Making Time for Vocabulary Instruction that Matters

Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 2.33.31 PM.pngYears and years ago, before I had been bitten by the writing workshop bug, I became obsessed with vocabulary instruction. My school used a series of vocabulary workbooks at each grade level, and I had witnessed how that approach didn’t worked. Not for real. Not for the long term. Some students would dutifully memorize the words, earn a high score on the quiz, and forthrightly forget most of what they had learned. Many of my students would even bother — they would sort of study the words, sort of learn some of them, earn a low quiz grade, and move on with their day.

So, I did lots of reading and research — particularly of Janet Allen — and devised a series of in-depth, meaningful approaches to actually teach vocabulary so that my students learned, retained, and used new and increasingly sophisticated words.

The problem here was time. If I spent an average of 270 minutes per week with any given class, I was using about half of those minutes just on vocabulary instruction.  Reading instruction, whole-class literature, independent reading, and writing were all squeezed into the other half. My vocabulary instruction was amazing — and my students actually loved it and looked forward to it — but it was the core of my class, and that didn’t feel right either.

After diving into writing workshop with my students, I’ll be honest, I ditched explicit vocabulary instruction altogether. I didn’t know how to do it well and do it efficiently. I quoted studies that say, “Students get the best vocabulary instruction by simply reading”, and I left it at that. A third paltry solution.

Today, I am not going to give you a list of vocabulary activities — you can easily find those on your own, and there are lots of good ones out there! (Again, check out Janet Allen’s books! She is brilliant and her work is suitable for any grade level.). What I want to offer you instead is a brief look at what we know works in vocabulary instruction and a handful of  ideas for how you can build this instruction into our current writing instruction, so that students don’t simply understand the words they read but can also use them effectively to improve their writing.
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Mentor Text Wednesday: Anthology Introductions

MentorTextWednesdayMentor Texts:  

Sherman Alexie Speaks Out on The Best American Poetry 2015

Introduction to X-Files: Trust No One by Jonathan Maberry

Launching Rockets,” Introduction to The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015 by Joe Hill

Writing Techniques:

  •         Justifying editorial choices
  •         Expressing opinion
  •         Pop culture analysis
  •         Expressing thematic connections


I buy a lot of anthologies. Sometimes I buy them for work, for obvious reasons. Others, I buy as a reader. As I tucked into my newest purchase, the X-Files anthology Trust No One edited by Jonathan Maberry, I realized that I was holding a potential mentor text.

I flashed back to my time at teachers’ college, and an assignment I had that I really enjoyed. In a poetry course, we were tasked with creating the table of contents and writing the introduction for an anthology. I’m a big music fan, and was listening to a lot of Springsteen at the time, so I decided the world could use an anthology of the lyrics of story songs. The prof was a tough one, and getting an A on that introduction was a highlight in my life as a student.

Looking specifically, however, at the new anthology I was tucking into, I realized that I had a bunch of anthologies around various themes, like the X-Files, the land of Oz, zombies, post-apocalyptic worlds, and dystopias. A common theme running through the introductions was that the editors, and authors of these intros are fans of what they’re curating.

How We Might Use Them:

Justifying editorial choices – Obviously, we could have students creating introductions to anthologies that they curate, much like I did years ago. I’ve actually done versions of this in classes, asking students to pull together a list or piece around a theme or idea, and having them explain their choices. The biggest challenge in this was not actually the introduction, but the fact that many students may not have a deep enough reading history to pull together a “collection” to introduce. I teach thematically, and this kind of exercise also gives the students a way to express their thoughts around the theme we’ve focused on: to pull together arguments from a variety of places.

  •         There’s a gorgeous mentor moment in Alexie’s intro to The Best American Poetry 2015. Essentially, he lays out his criteria for selecting poems. If students are curating, then this would be a fantastic exercise for them to go through, individually, or collectively.

Expressing Opinion & Pop Culture Analysis – I’ve said before that a lot of our students are fans. A great use for these pieces would be to discuss that fandom, what it means to them, and their fan community.

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Maberry does this very well in his X-Files  intro:

We want to believe.

We want to know.

Watching a show as intelligent as The X-Files allows us to be partners in the conversation between those who want to know and those who are trying to keep that knowledge secret. And we let the relentlessness of Scully and Mulder drive us forward for nine seasons, two movies, comics, games, novels…

We still want to believe.

