A Menu of Mentors: Reading for Possibility by Lynsey Burkins and Franki Sibberson

“Educators ‘layer texts’ when they teach and learn from multiple powerful texts. These texts are print and nonprint and are intellectually compelling.”

Dr. Gholdy Muhammad, Cultivating Genius

Anyone who knows us knows that we love a good text set! There is nothing like curating a set of books that helps move children forward as readers and as human beings. Although we’ve been committed to the idea of curating sets of text for years, we have come to rely on an important step that happens before we create a specific text sets: We create a Menu of Mentors. 

We have come to love the idea of a Menu of Mentors when thinking about books we may use in minilessons with our students. We like the idea of having choices in the books we share with readers and the order in which we share them. We have found that the idea of a menu allows us to be responsive to our students and to create a text set that works for this group of students and for this specific purpose. We know that every time we share a book, the children in front of us will guide us to choose the next book to scaffold their learning. So we gather a collection of books that we use as a menu—we may use all of them, or we may just use a few.  

One morning during morning talking circles in Lynsey’s third grade classroom, a student  was really upset. She started saying, “They don’t let us throw our colors.” She must have said this repeatedly three times until Daniel said, “Who won’t let you throw your colors?” She began to share that her family and other families in her apartment building were trying to celebrate Holi over the weekend and part of their celebration is throwing up their color powders. She told the circle that the office building in her apartment building told them they could not do it on the community green space at their apartment building. 

This conversation spread to the entire reading community as the students were really concerned that this happened to their friend, and the other families. The conversation evolved to discussing this question: What holidays do you notice celebrated in public spaces around us?

Lynsey knew from these conversations that Holi was a topic her students wanted to learn more about, and she also knew if she shared quality books, she could support her students’ thinking about this issue as well as their growth as readers.

As was common practice, the two of us put our heads together, with each of us thinking about books that might help this group of children make sense of this issue they were interested in as well as support their goals as readers. Together we pulled together this set of books:

As the teacher, Lynsey saw that her students were really invested in this conversation both as learners and researchers. She also knew that we were getting ready to think about the following Ohio literacy standard:

RI.3.9 Compare and contrast the most important points and key details presented in two texts on the same topic.

We knew with some books from this menu, Lynsey could meet the students’ need to learn more about their friend’s holiday, while also meeting the literacy standards her class was working toward.

Any two of the books would have worked for this standard, but we decided to start with Festival of Colors by Surishtha Sehgal because it would be a good introduction to children who were not familiar with the holiday, and it would help explain throwing colors—which was not allowed in classmates’ apartment complexes. For some students, we knew they would need a bit more background to understand the issue classmates were upset about.

After reading the book and the author’s note, the conversation continued and it was clear that the class wanted to know more about the ways families celebrate. So Lynsey decided to read Holi Hai by Chitra Sounar. 

Knowing books and being open to new ways to think about them with readers helped us to follow up by quickly, pulling together a set of texts from our classroom and school libraries. We knew we wanted books (fiction and nonfiction) that would help students learn literacy skills as well as think critically about what was going on in the community by studying holiday/cultural celebrations that belong to a variety of different religious affiliations.. We pulled a stack of about 15 books, knowing that some of them would be read and others would not. We’d base our choices on students’ thinking.

A similar had happened in Franki’s fifth grade classroom a few months earlier.. Franki was working with students on Social Studies standards around Native American history. She had a collection of books that she had curated based on reviews from experts like Dr. Debbie Reese. She wanted fiction, nonfiction, historical fiction, and poetry so that her students did not get one single story as “the” story that is often the case when teaching history. Franki had the books at her fingertips, knowing the childrens’ thinking would guide her selections as they moved forward in the study.

Franki decided to start with We Are Grateful by Traci Sorrell to begin the study, as it was a new book that celebrated so much and connected toimportant history. At the end of the read aloud, one of the fifth graders said, “Native Americans lived in the past. Or if they are still living now, they live far away in the woods in tents.” Others quickly agreed. When Franki asked clarifying questions, it became clear that this was a  common (mis)understanding for most of her fifth graders. Even when Franki drew their attention to the illustrations in the book that showed present-day images, the class was adamant that this was “a long time ago.” Although the goal of the unit of study was to build an understanding of history, Franki knew she had to pivot before she moved to that. She knew if her fifth graders did not revise their understanding, any history they learned would be built on this huge and dangerous misconception. So from her menu, she pulled all of the books that showed contemporary stories or that shared stories of Indigenous people who were doing work as astronauts, scientists, and more. Having a menu of books, Franki could pivot once she listened to her students. The idea of a menu gives us permission to not just keep going with our original plan.  

These conversations will most likely never happen in the same way again in either of our classrooms. We will most likely never need these exact Text Sets again and each group of students will need to be scaffolded in their own way. But even though we won’t use these books in the same way again, we are certain that these books will find their way into another Menu of Mentors for different reasons. When we know our students, when we know the learning standards, and when we know books—and when we have an amazing thinking partner)—we are able to create these Menus of Mentors and then follow our students’ lead to create Text Sets that meet the needs of the readers in front of us.

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Lynsey Burkins is a proud educator who has worked for children for the past 18 years. She works towards creating anti-racist spaces where children feel free, have agency, and know they are loved. She believes books are primary vehicles to help children become more free. Lynsey received her Masters Degree from The Ohio State University in Language, Literacy, and Culture. She currently serves third grade students and presents on topics that include using literature to help students make sense of their world and literature as a vehicle to nurture the spirit and minds of students. Lynsey is a member of NCTE and the outgoing National Chair of NCTE’s Build Your Stack, an initiative that works to build teacher’s expertise in knowing and using quality literature in the classroom. You can find Lynsey at @lburkins on Twitter. 

Franki Sibberson, past-president of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), is a literacy leader with 33 years of elementary classroom experience in Ohio. She is the co-author of several professional books including Beyond Leveled Books, Still Learning to Read, and Day-to-Day Assessment in the Reading Workshop. Franki currently serves as the Director of the NUDL Institute for Professional Learning for SproutFive. She also provides leadership and consulting to schools and nonprofits, supporting both local and national literacy initiatives.