So, I quit grading …

Grades — good or bad — tend to make us do unproductive things.

Each September, when I assess my students’ first piece of writing, processed and polished, leave feedback, and return it to them, one of two things happens: students who did well give a great sigh of relief and check English class off of their Things to Worry About List; the students who did not do well become utterly defeated right from the get-go.

And neither of these mindsets is valuable to our students’ growth and learning.

The students who feel secure in their performance continue to perform, filling in the formula they have so often practiced to get the only things they care about — the grade. They already know it all — their thinking and creativity is stunted, they take no risks, as they repeat the steps that they know work.

The students who feel defeated throw in the towel — after all, even when they improve, even when they learn the skills they needed to learn, that low score will forever be in the gradebook, weighing their grade down. They are stressed — their thinking and creativity is stunted, they take no risks, as they try to figure out how to keep their head above water.

I teach both unleveled 9th grade Reading Writing Workshops and 12th grade IB English. My seniors are high achievers, and to them grades matter more than anything. And those grades tend to lure them into unproductive habits of practice and habits of mind.

As I was planning for our course this summer, I kept returning to one big goal — to make LEARNING the self-directed focus of the course rather than jumping through hoops to earn grades and get scores. How to do that? Get rid of the grades.

Now, my students do require quarterly grades — these grades need to factor into their semester grades and final grades. They need an English grade for their transcripts which will be sent to colleges.

Knowing that, at the very least, we need to arrive at a final grade for each quarter, here is what I have done:

Continue reading

Writing With Mentors — 30% Off On!

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 9.15.09 PM Have you been waiting for Amazon to have Writing With Mentors in stock?

Wait no longer!

Heinemann is offering Writing With Mentors at 30% off right now — far cheaper than you would get it on Amazon — and it ships IMMEDIATELY!

Get your copy now at this amazing price!

Don’t Skimp on Sharing–7 Ways Your Writers Can Share (and Publish!) Their Work

As publication day approaches, I feel a little anxious. No matter how well the study has gone and how strong the products are, I never know quite what to expect of publication day. Because I sometimes used to skip from one study to the next without setting aside time for sharing and publication, I now write “publication day” into my planner and vow to plan an activity that will get the kids sharing their processes and products.

I attribute my anxiety to the students’ anxiety–I know many of them do not want to share, even if they understand the importance of it. Also, publication can feel like a huge task to undertake at the end of a unit of study. But over the years I have come to realize three things. First, every student can share — if only a sentence — and feel good about the experience. Second, publication doesn’t have to be a huge operation. It can be as simple as reading a few favorite lines out loud to the class. And third, sharing is really important. It’s what keeps your workshop from feeling like school. It’s what keeps your writers from feeling like students.

Below I’ve outlined seven sharing and publication opportunities for all writers–the shy, the fearless, and everyone in between.

  1. Favorite Line: Have students choose a favorite line from their piece. Invite all students to form a circle in the middle of the room. Encourage respectful silence. Students will read their lines, one at a time, without pausing in between. Many students appreciate the chance to share a line without feedback. Additionally, the string of favorite lines creates a interesting piece of literature unto itself and provides a nice sampling of topics, genres, and voices.
Students reading favorite lines

Students reading favorite lines

  1. Read Around: Have students bring in one page of their finished piece. This page can showcase several excerpts of the longer piece or a long section of the finished piece. Give students a pad of sticky notes, and invite them to travel around the room, stopping to sit and read each page, leaving sticky note comments (connections, praise, questions) for their peers.
  1. Skype Session: An author’s celebration Skype session with another class across the county, state, country — or world — poses a rewarding experience with minimal effort. All you need to do is find a willing educator-partner and place the call. One year, a group of my creative writing students read their work to a group of fifth graders and vice versa. It was the culmination of a 3-session project in which my students helped fifth graders revise and edit their writing.
  1. Art Show Panels: Art teachers have always understand the importance of displaying student work. I am fortunate to work at a school with art teachers who are extremely generous with their supplies. Consider asking the art teachers at your school if they have any art show panels you can borrow for a week to display student writing. Put the panels in high-traffic areas — the cafeteria or a common gathering space — to maximize sharing power.
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Student Art Panels from

If you can’t find art panels, consider hanging large pieces of colorful butcher block paper from ceiling to floor as seen in this picture:

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Hanging Paper Displays from

  1. Audio Recording or Podcast: After I teach poetry writing, I ask students to choose their best poem and making a voice recording of it. As part of the study, we listen to writers reading their work and share what we notice: how writers put feeling into a reading, how they read poetry not line by line but in meaningful units. Then students post these recordings on their blogs for students, parents, and other teachers to listen to at their convenience. Websites like Audacity and Vocaroo are student (and teacher!) friendly and require minimal set-up.
  1. Digital Media: When studies grow out of real world digital writing, there is bound to be an online platform for publication. For example, when my eighth graders write letters to the editor later this year, they will send their letters into whichever news site they are responding to — or (Richmond Times-Dispatch). Students who have written critical book reviews can publish their work in the Barnes and Noble or Amazon customer reviews section. Students with a Goodreads account can publish their reviews underneath their rating.
  1. Self-Publishing: Websites like Lulu and Papyrus allow students to self-publish online by creating e-books and then distributing them. With Lulu, students can sell hard cover copies or digital versions for Nook, Kindle, and iBook. Both sites offer resources such as cover design, interior book design, and copyright registration. Self-publication is a sure-fire way to motivate even the most reluctant reader to forge ahead towards publication. Who wouldn’t want to hold in their hands the fruit of their labor — something that will last forever?

These seven opportunities run the gamut from low-tech to high-tech and scary to manageable (for even the shiest of students). Why not let your writers choose the occasion or media that feels most comfortable to them or best suits their piece?

What other publication opportunities do you provide your students? Please leave us a comment or tweet @allisonmarchett @rebekahodell1. We’d love to hear from you!

Translating Writing With Mentors for Elementary and Middle School, Part II

Last week, we shared our four fundamental beliefs about teaching with mentor texts — beliefs that apply to any students in any classroom, from kindergarten to senior year. We believe that:

  • Real writing is the result of studying real writing
  • Students benefit from studying hot-off-the-presses mentor texts
  • Students need to study multiple mentor texts in each writing study

And, we believe

Mentor texts should be used at every phase of the writing process — from play to planning to drafting to going public

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 9.15.09 PMWriting With Mentors, in part, is about what this flow of mentor texts looks like in our classrooms. One of the best things about making mentor texts a centerpiece of your writing instruction is their versatility; mentor texts meet each student exactly where he is. They provide the ultimate inspiration and ultimate differentiation simultaneously!  So, while our elementary and middle school counterparts will want to swap out the Grantland article we use with our high schoolers for a piece from Sports Illustrated Kids, the approach we take to infusing the entire writing process with mentor texts is universal.

Our book is chock-full of details about how we introduce these methods to our students, how we instruct at each step, how we confer with students as they move from play to publication, and how we teach students to be independent so that they can take mentor texts into their writing future long after formal schooling is over. Today, we want to show you the bones of our approach to mentor texts and help you imagine what each phase might look like in a classroom of younger students.

Notebook Time

Notebook Time is a regularly-scheduled playdate with words, mentors, and ideas. Since mentor texts both inspire and instruct writing, Notebook Time is a perfect time for students to dig into short mentor texts and try them on for size! This notebook play will not only expose students to new techniques and build their confidence, but will also begin to spark ideas and build a foundation for future pieces of writing.

Here’s how you might translate Notebook Time in an elementary or middle school classroom: Continue reading

Translating Writing With Mentors for Elementary and Middle School, Part I

IMG_4824Our bookshelves are jammed full with books meant for elementary and middle school teachers. Donald Graves, Nancie Atwell, Georgia Heard, Katie Wood Ray, Ralph Fletcher, the gals at Two Writing Teachers — these are the teachers who have taught us how to teach writing, who continually push us to reconsider what we think we know about the students we teach.

And they are also the teachers who inspire us to acts of translation — taking strategies designed for children and converting them into strategies for our teenagers.

When teachers ask us if it could work the other way around — could they take the strategies we use with our high school students in Writing With Mentors and use them with their younger students — our answer is a resounding YES!

In our next post, we will walk you through the writing process we outline in Writing With Mentors, and show you how each phase can be adapted for work with younger students. But let’s start at the very beginning — at the foundation. We have a few fundamental beliefs about working with mentor texts that transcend grade level, beliefs that apply to any student writer  in any classroom context:

Continue reading

Writing Workshop: Rhythms vs. Routines

This summer a good friend introduced me to the Slow Home podcast about simple, intentional living and slowing down. I started with episode 5, “Rhythm, Baby,” about the differences between rhythm and routine. In this episode, the host Brooke McAlary discusses the differences between the two and explains how they play out in her life with two children at home.

