Top Ten of ’13-’14: #1

Our most-viewed page during the 2013-2014 school year was actually the link to our Mentor Text Dropbox Project.

Finding mentor texts can often be one of the most challenging – and time consuming! – parts of  effective writing instruction.

Why spend hours flipping through books and surfing the web when we can share? The link below will take you to our Mentor Text Dropbox Project, organized by genre and by technique. Feel free to use the mentor texts already shared and please add your own!

Mentor Text Dropbox Project

Top Ten of ’13-’14: #2

Responding to the Writer Not the Writing

Lucy Calkins’ wisdom about teaching the writer (and not the writing) continues to reverberate decades after the publication of her book The Art of Teaching Writing. Yet many of us do not teach in a way that promotes writers. I know because I was one of them.

In the past, I taught writing one composition at a time, units with finite beginnings and endings. Each stack of papers collected was an island…I gave little thought to how one student’s paper fit into the larger scheme of her writing. Students received grades and feedback, and we moved on without much reflection. I taught writing in this way because I didn’t know any better. I had good intentions, but I didn’t know another way.

Until two years ago when a colleague put Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them into my hands, and reintroduced me to Don Graves and writing workshop through Penny’s work.

Writing workshop changed everything. It refocused my teaching and convinced me that teaching writing–even teaching writing well–is not enough. We have to teach writers.

But what exactly does that mean? Is there a noticeable difference? Here’s what I came up with:

Assigning Writing

Teaching Writing

Teaching Writers

  • Giving students a topic to write about

  • Asking students to write a paper for which there is no “real world” facsimile

  • Commenting only on the final draft

  • Covering a final draft in red pen

  • Requiring all the writing to be done at home without your tutelage

  • Assigning a grade to anything you don’t explicitly teach

  • Assigning a paper that must be written in a specific genre
  • Helping a student develop a topic for a specific assignment
  • Conferring with a writer about a specific paper
  • Guiding a student through on-going revisions of a specific paper
  • Finding genre-specific mentor texts that will assist and inspire a student to write a specific paper
  • Giving feedback throughout the process
  • Grading the skills you have explicitly taught for that particular paper
  • Helping a student publish his paper
●      Encouraging a student to make long-term writing plans●      Helping a student find a form or genre that fits her idea 

●      Conferring with a student about his growth from paper to paper

●      Encouraging a student to revisit older papers and use her present perspective to improve and transform old work

●      Incorporating mentor texts that cut across genres and demonstrate skills that individual writers need

●      Incorporating self-reflection into the assessing of writing

●      Writing narrative feedback that requires the student to revisit lessons and learn something new

●      Assessing the skills you have taught from all the previous units of study

●      Helping a student build a writing portfolio

 Assigning writing is to be avoided at all costs. Teaching writing focuses on the short-term needs of a writer, and teaching writing, on the long-term needs. Teaching writing helps students write papers; teaching writers helps build writing lives. Both are necessary, but one is transformative.

As I prepare to hunker down and assess several class sets of editorials this week, I’m particularly interested in how the ways in which we respond to student writing can help improve writers in the long run. I have found the following four types of responses to be effective:

 Responses that

●      redirect the writer to previous lessons

●      show the writer his work is part of a larger conversation

●      encourage the writer to make plans

●      invite the writer to see the possibilities

Redirect the writer to previous lessons. Writing is recursive, yet students go through the motions of the writing process with little understanding of this. Brainstorm, draft, revise, submit. We have to un-teach the “one and done” mindset under which many of our students operate. Some writing calls for more revision while other pieces beg to be scrapped entirely. How can we help our students understand the writing process and make it work for them?

One way is to direct students to previous lessons that will help them hone in on skills they still need to master. Perhaps when they rewatch or review the lesson, they will see something they did not see or understand before. This redirection, coupled with the invitation to resubmit work, encourages a culture of revision, forcing students to take this step more seriously—to see revision as something that will boost their growth rather than their grade.