  •         Building on the expression of fan community, these introductions sometimes extend into explaining why the subject of the anthology is culturally relevant. I’ve seen numerous ones that begin with a brief history, or explanation of their subject, and then move on to illustrate the cultural resonance of the material the anthology focuses on.
  •         There is a passage in Maberry’s introduction where he aligns himself with the two principal characters of the show. This, I think, is a valuable mentor moment for students. When we engage with texts, be they written or otherwise, we often look for ourselves in them, or try to decide who we align with in the piece. (You’ve all decided which Harry Potter house you belong in, right?) Maberry shows students how to do that, and although briefly, and simply stated, it’s actually well rounded out.
  •         I know that a lot of times, we have students working on pieces of writing around a single text. We wind up with collections of essays, stories, poems and fan fiction-esque material on our desks. When I started thinking about using these introductions as a mentor text, it struck me that this would be a great way to reflectively wrap up this work. As I write this, I’ve just had students creating Illustrated Blackout poems using speeches from Macbeth as we finished studying it. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we had taken the time to gallery walk those pieces, and I had my students write an introduction that would accompany that collection? Could we do that for any pieces of writing that we’ve all done?
  •         Often, in these introductions, the editor takes a moment to explain their affinity for certain pieces. I don’t know about others, but sometimes, I have a heck of a time getting my students to express their affinity for a piece. I can see their excitement for the piece, but it’s frustrating that it doesn’t always get past, “It’s awesome.” Taking a look at an editor expressing their reasons for choice could be helpful for students.

Expressing thematic connections – As I mentioned above, I have a tendency to teach thematically in my English classes. As a result, I’m often pulling together what feel like disparate pieces, justifying how they fit under the umbrella of a single big idea. What these anthologies intentionally do is what I try to do in my classroom. They pull together a whole bunch of pieces, and unite them under a theme. Sometimes, the connections are obvious, but there are other times that the editor spends part of their introduction explaining the connections. They justify the choices they’ve made, and often, personalize the connection that they, as readers, made as they pulled the collection together. I don’t know about your classes, but getting my students to think about their reading on paper, making text-to-text connections, can be challenging, and if a model can help…

Obviously, as a reader, and as an English teacher, anthologies are part of my life. I’m noticing, however, that the way that I look at them has changed. They are no longer just collections of good things to read, or collections of potential teaching resources, but actually those things and more. Pulling things together around an idea, theme or topic is a thing that we would expect our students to do as part of the learning process. These anthologies just give us a vehicle to mentor that process.

Oh, and I’m not done with these anthologies. Remember, as you read this that I’ve really only talked about the introduction. Next week I’ll share the mentor moments inside.



Do you have any favorite anthologies? Are you aware of any anthologies that embody your students’ passions? How might you use these cultural artifacts to inspire your students and lift their writing?

Leave us a comment below, connect with us on Facebook, or find us on Twitter to keep the conversation going!

In Search of a More Meaningful, Effective, Enduring Way to Teach Grammar

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Image via

My whole teaching life I have been in search of a way to teach grammar that is meaningful, effective, and enduring.

I have tried bits and pieces of other people’s curricula for years––Kelly Gallagher’s Sentence of the Week, Nancie Atwell’s editing sheets and proofreading lists––but I’ve never been able to find my groove with these systems. And when I pour over student writing portfolios in June, I can see that my students have grown tremendously, but a lot of the writing is still grammar-rough (I’m using this term loosely––by grammar, I’m referring to all things grammar, mechanics, and usage). Not quite publishable. Still a few too many comma issues. Run-away sentences. And if I see one more misuse of the word their…

I know it could be better. Their writing. My instruction.

But how? I’ve tried almost everything! Continue reading

Books That Move Us: Reading Projects Reimagined (Dan Feigelson)

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You know how the greats always make it look easy? This is the way I feel whenever I get to listen to Katie Ray or Tom Newkirk — they say something clear and simple and beautiful and even common sense, but it absolutely rocks my world.

So it was when I read Dan Feigelson’s Reading Projects Reimagined (Heinemann 2015). After hearing Feigelson speak at NCTE about “revising” reading and his “quick and dirty reading projects”, I knew I had found a strategy for my second semester literature focus. And, quite possibly, a road into student writing about literature. And after digging into the book over winter break, my teaching world was rocked by the book’s simplicity and brilliance.

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Fear not — Feigelson’s “reading projects” are not rendered on poster board or as dioramas (which was my initial fear upon reading the title). It is so much more intuitive and authentic than that.  A reading project is simply a written record of  “what the student wants to think about”. And as we encourage students to pursue those lines of thought, we make them “co-conspirators in their own comprehension.”

