A Case for Music as Mentor Text Across the Disciplines


This post is written by Melissa Wrenn. You can learn more about Melissa at the bottom of this post.

In recent years, I became a music student. I don’t mean in the way I took piano lessons through middle and high school, but something else. I study the craft—the process of writing songs, creating music, publishing, etc. This is a multi-genre effort. I have watched documentaries about Eric Clapton, Linda Ronstadt, Christopher Wallace (The Notorious B.I.G.), The Avett Brothers, Jason Isbell, Tina Turner, Joan Jett, Tupac Shakur, Bob Dylan, Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez, The Bee Gees, and countless others. I couldn’t even begin to count the hours I have invested in listening to podcasts about music development and music history. I follow the paths of the writers, the producers, the record labels, and the ranking process, not just the artists. In short, I am a student of the discipline.

Music offers classroom teachers powerful tools for foundational literacy skills when used as a mentor text for writing (e.g., rhyme, figurative language, genre, tone, mood, word choice) and reading (e.g., fluency, author’s purpose, inference). As a discipline, music can also be used to teach students about community, belonging, history, and advocacy. I vividly remember getting a set of CDs with the new social studies curriculum that my district adopted when I was a fifth-grade teacher. The CDs had songs that were written at various points in history and included diverse perspectives and voices.  As I explored the things I could do with them, I began to integrate the CDs into my literacy lessons. Thus, I found that music was a way to help students make abstract ideas more concrete and to say things they didn’t know that they also had the power to say. This shouldn’t be surprising, as adults use music for the same reasons, which can be heard in music across genres or seen in any music documentary.

The most recent documentary I watched was Jelly Roll: Save Me1, which aired on May 30, 2023, via Hulu. In this documentary, I saw one of the most transformative disciplinary literacy practices I have seen or heard about in my extensive music studies. Jelly Roll donated $400,000 to be used for youth projects, including music studios at the juvenile detention center, where he spent several years of his adolescence2. In the documentary, Jelly Roll talks about the detention center’s proximity to the music industry, and the importance of supporting young people on the path to success instead of returning them to the streets without skills. Music speaks to people of all ages, including those who are creating, sharing, and consuming music within the prison system.

The same can be said for people who are experiencing the push and pull factors of other forms of trauma. Tina Turner3 and Nina Simone4 repeatedly performed immediately following domestic violence. In a 1985 documentary, John Bailey5, captured Amir Mohammad’s experiences of creating, sharing, and consuming music as an Afghan refugee. More recently, Amanda Shires6 explored the trauma that she experienced, which became the lyrics for the song, “Cover Me Up,” which was written by her husband, Jason Isbell. This song was re-recorded by Morgan Wallen, and his album with the song about Amanda Shires’ trauma spent more than 100 weeks on the Billboard charts7. There are probably as many examples of this type of relationship between the impact of trauma and music as there are artists.

For classroom teachers, elevating music as a discipline for students to use when sharing their experiences and knowledge may be a powerful, yet under-utilized tool. When I was a fifth-grade teacher, I had a student who needed support with reading, and he was a devout Avett Brothers’ fan. He had worked so hard and made so much progress that I reached out to the Avett Brothers’ manager (you can literally find anything online). About a week later, Grammy-award winning Seth Avett recorded a special, encouraging message for my student, who had developed fluency by reading Avett Brothers’ lyrics.

So, as we are all reeling from the COVID recovery and other global and local tensions surrounding what education means, Jelly Roll serves as a disciplinary literacy model. He illustrates the connection between industry and community in the acts of creating, sharing, and consuming music. His efforts to build the musical disciplinary literacy capacity of youth who are incarcerated, those who may be at their lowest points, and those struggling with mental health, addiction, and more, highlights what one needs to be successful, and sometimes that starts with someone who gives us the tools and models to help us tell our stories in the discipline that speaks to our hearts.