Show the writer that his work is part of a larger conversation. When I can, I try to make connections between the student’s writing and the mentor texts we’ve studied in class–or even something I’ve read on my own that I see as somehow “talking” to my student’s writing. Sometimes just pointing out to writers that they are behaving like other writers can make all the difference.

Other times I will direct the student to a relevant article or other published piece.

I want students to view themselves as writers who are making important contributions to a large corpus of work rather than teenagers who are writing for school.

Encourage the writer to make plans. Good writers have plans. We must invite students to think about writing they’ve started and want to finish, writing they have yet to begin, and audiences they want to write for. We must ask them to think about how each piece fits into the larger scheme of their writing. Here are some of the questions I have posed to students in the margins of their paper and encouraged them to respond to:

  • What other topics might come out of this paper?

  • How does this paper fit into your writing plans?

  • How would you rank this paper in terms of its effectiveness? Compared to the other papers you’ve written this year?

  • For whom did you write this piece? What other pieces might you write for this audience?

  • How does this piece demonstrate your overall growth as a writer this year?

Invite the writer to see the possibilities. Writing is about discovery, yet many students believe that their initial idea is the one thing they need to communicate through to the end. Good writers often begin without a clear picture of where they are headed, and this uncertainty excites them. Good writers understand that the process leads to meaning. To help our students realize the potential in the process, we must share what we notice while refraining from telling them what to do with it. We must help them see that their writing is a rubik’s cube with a thousand combinations. Success comes from noticing possibilities and running with them until they lead somewhere or don’t, so when I notice something interesting in a student paper, I share it with them.

Good Feedback is a Two-Way Street

You’ll notice that all four types of responses require the writer to do something more: to revisit an old lesson, reread a mentor text, respond to his work. Narrative feedback–especially when provided on a final draft–can breed passivity. Students read–or don’t read–the comments and move on to the next thing. But narrative feedback, when done right, can spur action. We must invite students to join the conversation about their writing and continue the process, or they’ll miss out on a powerful opportunity for growth.

Top Ten of ’13-’14: #3

The Fifth Pillar of Writing Workshop

Lucy Calkins says that kids “need to see their work reach other readers.”

This explains why I spent much of winter break planning and writing posts for the new blog, checking blog stats, and refreshing my Twitter feed. Have my words reached anyone? Have they made a difference?

A blogging neophyte, I had almost forgotten how good it feels to know that someone is listening.

Human beings crave attention, hunger for an audience, yearn for feedback… and even though we may bring excitement and passion and craft to writing instruction, when we fail to provide students with opportunities for publication, we are doing them a major disservice. Let’s face it, when your primary audience is your English teacher (and possibly your dad who was kind enough to proofread your paper before post-dinner tv), the experience of writing is going to lack a certain kind of joy and meaning. Real writers need real readers.

As I participated in a tweet chat earlier in the week, watching the notifications column on Tweetdeck flitter with every new connection made, I thought to myself: I want my students to have this experience, to feel this excited about writing. To know the effects of their words on others.

In order for this to happen in our classrooms, we have to give equal weight to all five pillars of writing workshop: choice, active revision, author craft, broader visions of assessment, and publication (The Digital Writing Workshop, Hicks).

Choice lies at the center of our workshop: students discover topics in their notebooks and develop them into fuller pieces. I consistently model active revision and give students two minutes after every quick write to make their writing “a little bit better.” I could survive on a diet of teaching and talking about author craft. I let my students revise all papers until the last day of the school year, demonstrating broader visions of assessment…

But where is the sharing of writing beyond classroom walls? The hope that their words matter to someone? The proverbial retweeting of one another’s work?

While I often end class with a “share out” or golden line activity, or have students “turn and talk” about ideas, or collect favorite pieces for a class anthology at the year’s end, the opportunities my students have for sharing their work with ever-widening audiences are few and far between.