Why haven’t I already thought of this?

Feigelson presents a simple three-step process: Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: A Letter from Montreal

Mims First Snow

The author’s first snow–Image via The Concordian

Mentor Text:  A Letter From Montreal Maisonneuve Winter 2015

Writing Techniques:

  • Memoir – discussing a first
  • Writing about experiences
  • Writing around a set theme
  • Using various elements to tell a story
  • Writing strong conclusions


I’m a recovering magazineaholic.

Part of it is curiosity. I feel compelled to know what each magazine has to offer me. There are fascinating articles, cool images and design, and new learning hidden in each and every one of those periodicals.

Part of it is professional. I can archive stuff that can add to what we’re doing in class. Differing perspectives, challenging ideas, layout and presentation inspiration, to say nothing of all the mentor text opportunities… all in one package?!

I still walk into a book store, and want them all. Continue reading

Revision: A New Kind of Final Exam


Screen Shot 2016-01-23 at 10.23.11 PMInspired by Rebekah’s decision to quit grading earlier this year, I have been trying to take more risks with assessment in my own classroom. I haven’t gone grade-free quite yet, but I’m looking for more opportunities to involve my students in the assessment process. Since it is end-of-term time for many schools, I thought it would be helpful to share what I tried with my freshman classes for our semester exam in December.

The Dilemma: How can I return to writing without interrupting a performance unit? How can I assess students’ writing progress without assigning a brand new final exam essay?

My freshman curriculum is structured such that, by the time final exams roll around, my classes have moved away from writing workshop into a Romeo and Juliet performance activity that combines with a brief objective test to form their exam. I really like using the performance activity as part of the final, but every year, I feel like my final assessment shortchanges all the work students have done as writers earlier in the semester. I want my final exam to reflect students’ progress in reading, speaking, listening, and writing!

The Solution: Independent revision of past work with help from Google Apps for Education
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An Open Call for Teacher Writers: Will You Join Us?

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This month we welcomed two amazing new teacher writers to Moving Writers — Stefanie Jochman (@msjochman), whose first post about podcasts as mentor texts knocked our socks off, and Jay Nickerson (@doodlinmunkyboy), mentor text finder extraordinaire!

As our Moving Writers family grows, we are looking to add a few more voices and perspectives to the mix. Here’s where you come in!

Are you a teacher who likes to write? Is writing instruction your passion? Would you like to join a PLN of bloggers who write about writing and connect with others who love teaching writing?

If you are interested in blogging for us, please complete this form before March 1.

We’re looking forward to hearing from you!

Allison & Rebekah

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Available on Amazon or Heinemann!

Mentor Text Wednesday: On Rey


Mentor Text:  

The Power of Rey by Nicole Sperling

What Rey Means to Me by Gabrielle Bondi

What is a Mary Sue, and does Star Wars: The Force Awakens have one? by Caroline Framke

Writing Techniques:

  • Character analysis
  • Pop culture analysis
  • Using a feminist lens to critique character and pop culture


I got two Christmases in 2015. There was the one we always get, and there there was the Star Wars one. I’m one of those people who was at the perfect age to have seen the original film as a very impressionable youngster, and grew up with those characters, reading an Expanded Universe of tales in that galaxy far, far away. I was brought up so high by hope for the prequels, and disappointed.So, The Force Awakens was obviously kind of a big deal for me.

And it put me into a bit of a social media cave, as I tried to avoid spoilers so I could enjoy the film to the max. And I did.

I have daughters, and though their exposure to Star Wars has been limited, I was excited when the initial rumblings of the presence of Meaningful Female Characters! Leia was one of the strongest female chracters in popular sci-fi, but there was always something lacking. Probably the negative effects of that bikini at Jabba’s palace. Growing up with arguably some of the greatest characters in pop culture, I wanted that for my girls.

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 9.49.11 AMI’m not the only one to feel this way. After seeing the film, I was able to click on a lot more around the web, and came across a lot of writing about Rey. Some gushes, some criticizes. I chose a bit of both in this mentor text packet.

“The Power of Rey” and “What Rey Means to Me” are built on praise, on finding a hero that speaks to you, specifically a female hero. For many, Rey breaks into the boy’s club of good action heroics without a love triangle or a focus on her sex appeal. These pieces deal with that, though they largely avoid the controversy that accompanies the conversation about Rey. What I like about them, and what students could use as inspiration is that they are written from a fan’s position. This is people sharing what they like about Rey, and why. There’s an element of personal narrative that justifies their appreciation of Rey.