As I listened to this podcast, my dog Ollie pulling at the leash in my left hand, baby stroller in my right, brain half-planning workshop for the next day, I began to think about how the concept of rhythm might apply to workshop.

Even though my school went to a modified block schedule this year, increasing each class period by five minutes (50 minutes total) and giving each class an extra-long period (70 minutes) once every 8 days, already I am finding myself pressed for time. Notebook time, sharing, mini lesson, writing and conferring, coming together as a writing community at the end–one of these routines gets sacrificed on a daily basis, and inevitably it’s sharing time since it falls at the end. As students respond to the bell and begin to pack up their things, I try to wrap-up the conference I’m having with a student and shout something like, “Okay everybody, we’ll begin with sharing tomorrow” over the chaotic zipper and velcro symphony of a group packing up and moving on. Only we never begin with sharing; we always begin with notebook time.

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            The Routines of Workshop

On certain days I am better at letting go of this lack of closure, but usually I grow frustrated and disgruntled, upset for having conducted a lesson with a beginning and a middle and no end.  Even with the added five minutes this year, I still feel frenzied, rushed, stressed, unsatisfied that we have not made it through all the essential routines of the workshop.

Pondering our routines, it was at this point on my walk that Brooke’s talk began to speak to me:

“Rhythm and routine are different things that offer different approaches to our days…routine is the domain of the successful and the organized and the on-time. It’s the thing that you should be doing. But routine is also restrictive, it’s unfriendly, it’s regimented. But rhythm on the other hand, it speaks to you, it moves you, it moves with you and it feels good. On the face of it, there isn’t much difference between the two, but both routine and rhythm–they help you get things done, they deliver guidelines on what things need to happen and when those things need to happen. The differences though are really important, and if you’re looking to create a simpler life with less stress, rhythm is the way to go.”

She went on to talk about how this notion of rhythm affected parenting in the early days of her daughter’s life:

“After our daughter was born a few years ago, Ben and I were determined to establish a routine to get her sleeping pattern regular and to create comfort and predictability for everyone. As it turns out, babies don’t really work like that, and I’ve discovered over the last few years that life doesn’t really work like that either. It took us well over 12 months to figure that out but we discovered that routine, which is a strict sequential approach to our day, was really less than helpful. It made us feel as though we were failing when we missed a step or things got out of order, and that wasn’t a positive place to be operating from. But rhythm, on the other hand, was a much friendlier idea. It spoke of order, yes, but also of flexibility and movement and fluidity. It even sounded like a friendlier idea. Rhythm…rhythm moves you, you dance to it, you find your groove, you let go a little, enjoy the moment, you see where it takes you. It’s more like a dance.

Routine is not so much like that. It’s a march. You keep time. If you sway or if you linger or move out of order or miss a step, you’re out of time, you’re lagging behind, it’s a failure. Rhythm allows change and flexibility for different seasons in life…”

Brooke made me realize that the routines of my writing workshop may be somewhat restrictive. For example, I always cut off notebook time after about 6 minutes, afraid of cutting into the lesson or writing time. On certain days, my students are enjoying notebook time so much they ask for more time. On others, multiple students want to share. But rather than celebrate their enthusiasm and grant them more time, I more often than not tell them we have to move on for fear of cutting into the lesson too much, or more importantly, interfering with writing and conferring time. But the more I think of it, the less this makes sense: cutting off writing time so we can have more of it later.

The above routine also fails to take into account the students’ energy levels and personal writing goals for workshop that day. Like Brooke’s newborn, teenagers don’t necessarily work well with a strict schedule; come to think of it, neither do most writers! When we are beholden to a “strict sequential approach,” our creativity and flow of ideas is obstructed.

Writing Workshop Routines

  • Daily notebook time, lasting 4-6 minutes, regardless of students’ level of interest; ends with sharing with partners or whole class.
  • Mini lesson, lasting 5-20 minutes
  • Status of the class, daily
  • Writing & conferring, lasting the remainder of the period. I usually only get to a few students, leaving many with their hands up, their questions unanswered.
  • Sharing, last two minutes of class; we almost always run out of time to share.

So what if–instead of moving through the routines of writing workshop day in and day out–we followed the rhythms of workshop? What would that look like?