So in an effort to find and create these opportunities for my students, I forge ahead with some resolutions for 2014:

Reaching Readers Within the Classroom

Utilizing writing groups. I want my students to share in groups on a regular basis. The possibilities are limitless: read from a draft, talk about process, brainstorm, troubleshoot, revise collaboratively. As far as a ritual goes, NWP’s bless/press/address provides a good heuristic for helping students talk about their work in meaningful ways. When my students leave me in June, I want them to be able to move forward in their writing without me. So they must begin to do more of the heavy lifting that is conferencing themselves. Additionally, group conferring will build confidence and pave the way for sharing with wider audiences.

Handing over the torch. In the past, I have always found an excuse for why I don’t let students lead workshop: I don’t have a document camera. I don’t want to put students on the spot. I like to know exactly what’s on the menu. I don’t have enough time. Yet I know that I am doing a disservice to my students when I don’t let them take on more of the teaching and coaching of their peers. Conferences provide a perfect opportunity for noticing something a student is doing that is share-worthy (and it’s all share-worthy). These students can then be asked to lead with their process or writing during class the next day.

The future leaders of workshop!

Reaching Readers Beyond the Classroom

Cultivating a digital writing environment (DWE). In his book The Digital Writing Workshop, Troy Hicks notes that the methods teachers have used in the past for helping students share their writing beyond the walls of the classroom are “highly teacher dependent” (80). But with the advent of blogging, Twitter, and other social networking tools, students “now have the ability to publish their work directly to the read/write web” (80). He goes on to remind us that for digital writers “the audience is extended, and students become much more aware, as readers and as writers, of how they both share their work and respond to the work of others” (81). Our DWE will have three parts: blogging, blogfolios, and RSS feed-reading for inspiration. More to come on this experiment in future posts.

Making student processes and experiences available to all. After each genre study, students submit a paper as well as reflection notes. Click here for sample questions. Through these notes, students provide unique insights into the writing process, as well as vivid portraits of themselves as writers. Without a doubt, students would benefit from reading one another’s reflections. I’ve even toyed with the idea of making these reflections available in another medium, in a form that would allow our busy students to listen to one another “on the go” and would showcase the voice of the writer: podcasting! Podcasts could then be linked to finished papers on student blogs.

Until we create and locate opportunities for our writers to reach ever-widening circles of readers, we are only teaching the writing, not the writer. Because a true writer writes to reach.

What opportunities do you provide students to reach authentic audiences? Please respond in the comments section to share your ideas.

Top Ten of ’13-’14: #4

A Lesson for Tomorrow: Writing a Persuasive Conclusion

“What do you need more of?” I queried.  Within minutes, more than a dozen post-its on my board read:

“A mini-lesson on conclusions!”

“Conclusions! Please!”

“Conclusions — I don’t know what to do! Help!”

And these were my IB seniors, still convinced at the end of their K-12 careers that they couldn’t successfully wrap up their essays.

But they aren’t alone. Writing the conclusion causes anxiety in all of the young writers I have met. They innately know that simply regurgitating their big ideas isn’t enough (and, even if it were enough, it wouldn’t be interesting, and as Allison reminds us, all writers want their words to matter.)  However, they are devoid of better tools to deploy.

I started to think about how I wanted to articulate the qualities of a good conclusion. A conclusion should do some reminding and recapping. It should link those ideas together, creating a drumroll beneath the text, culminating in a trumpeted ta da! The grand conclusion. The bigger point. The ultimate moment of persuasion. The zoomed-out larger significance.

Now, where to find the mentor text to show this in concrete terms? I immediately thought of the source of consistently epic conclusions that cause jaws to drop: Law and Order.

I often reference courtrooms when teaching analytical and persuasive writing. Mentally playing the part of attorney helps students (most of whom are very familiar with TV  courtroom crime procedurals) make claims and present and explain evidence. The attorney’s opening and closing argument parallel a writer’s introduction and conclusion. And who better to persuade in that closing argument than Jack McCoy?

For this lesson, you could use just about any closing argument from Law and Order (just search YouTube!), but this is my favorite. Its plot features high school students and a particularly entertaining guest-starring role by Kathleen Turner as the misguided defense attorney.