The “Mary Sue” question is dealt with in the third article. In some ways, it may be the strongest appreciation of Rey as a gender barrier breaker since it goes into more depth discussion of the gender stereotypes, explaining what a Mary Sue is, and supporting both sides of the argument. Though ultimately, the piece decides that Rey is what the other two pieces would have you believe, it goes about it in a much more analytical fashion.

I specifically chose not to include pieces that were overtly critical of her character. That is, I chose not include them at this time. I feel like those pieces serve a different purpose, and would be a mentor text package of their own, a critical takedown of a character if you will. To me, praising a character and bashing a chracter are two separate skill sets, and could be taught as such. Now I have more mentor texts to find…

How We Might Use Them:

  • All three of these pieces give strong examples of discussing character, and what the writer likes about the character. Two hew closer to expression of fandom, while one presents a more analytical appreciation of the character.
  • The narrative style of “The Power of Rey” would give young writers a way to express themselves as part of their writing about character. As a geek, I know how all-encompassing this stuff can be. The whole experience feels like it needs to be discussed, not just the character analysis stuff your teacher wants from you. This piece shows students a way to do both.
  • “What Rey Means to Me” is a compilation of what different voices have to say about a single character. Sometimes, we teachers make a big task out of something smaller. Could students craft mini-pieces, like those in this piece, and then combine them? Consider as well, that this piece gives a variety of voices expressing similar ideas. It’s a collection of shorter mentor texts compiled, giving students options.
  • The Mary Sue piece would be a great mentor text for students to use in the course of discussing a controversial issue in pop culture, such as gender. Working with young people, we know that they have many questions and opinions to sift through and figure out. This piece lays it out very well for them, with background, point, counterpoint and conclusion.
  • Pop culture has been heavily influenced by Star Wars, and our students, if they’re fans, are accustomed to critically looking at their respective fandoms, these giant worlds of characters. These pieces are all examples of how to look at pop culture with a feminist, or gender lens. Could we not extrapolate that, and use these as mentor texts to look at pop culture through other lenses? Or our reading?

I use Star Wars to teach. Students know that I love it, and other fandoms, and they like to talk about this geeky stuff with me. Pieces like this are going to be useful in taking that interest into an academic realm, where we can geek out, and meet our outcomes. And, for my students who aren’t geeks, they also serve as great examples of how to do that character stuff I ask them to do with their reading.

Are your students into Star Wars? How might you use these pieces to help your students analyze and write about character? What other elements might these mentor texts teach? 

Leave us a comment below, connect with us on Facebook, or find us on Twitter (@doodlinmonkeyboy, @msjochman, @rebekahodell1, @allisonmarchett) to keep the conversation going! 


So, I Quit Grading — Part II Update

Screen Shot 2016-01-17 at 11.01.21 PMThis year, I quit grading almost entirely. While I still give quarterly grades (because my students have to have them!), I do not grade individual assignments. I’ve given up traditional grading for many reasons that I explain in my first post on this topic, but the biggest of the reasons is this: I don’t think traditional grading is in the best interest of my students. 

I promised you that I would keep you updated, so, now that I have lived in this experiment for a whole semester, I will share with you what I am finding out. The good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good

More honest feedback for all

Because I am not spending so much time perseverating over numbers on a rubric, and because I know that I can’t fall back on grades to “communicate” progress, each of my students is receiving far more feedback — not just on how they are currently performing, but also ideas for how to grow, what to do next, and techniques to try next time.

Even better than a greater volume of feedback, though, I find myself free to give more honest feedback. Sometimes, it’s downright blunt. But because my students are convinced that I am on their side, I find I can tell them the truth.

For example, here is some quarterly grade feedback I recently left for two students, one who is working very hard and growing by leaps and bound, and another who tends to eek by doing the bare minimum: Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Golden Shovels are ‘Real Cool’

Today, we are thrilled to bring back an old friend, Mentor Text Wednesday, and a new friend, Jay Nickerson.  

Jay is something of a mentor text Jedi — magically and mysteriously finding amazing, current, engaging mentor texts and pairing them with oodles of ideas for uses in lots of different classroom contexts. We are so excited that Jay will be joining us on Wednesdays with fresh mentors texts and fresh ideas! 

You can find out a little more about Jay (and our other new contributor Stefanie) on our About Us page! Leave him some love and a welcome in the comments below!


