own picture books were inspired by traditional folktales. I researched different versions of these tales in order to combine elements into an original synthesis. I also compared my own language to my sources to be sure I did not plagiarize by accident. Frequently, this pushed me to search for new ways of saying something. Writing models can provide both ideas for writing and a means for strengthening writing. Teach your students to carefully ask the following questions.
How is my story different from the mentor text? How is it the same? Have I used any of the same words? Could I choose words that sound more like me?