I tell students to watch the clip carefully, follow our hero, Prosecuter Jack McCoy, and to notice what he includes in his conclusion. There will be a recap of his major claims and evidence … but then what? We watch the clip, sometimes twice for a closer read, and then students share their findings. In his closing argument, McCoy

  • Connects his pieces of evidence together, showing how they build on one another

  • Uses a tone of authority

  • Broadens his argument past this single defendant and pushes toward more global significance — not why this one trial matters, but why the outcome of this trial matters to society, too.

After we talk about it, students try to mimic the ta-da. Some reach for the closest tool and literally mimic the mentor text by connecting the ideas of their paper to their implications in society. And often this doesn’t work seamlessly. Not every text is meant for this treatment, making for another great teachable moment when we share. Other students make the leap to greater relevant significance immediately. We share the ones that work and troubleshoot the ones that aren’t quite there yet.

Here is one student’s “closing argument” for her essay on Naguib Mahfouz’s The Thief and the Dogs:

Screen Shot 2014-01-07 at 5.55.09 PM

She did it! She synthesized her major arguments, zoomed out toward something broader, and then came to an even deeper understanding of the text.

After this mini-lesson, the hard work of critical thinking and connection-making still lies before the students. But, finding a way to point to the qualities of a strong and persuasive conclusion has allowed my students to articulate what their conclusions need and a way to begin — a drumroll and trumpet call for which to strive in their writing.

Top Ten of ’13-’14: #5

When Even Writing Workshop Doesn’t Work

I am almost obnoxious in my whole-hearted evangelism of writing workshop. (Just ask my colleague who has banned the phrase “mini-lesson” from our future conversations.)  And still, in all my crowing about the successes of writing workshop, I have to admit something to you.

Sometimes it doesn’t work.

“Kevin” nods furiously during our writing conferences. And still he turns in papers written in one, giant paragraph.

“Mary” conferences with me during every class period. We read her work aloud. I highlight places she needs to double check for word choice, grammar, and syntax. We work together to tab the mini-lessons she needs to return to in her writer’s notebook. She turns in a paper unchanged since our conference.

Let’s be honest, when these papers finally land on my desk, I take it a little bit personally. I’m disappointed. I wonder where I went wrong. What mini-lesson could I have offered? What could I have said during our conferences to have made a difference?

The truth is that sometimes our best efforts don’t yield a student’s best work. On occasion, students (particularly our older writers) don’t meet us halfway.

The cornerstone of writing workshop is choice. While this typically translates into the choice of topic, it also means that students are given the freedom and respect to make writerly choices. Sometimes, a writer chooses not to take feedback, chooses not to revise. Now, this makes more sense if you are Hemingway than if you are a 9th grader in my English class, but,nevertheless, if we are truly embracing a workshop model, we have to content ourselves with giving our students all of the choices — including the choice not to conference with us or to ignore the suggestions we helpfully make.

And then there are those students who are just not ready for what we are offering. We all know that even in its purest forms, leveling is a joke. There are as many different levels and abilities in our classrooms as there are faces. There are students in each workshop who have mastered our skills early on and are ready for more. I use conferences to push them to deeper levels of thinking and more advanced writerly techniques.

But there are also students who just aren’t there yet. For whatever reason — cognitive, emotional, social — they can’t accept all that I’m offering.  With these students, I chant a mantra: They aren’t there yet. They aren’t there yet. They probably will get there someday.

And even today, they are doing more than they have been able to do before.

I have taught students whose daily victory was just getting words — any words in any order with no punctuation — on paper. Those successes — however small — need celebrating, too. Some writers are ready to move a mile. Others are ready to move an inch. Both are triumphs in their own right.

And there are days that I’m just not a perfect teacher. Lots of those days, in fact. There are lessons that go awry, explanations that don’t help, conferences that are lackluster. There are days when I don’t feel like pushing Kevin’s understanding and times when I am frustrated with Mary.