MentorTextWednesdayGolden Shovels are “Real Cool”

Mentor Texts:

Goodness in Mississippi” by LaWanda Walters

The Golden Shovel (1981 & 1991)” by Terrence Hayes

Writing technique: Poetic form


Over the holiday break, I received an email from Allison asking if I’d consider writing some mentor text posts. I was taking my holiday quite seriously this year, and since that hewed a bit close to work, I didn’t respond right away.

However, over the break, I was also reading The Best American Poetry 2015. Reading poetry has actually become a bit of a habit since I decided that it’s something that I want to get better at teaching. So, even though I had dedicated myself to a work-free holiday, I was reading this book of poetry, flagging pieces that I would use in my classroom.

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LaWanda Walters

And, I came upon LaWanda Walters’ poem, “Goodness in Mississippi”.

Right away, I knew I was using this piece in my classroom, and I knew I had a post I’d be forwarding to Allison for consideration.

So it is that I find myself taking a break from marking on the first day back in January, working on this post.

And learning.

Because the first thing that I did was try to find a copy of the poem online.

Instead, I found an article about Walters’ poem, explaining that it was a Golden Shovel poem. And I learned what that meant. Developed by poet Terrance Hayes, the Golden Shovel is a poetic form in which the poet uses the words of an existing poet. The last word of each line in the new poem is a word from the existing poem. If one reads only the last word of each line of the new poem, they read the existing poem.

Both Hayes and Walters use Gwendolyn Brooks’ powerful We Real Cool.

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Terrance Hayes

What’s neat is that in my research on the form, I found a pair of Hayes’ poems using Brooks’ poem. Right away, I had a nice little mentor text set. Three poems of the same form, using the same source of inspiration, about three different things – no other phrase for that then “real cool.”

In looking more closely at the poems, there’s a nice contrast in Hayes’ 1991 “Golden Shovel”. Instead of simply ending each line with the word as it exists in Brooks’ poem, he inserts line breaks into longer words, “weakened” becomes the “we” needed at the end of his first line.

How we might use them:

  • I’ve taught “We Real Cool” and it’s a poem that students like to talk about. The brevity, the imagery, the word choice, the tone – all those things seem to speak to students, especially those who have pre-conceived notions about what poetry should be, namely something that they avoid. But that’s always been the end of the lesson really. What a great extension this would be.
  • The more I think about this, the more I can’t help but wonder what students’ reactions would be if you presented them with one of these Golden Shovels first, before exposing them to “We Real Cool“.
  • I’m a big fan of Austin Kleon’s work around “stealing like an artist,” and can’t help but wonder what kind of discussions we could have with students around this form. At the very least, we’re modeling the practice of attributing the poet and/or poem being used. There will, no doubt, be students who would term this as some relatively uncreative theft though, or at the very least, some lazy writing.
  • I’ve also done a number of poetry activities using existing texts, blackouts and the like. This form is a fantastic addition. Before researching the form, I knew that this poem would find its way into my classroom. How could it not? I flashed back to last year’s AP class discussing William Carlos Williams’ “So Much Depends”, and how much they would have loved capping our discussion by writing a Golden Shovel using that confounding little sentence of a poem. Or the one about the plums.
  • What if my students chose what they felt was a key quote from their novel, or research topic, and used the Golden Shovel format to write a poem that captured the essence of what they were presenting to me? Wouldn’t that be a lovely addition to a multi-genre project, or honestly, a fine little project all its own?
  • A rock and roll heart beats in my chest. How much fun would it be to use song lyrics as the inspiration of a Golden Shovel?
  • Could we use the Golden Shovel form to compose poetic criticism, or appreciation of folks by using their tweets as a basis? (Imagine a whole class of Jaden Smith tweet-inspired poems.)
  • I teach high school, but I’m married to an early years teacher. The Golden Shovel form could be used in her classroom too, though I’m not sure We Real Cool would be my choice for the wee folk.

In learning about this form, I came across a variety of lesson plans, so I know that this form is not new to everyone. That being said, one of the reasons that I’ve chosen to focus on poetry as of late is that it’s a challenging part of the course for many students. Giving a reluctant poet a form such as this one, one that actually gives them a length, not to mention words, may just be a launching pad for them into some strong poetic writing. As I considered the ways I could use these poems, and this form, I knew that I had something with strong potential to engage writers.

Have you tried a Golden Shovel in your classroom? How might you weave this poetic form into your instruction? What would your students do with this? Leave us a comment below, connect with us on Facebook, or on Twitter @doodlinmonkeyboy, @msjochman, @rebekahodell1, and @allisonmarchett.