  1. Pearlman, B. (Director). (2023). Jelly Roll: Save me. [Documentary]. Hulu.
  2. Newman, M. (2023, June 1). From prison to no. 1: Nashville rising star proves that ‘losers can win.’ Billboard. https://www.billboard.com/music/features/jelly-roll-whitsitt-chapel-interview-1235343219/
  3. Lindsay, D., & Martin, T. J. (Directors). (2021). Tina. [Documentary]. Home Box Office.
  4. Garbus, L. (Director). (2015). What happened, Miss Simone? [Documentary]. Netflix.
  5. Bailey, J. (Director). (1985). Amir: An Afghan refugee musician’s life in Peshawar, Pakistan [Documentary]. Documentary Educational Resources.
  6. Jones, S. (Director). (2023). Jason Isbell: Running with our eyes closed. [Documentary] Home Box Office.
  7. O’Connell, M. (2023, January 8). Two years ago: Morgan Wallen releases record-breaking ‘Dangerous: The Double Album.” Country Now. https://countrynow.com/two-years-ago-morgan-wallen-releases-record-breaking-dangerous-the-double-album/

Melissa Wrenn, PhD, NBCT

Melissa has been an educator for over 20 years. She is a faculty member at East Carolina University in the Elementary Education and Middle Grades Education Department; she studies disciplinary literacy, teacher education, and classroom discourse. Melissa is also a fan of great documentaries and great coffee.

Cover Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Utilizing Disciplinary Literacy Mentor Texts


Literacy in the Disciplines, 6-12 (LiD) is pleased to announce our next webinar.

One of the greatest challenges secondary educators face is supporting students as they navigate challenging disciplinary texts. In this webinar, we make the case that being more intentional with selecting mentor texts aligned to meaningful disciplinary purposes. We will clarify our definition of “text”, consider what it means to apprentice students into the disciplinary text, and define a process for intentional text selection in service of a problem frame. Resources will be provided to support the application in participants’ contexts.

This webinar was held on June 15 2023. Cost: Free. LiD6-12 is funded by the South Carolina Middle Grades Initiative.

The video for this webinar is available here or embedded below.

This webinar featured Jenelle Williams, Oakland Schools, Michigan.

Jenelle Williams is a Literacy Consultant at
Oakland Schools, Michigan. She joined
the organization in 2017 following 18 years
of experience in public schools at the
elementary, middle, and high school
levels. She has served as a classroom
teacher, International Baccalaureate
Middle Years Programme Coordinator, IB
Educator and Examiner, and adjunct
professor. Jenelle recently stepped into
the position of co-editor of the Michigan
Reading Journal. She holds an Education
Specialist in Leadership and a Master’s
degree in Reading and Language Arts.
Jenelle works with teachers, building
leaders, and central office administrators
throughout Michigan as Co-Chair of the
statewide Disciplinary Literacy Task Force.

Follow and like Literacy in the Disciplines, 6-12 on Twitter

Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash

Mentor Texts for Disciplinary Writing Instruction–Not Just for ELA Teachers!


This post is written by Jenelle Williams. Learn more about Jenelle at the bottom of this post.

As educators, many of us can identify mentors–people who have supported us along our educational journey. To mentor someone is both a sacred task and a tall order. In classrooms, text can serve as mentors as well. The purpose of this blog post is to clearly define what we mean by a disciplinary mentor text and to consider implications for effective disciplinary writing instruction. So let’s get started!

This is an exciting time to be an educator, as notions of text are expanding as time and technology move forward. For the purposes of this blog post, let’s agree that text includes anything with encoded meaning. This, of course, can mean printed words on a page, but it can also include many other things, such as symbols, musical notation, football play diagrams, dance performances, videos, audio recordings, podcasts, graphs, charts, and more. In this expanded definition of text, we must also expand our definitions of what it means to read, write, and be literate. For our purposes, being literate in a particular context means a person can consume the encoded meaning of a text, comprehend the meaning, and communicate in ways that are valued by that particular academic discipline or profession.

What is a mentor text?