Sometimes, it really is on me.

I think it’s important for us to share stories like these — stories of what we consider to be our failures in addition to our successes. Too often in these public forums — our Twitter chats, blogs posts, professional development workshops —  we all come across as experts.  More than experts — we often come across as perfect. I have been discouraged  in the past when, upon asking a teaching guru how something works in her classroom, hearing, “Oh, it just works seamlessly.”

These aren’t perspectives that help.

Share your stories.  Being connected educators is a wonderful thing — transformative and invigorating — but we must connect like human educators.  Sharing not just what works, but also what is really hard. Sharing not just when you feel like the Teacher of the Year, but when you feel like you have utterly failed.
We need to share our success stories to build up the profession, to proclaim that education makes a difference in the lives of kids. But we also need to be vulnerable and share our failures to build one another up, to forge a chain of support, to hear colleagues say, “Man, I’ve been there, too. It’s okay.”


Top Ten of ’13-’14: #6

Mentor Text Wednesday: Creating Writers not Writing Automatons

MentorTextWednesdayCan we agree that we hate the five paragraph essay?

Every time I confer with a student who says, “Well, I have two body paragraphs, but I need one more”, I shudder. FIVE IS NOT A MAGIC NUMBER has become my mantra. I’m thinking about making a poster to hang in the front of my classroom.

A few months ago, Allison and I sat in a meeting in which a teacher bristled at the idea that “teaching the five paragraph essay” might not be the most productive way to substantially improve a student’s writing. In the moment, I wondered, “Why is he so upset?” When I thought about it, I knew why — he wanted a formula into which he could fit his students’ writing. A formula that he felt guaranteed success — or at least sufficiency.

It’s the same reason our students love the five paragraph essay and glom on to any template we offer them. They want a formula into which they can fit their writing with the guarantee that they will be successful — or at least sufficient. Unfortunately, this creates writing automatons not writers.

But this is the exact problem with formulas and templates, right? In offering the easy way out, we are not actually moving writers toward growth and discovery. We are teaching them how to fill in elaborate blanks, not teaching them how to truly write.

Sometimes, in spite of our best intentions, even after we have eschewed the five-paragraph essay, our use of mentor texts becomes one more formula in writing workshop.  When writing an editorial, we give our student one editorial. A brilliant one, mind you. The perfect editorial. We ask them to mark the structures, identify key features, note the tone. Now, go and do, we say.

And we do teach mini-lessons. And we do confer on those editorials. And we organize students to work in writing groups to give and solicit feedback. But, ultimately, we have offered one more template, one more formula. If we have done our job well, we will go home with a class set of editorials that have the exact same structure, the exact same tone. More than likely, we will go home with a class set of editorials that have very similar ideas.

How do we combat this? What do we do to ensure that our mentor texts don’t become one more fill-in-the-blank writing exercise for our students?

One thing Allison has been working on recently is trying to humanize writers by using interviews to guide and inspire students. This takes the focus off of the magical words on the page and reminds all of us that there are people behind these words who have made conscious decisions in the writing that we are reading. After all, we are trying to teach our students to make choices as writers. Real writers. Formulas and one-size-fits-all templates also ignore that real human writers lurk behind each piece. What serves the purpose of one writer doesn’t always work for another; a tone that is authentic to one writer sounds stilted in another.

Another way we can bring our focus back to writerly choices through the use of mentor texts is to give our students multiple mentors to illustrate a genre or technique. In the fall, I did a This I Believe workshop with my ninth graders. I selected six mentor texts that showed variety and were relatable to a teenage audience.

Once we read through (and listened to) all six, we went back and examined all six for the writer’s choice of topic, the writer’s tone (and shifts in tone), the writer’s structure. Students created charts to track these choices in their writer’s notebooks.

Then, since is an easy place to send students to gather their own mentor texts, I asked them to read a few more at home and select another mentor. They shared in small groups and added their insights about topic, tone, and structural choices to their charts.  Through this work, students were able to tangibly see that there are myriad right ways to write this kind of paper.