  • Notebook Time: I’d still like to begin with notebook time. Many writers acknowledge the benefits of “warming up” and writing non-stop for a few minutes to get their creative juices flowing. Additionally, notebook time eases the transition from math to English (or wherever the students are coming from) and gives us a common starting point. If we’re following the rhythms of workshop, though:
    • Students could linger in notebook time if inspired, putting their main piece of writing off until the next day.
    • We could hold off on sharing until the end of the class. What if students could share anything they had written that day–during notebook time, during writing and conferring, or even from that week?
    • Does every student have to begin with notebook time every day? What if students did NBT 3 out of 5 days when they most needed inspiration or seeds for new pieces?
    • With optional notebook work, I could kick off the workshop with a few conferences with students I didn’t get to yesterday or whose writing overnight prompted questions and the need to conference right away.
  • Mini lesson: typically the mini lesson is offered to the whole class, and conferences to individuals. What if I scheduled small group mini lessons around common errors, rather than waited to teach these during conferences, one student at a time? Combing mini lessons and conferences may make room for other important discussion to take place, longer notebook time, and so forth.
  • Status of the class: although this only takes 1-2 minutes to do, could I add this time back into writing & conferring by obtaining this information through a different medium? Could I ask students to share their daily goals through Socrative or on a chart at the front of the room?
  • Writing and conferring: what if I flipped the traditional schedule and began with writing and conferring first? Sometimes it seems appropriate to ride the wave of energy brought into the classroom after a class change, rather than wait until the end. I always feel like I’m racing to “get to workshop,” so why not put it first?

I will continue to grapple with these questions of routine and rhythm over the next few weeks as my students and I navigate the new bell schedule and make writing plans. In the meantime, please weigh in:

What are the routines of your workshop? Where might you let go of routine a little and move with the natural rhythms of your workshop instead? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below or on Twitter @allisonmarchett @rebekahodell1.

#writingwithmentors Tweet-a-thon Wrap Up & Winners!

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 9.15.09 PMWriting With Mentors is officially out in the world and making its way to your mailbox as I type!

Over the last two days we wrapped up our marathon Tweet-a-thon — 14 days of sharing hot-off-the-presses mentors texts that will inspire, engage, and teach your students myriad writing techniques and elements of excellent craft! Here are the texts we came up with for the last two days. THANK YOU to all who shared with us, joined in, and inspired us!

We put your names in a randomizer to pick three winners. They are: @doodlinmonkeyboy (Jay Nickerson), @kellytumy, and @Shelfietalk (Kim and Jill, I guess you will work out some kind of sharing agreement? :)) Please shoot us an email with your details, and Heinemann will send you a copy of the book!

Over the next few days, we will be working to get all of these mentor texts in to the Dropbox and getting back to our regularly-scheduled posting lives — sharing with you the teaching questions that keep us up at night, new discoveries, and experiments in our classrooms.

#Writingwithmentors Tweetathon Days 12 & 13

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 9.15.09 PMGentle readers, tomorrow is the day — the day we have been anticipating and dreaming about for more than a year. Tomorrow is the day that Writing With Mentors is released and available to you!

Tomorrow also wraps up our amazing Tweet-a-thon! Here’s what we shared on Days 12 & 13. There is still ONE MORE DAY, though, to share mentor texts and enter yourself to win a free copy of the book!

We have been so invigorated by the incredible variety of mentor texts that we have seen and the dynamic ways that teachers are using real, current, engaging mentor texts to inspire their students writing!

#writingwithmentors Tweetathon Days 10 & 11

WWM TweetathonThis morning, we get to officially say, “Our book comes out this week.” How cool is that?

Meanwhile, the Tweetathon rolls on. Here is a wrap up of the mentor texts from this weekend. We have had hundreds of amazing, hot-off-the-presses mentor texts shared over the last week and half. Texts you can print off, copy, and take into your writing lessons right now!

The Tweet-a-thon continues through Thursday, the day of the book’s release, and it’s not too late to join us! Each Tweet enters you to win a copy of the book, too!

#writingwithmentors Tweetathon Days 8 & 9

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 8.40.39 PMYesterday, Writing With Mentors showed up in our mailboxes, hot off the presses! Which means it is only a matter of days before it shows up in yours! It. is. beautiful.

In the meantime, readers, friends, colleagues from across Twitter have been burning up the Internet sharing their own hot-off-the-presses treasures: mentors texts to inspire and teach students about writing!

Here is a roundup of what we found on days 8 and 9!

The Tweet-a-thon wraps up on Thursday, September 3, the day of the book’s release! There is still lots of time to share and learn (and each Tweet enters you to win a copy of the book!)

Want a sneak peek at what you can expect from Writing With Mentors? Hop on over to the Heinemann site  where you can download a sample!