Mentor texts are typically short, engaging texts provided to students for a particular purpose, including (but not limited to) the following:

  • Acting as a foundation to learn or imitate a specific writing form
  • Teaching students to read with a writer’s eye (e.g., sentence structure or word choice)
  • Demonstrating what good writers do
  • Helping students take risks in their writing and develop their skills (from Teachstarter.com)

The role of multimodality and representation

As educators select mentor texts to use as part of instruction, it is important that, in addition to expanded notions of what qualifies as text, they intentionally include multimodal texts. Multimodal refers to something occurring or being communicated through multiple media of communication or varying forms of expression. For example, a campaign video may have images, music, text, and data all presented in one multimodal text. Students regularly interact with multimodal texts (videos with embedded audio text, for example), and need instruction and practice in order to be critical consumers of these texts.

There is an additional (and necessary) challenge as educators select texts that serve as mentors for students’ disciplinary writing–how to ensure that they are attending to issues of representation. To what extent are authors of various ethnicities, cultures, backgrounds, and perspectives represented? How might we be more intentional to include authors representing historically marginalized populations? To be sure, this requires more time and effort on the part of educators, but it is well worth the effort, as it can provide students with a connection and entry point to learning.

Authentic purpose in mentor texts for writing

In order to truly engage secondary students in authentic inquiry with mentor texts, it is vital that educators provide an authentic purpose for students to engage in mentor texts beyond simply being assigned to do so. It must be clear that the mentor text will serve a purpose and will eventually allow students to communicate their ideas with an audience greater than themselves and the teacher. The following lists some examples of authentic inquiries that would require students to engage with a wide range of texts (including mentor texts):

  • Why does a lot of hail, rain, or snowfall at some times and not others?
  • How can we use mathematical and statistical knowledge and analysis to monitor and predict the spread of disease and use our findings to make and evaluate decisions made at the personal, community, state, and national levels?
  • How can we use poetry to promote social justice in our community?
  • How can we as historians uncover and share stories about our community? Whose stories are often left untold?

Once we have identified authentic purposes for students to engage with disciplinary mentor texts for writing, we need to consider instructional approaches that leverage the power of those texts. Just as we needed to define the term “text”, it is vital that we hold a shared understanding of what we mean by the term “writing”–or, at the very least, a shared understanding of what we mean by writing instruction:

Let’s begin with some non-examples of writing instruction. They include the following:

  • Writing instruction is NOT assigning writing
  • It is NOT over-emphasizing grammar, spelling, and punctuation
  • It is NOT requiring rigid structures (i.e. telling students exactly how many sentences, what kind of sentences, and in what order)
  • It is NOT valuing the writing product over the writing process
  • It is NOT copying notes from lectures or PowerPoints, definitions of vocabulary words, answers to questions straight from the textbook, or formulas for writing

When we are working with educators to strengthen their writing instruction, we emphasize the following practices:

  • Modeling the process of preparing to write, drafting and revising writing, and reflecting on writing
  • Using writing as a tool to support learning and reflection
  • Providing support before and during writing in class
  • Valuing the process of writing just as much as the product

Disciplinary writing begins with an authentic purpose for writing. Members of various academic disciplines and professions use both informal and formal writing in order to process or organize ideas; communicate and share ideas; evaluate ideas; develop and support a claim; explain a phenomenon, process, or solution; entertain; record data, evidence, and observations; solve a problem; and much more. Middle- and high-school students can be apprenticed into these types of disciplinary writing with intentional support.

For example, students in an eighth-grade Social Studies class might engage in inquiry on the following question: What was the human toll during the Civil War? As part of their inquiry, they may read the following disciplinary texts: photographs of soldiers preparing to go to war, data tables on Civil War casualties, and first-person accounts from soldiers’ diaries. Students may engage in informal writing such as annotating texts; note-taking in response to readings, discussions, or teacher-presented information; and constructing an outline and then a first draft of a historical account or explanation. Formal writing may be a historical account or evidence-based argument about the human toll of the Civil War that is shared with an appropriate audience beyond the teacher.

Essential Instructional Practice 4 & additional helpful resources

Essential Instructional Practice 4 from the Essential Instructional Practices in Disciplinary Literacy document is a great place to start for teachers that are interested in strengthening their support of students’ disciplinary writing. Teachers may read the General Practices at the beginning of the document, or they may be interested in selecting the content area section that best aligns with their work. Additional helpful resources are also suggested in the table below.

Learner Variability Navigator
ELAMathematicsScienceSocial Studies
Michigan Middle School English Language Arts UnitsWriting in Mathematics – Annenberg LearnerScaffolding Students’ Written Explanations | AST Beyond Writing to Learn, The Science Teacher (NSTA)Read.Inquire.Write
The New York Times MS HS Writing Curriculum
MusicPhysical Education & HealthVisual ArtsHeritage & World Languages
Lesson Idea | MAEIAWritingAthletes.comLesson Idea | MAEIAThe Nature of L2 Writing | Foreign Language Teaching Methods

The great news is that secondary educators do not have to be writing experts (or even published authors) in order to teach students how to write effectively within and across disciplines. As long as we keep expanded notions of text, multimodality, and representation in mind, along with an authentic purpose for students to engage with a disciplinary mentor text, we are well on our way to modeling and scaffolding students as they create disciplinary texts of their own. We are lucky as well that we have free, widely available resources that can help us shift toward effective pedagogical moves. Let’s get writing, everyone!

Jenelle Williams is a Literacy Consultant within the Leadership and Continuous Improvement unit at Oakland Schools, an intermediate school district supporting the 28 districts in Oakland County, Michigan. She joined the organization in 2017 following 18 years of experience in public schools at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. She has served as a classroom teacher, IB Middle Years Programme Coordinator, teacher leader, and educational technology coach. An IB Educator and Examiner since 2013, Jenelle leads professional learning workshops and marks e-assessments for the International Baccalaureate Organization. She holds an Education Specialist in Leadership degree and a Master’s degree in Reading and Language Arts through Oakland University. In addition, Jenelle serves as an Adjunct Professor in Grand Valley State University’s Graduate Program and a co-editor of The Michigan Reading Journal, a publication from the Michigan Reading Association. Jenelle is passionate about supporting teachers, building leaders, and central office administrators in the area of secondary literacy, and she is especially excited to be able to support Michigan’s work around disciplinary literacy through her role as Co-Chair of the statewide Disciplinary Literacy Task Force. She can be reached at jenelle.williams@oakland.k12.mi.us, and on Twitter at @JenelleWilliam6 and @GELN612Literacy.

Cover Photo by Desola Lanre-Ologun on Unsplash

Exploring Mentor Texts


This post is written by Charlene Aldrich. You can learn more about Charlene at the bottom of this post.

I’ve always been a strong believer in the power of reading to identify important information and to grow decision-making processes.  My mantra is, “Never tell someone what they need to know when they can find out for themselves by reading.”  So, when I saw the book Micro Mentor Texts by Penny Kittle come up in my Facebook feed, I was especially intrigued by the idea that students might not need to read ALL of Romeo and Juliet to become knowledgeable of Shakespeare, his cheeky quotes, and 16th-century literature.

I’m not trying to sell you on this book, instead, I AM trying to sell you on the idea that mentor texts don’t have to be complete works that students gloss over to “complete the assignment.”  Can it be that teachers can provide specific sample excerpts to achieve their literacy goals?

Spelling and Vocabulary

Research has affirmed the idea that successful readers and writers tend to have prolific vocabularies 1.

Useable vocabularies grow through listening and reading, speaking and writing2.  I continue to believe in the developmental nature of language to support literacy development as I watch my granddaughter on her preschool journey to beginning reading.  Her speaking vocabulary includes words and phrases such as “cheeky little rascal,” “plaster,” and “go through” because of her fascination with the very British show featuring Peppa and George Pig!  She may never read them in the same context, but the foundation has been laid for multi-meaning words if she sees these and similar words and phrases in reading selections.

What does this say to educators and about mentor texts?  Reading, writing, and oral language are tightly knit; introducing mentor texts as examples of effective writing “… promotes students to view, discuss, read, and create literature that affords opportunities for spelling and vocabulary development that are engaging, relevant and active”3.

Blog writers from ELA Matters share “3 Engaging Mentor Texts for Middle and High School”.  One that supports vocabulary development is My Name by Sandra Cisneros.  While the language is simple, Cisneros weaves it into rich literary devices such as imagery, simile, and metaphor. Students of all reading abilities see how to use their own vocabulary levels to develop descriptive works that require precise vocabulary.

Beyond spelling and vocabulary 

In addition to growing spelling and vocabulary, mentor texts contribute to the development of other traits of effective writing: organization, conventions, sentence fluency, and voice. Mentor texts are examples for students to follow as they develop their own ideas through these traits4. They can be below grade level to make the traits obvious; they can be on or above grade level to meet the standards that require complex texts. They can include a wide range of styles – from classical literature to graphic novels. Teachers can use them to develop critical thinking and persuasive arguments. Students can read memoirs in preparation for personal narratives. The inclusion of authors and diverse topics can even mentor acceptance and open-mindedness. And never overlook the power and pleasure of picture books for growing storytelling.

Mentor texts are not restricted to the ELA curriculum. As state standards have shown through the inclusion of disciplinary literacy requirements, each discipline contains its own set of unique formats, craft, and technical language. Thus, each content area teacher has the opportunity to include quality mentor texts for students to emulate as they meet the reading and writing needs of each discipline.  What do YOU enjoy reading in your discipline? How can students also find enjoyment in your choice of reading selections of your discipline?

My grandson introduced me to A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen. This book takes readers through life behind the Berlin Wall, beginning with the night it was built.  Social Studies/History courses are meant to provide multiple perspectives to ensure accurate representation of diverse experiences. This historical fiction book opens with vivid language to introduce a school-age girl’s reaction to the lack of freedom that was imminent. “There was no warning the night the wall went up.  I awoke to sirens screaming throughout my city of East Berlin. Instantly, I flew from my bed. Something must be terribly wrong.  Why were there so many?” Individual excerpts from the book can be extracted as a mentor text for writing essays that focus on the value of freedom. Using this text as a mentor, along with showcasing other fictional or nonfiction realities of this time period, can support students’ ability to also write about their own experiences with freedom or war.

Using Model Texts

Students NEED high-quality reading selections that challenge them to grow in their personal literacy skills; after all, literacy is power. In addition to meaning-making, model texts provide examples of effective composition techniques5. Using them effectively becomes the goal.  Robyn English (2021) offers this advice6:

  • Be familiar with the reading selection and what you want it to demonstrate
  • Be purposeful in your use; plan for single successes, not multiple attempts
  • Be knowledgeable of the strategy or characteristic being taught
  • Be flexible, returning to a single text for other purposes
  • Be generous, sharing them as you would any book in your classroom library

In Short

Students need positive role models for growing into responsible adults. Likewise, they need effective models of texts for growing their literacy strength. As English notes in her text listed above, “Mentor texts support a teacher in modeled reading or writing.”

Charlene Aldrich is an instructor in the Office of Professional Development at the College of Charleston. While content-area literacy is her specialty, she also teaches Assessments in Reading, Foundations in Reading, and Instructional Practices as required by South Carolina for recertification. She serves as the Treasurer of LiD 6-12.

Cover Photo by NEOM on Unsplash

The Power of Parallel Reading


This post is written by Charlene Aldrich. For more about Charlene, please visit the bottom of this page. The webinar recording for this material is embedded at the bottom of post.

How do we get students to read at home? We probably have to require it. We know in lower school, students are asked to read 15-20 minutes every evening. Students have free choice; parents monitor the requirement by initialing a document. But how can that requirement morph into a habit that positively affects the student’s academic future?  “Let them choose” becomes the mantra. When given open choices, it’s human nature to struggle. 

BUT when we provide themes, topics, or text sets to choose from, we make a choice manageable. It’s then that students fulfill our targeted purpose for outside reading. It’s then that students look at titles as a way of previewing the content of the text. It’s then that they engage in ‘reading to find out.’ It’s a win-win.

“I don’t have time to hunt down reading selections and/or books!” cry many content-area teachers everywhere.  And maybe teachers won’t have the extra time during their first or second year of teaching. Or the first or second month of the year.  HOWEVER, when teaching and planning become automatic, time becomes available to investigate the themes and text sets curated and available online. Content-area teachers can introduce reading selections of all genres; these support the ELA curriculum and provide background, cultural understanding, or applications of specific content-area curriculum.  This is where the idea of parallel reading emerged – collaborating across the content areas in ways that grow overall literacy proficiency AND reinforce content-area learning.

Parallel – side by side, never touching. Reading – the crosstie that connects content areas. Juxtaposed with another discipline, text is a way to connect things that would otherwise run side by side. Through parallel reading, teachers approach their content from a literacy mindset. Take math, for example.  One might say that reading is not necessary to do the math.  However, knowing ‘pi’ is essential, but where did it come from?  WHO first used it for achieving a measurement?  WHEN did it come about? WHY was it necessary? A planning question becomes, “Who were the movers and shakers beginning at the onset of mathematical thinking and going forward?”

How do you implement your new mindset?

  1. Review the major topics of your curriculum.  OR
  2. Look at the calendar for events or holidays. OR
  3. Look at the school calendar for half-days and identify a theme, especially those that are more social than curriculum related.
  4. Ask students what ideas they would like to explore, then factor their ideas into your curriculum and text set search.
  5. Ask the librarian to identify a wide range of texts and genres that connect to your theme or topic. 
  6. Search in the following text set resources for reading selections connected to the theme or topic.
  7. Construct your curated list for your students to choose an interest to read and share.
  8. Most of all, limit the rabbit holes that you might find yourself in as you realize the plethora of choices that you can provide to your students.  

Arousing curiosity and satisfying it with reading develops a positive attitude toward reading.  It empowers students to read to ‘find out why’. While the answers to those questions are easily found with a Google search, connecting to the culture of the times happens best when biographies or primary sources are available for reading.

Text of all kinds becomes the primary connection between every content area. Students who read first-hand accounts of the Jim Crow era have a deeper understanding of the literature of that time. The struggle of the Indigenous people has a more significant impact when seen through their eyes in diaries, songs, and poetry. Understanding the building process of the pyramids or the Roman aqueducts connects math with sociology or history.

I alluded to curated text sets above and encourage you to investigate some of my favorite resources. NewsELA, ReadWorks, CommonLit are just a few places to find digital text sets created and classified by readability, theme, topic, holiday, and current events. One of my favorite articles is in NewsELA regarding Halloween and how much money is spent: nine billion dollars in 2018! Each of the above resources contains a wide variety of stand-alone reading/writing projects for those short classes on short days where there’s no time for an entire lesson!

Your teaching librarian can also curate book sets that support your curriculum. Other grade-level teachers may welcome the opportunity to collaborate on reading and writing assignments. Making connections across content-areas strengthens learning and increases the likelihood of creating lifelong learners.

Ponder my truisms about lifelong learning:

  • Learning requires reading from diverse perspectives.
  • Linking new learning to prior learning lays a foundation for future application.
  • Social consciousness is developed when empathy is aroused.
  • Citizenship has a whole new meaning when students discover that the ‘yous’ of this world are more important than the “I”. 

Parallel reading projects grow a body of students who will begin thinking outside of their high school, content-area silo. That is certainly how they will live upon graduation. Stereotype book reports don’t have to be the outcome of parallel reading. How would your students like to communicate their reading experience to others? Encourage them to move beyond summaries (which can be found online) to how their perspectives have shifted because of the reading selection.  

Try it. Identifying the selections is half of the fun! What’s the other half? Sharing them with your students.  Through themes and topics, students can connect with text in ways outside of a required curriculum text. They can take ownership of their reading which just might result independent readers and learners.   

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Charlene Aldrich is an instructor in the Office of Professional Development at the College of Charleston. While content-area literacy is her specialty, she also teaches Assessments in Reading, Foundations in Reading, and Instructional Practices as required by South Carolina for recertification. She serves as the Treasurer of LiD 6-12.