With lots of inspiration under their belts, most students were able to jump into their own authentic drafts, often combining elements they admired from several mentor texts. Those who needed additional support could still use a model we had studied, but with at least seven available mentor texts in hand, they still had to make a writerly choice of which model to follow.

Mentor texts are a wonderful thing — one of the most powerful tools in our toolbox. But like any good thing, we have to be thoughtful about how we use them. We have to subvert our natural inclinations — and our students’ natural inclinations — to use them as shortcuts and easy, interchangeable models. Emphasizing the authors behind the work and flooding our students with mentors can be a big step toward the development of real writers.


Resource Roundup: Using Evernote for Conferring

Over my years teaching in a writing workshop, I have developed scads of forms and charts in an attempt to track my conversations with students during reading and writing conferences. Binders. Whole-class charts. Individual student charts. You name it, I have spent hours in Excel creating it.

And, every year, by the spring, I have ditched it, relying on my memory and my students’ memory of what we discussed last time.

That sounds irresponsible, I know. And it probably is. While I appreciate putting the onus on my students for remembering where we left off, I should probably be 100% sure of that, too. So, I am spending some time this summer re-thinking the way I gather data on student reading and writing performance.

I’ve toyed with the idea of tracking conferences in Google Docs. Last year, Allison used Confer, which has some strengths and weaknesses. Right now, I am thinking of jumping on the Evernote bandwagon.

Here are some of the interesting things I am reading:

Using Evernote to Confer with Students from Two Writing Teachers

Student Conferences with Evernote and KustomNote from Miss Spink on Tech

Organize your @evernote account with @kustomnote from Purely Paperless

Conferring Tool #2: Evernote from The Together Group (This post talks about importing rubrics into Evernote for conferring and tagging individual students’ strengths and weaknesses!)

Conferring with Kustom Note from Ms. Pana Says


Do you have a favorite digital tool for managing conferences?  Brilliant tips for using Evernote that I should hear about? Leave a comment below or find us on Twitter @RebekahODell1 and @Allisonmarchett. 


Top Ten of ’13-’14: #7


Mentor Text:  “Better With Age” by Chris B. Brown. 30 January 2014.

Writing Technique: Supporting an argument with evidence


Truth be told, I am not a sporty girl. Athletic metaphors in the writing classroom do not come naturally to me. Thus, whenever I see one of my favorite cultural institutions write about sports, I jump on it. Because while I am not athletically-inclined, this is the native tongue of many of my students. Examples of smart sports writing can often be a persuasive mentor for these students — an entry point through which they can connect more deeply with their own writing.

Students need to be able to support an argument with evidence in many different writing genres.  In a traditional literary analysis essay, in an editorial, in a persuasive appeal, even in a memoir, students’ ideas require support. However, they often have trouble understanding what evidence looks like on the page.

So often, our students engage in what I call one-two-skip-a-few writing. Since all of the pieces add up in their heads, they assume their brilliance will automatically convey to the reader. As a result, we see a point here and a point there without the evidence necessary to connect all the dots for the reader.

The thing I adore about this mentor text is that it makes evidence visual by showing moving GIFs of football plays to support its point.


Brown’s argument centers on the factors that he believes contribute to Peyton Manning’s stunning success in his late career. Sure, Brown uses words to describe Manning’s skills on the field, but then he does something even better — he shows us what it looks like by embedding the actual play into his article.

How I Would Use It:

Rather than using this article as a top-to-bottom mentor text, I would instead lift a couple of body paragraphs to use as mini-mentor texts.

I would first provide students with a pared-down, edited version of the article — just the “introductory paragraph” (to give them context) and two of the body paragraphs. We would read it aloud together.

I would ask the students, “Based on these two paragraphs, why is Peyton Manning a great quarterback?” Now, with the exception of a few students who are very attuned to football, the body paragraphs won’t make a lot of sense by themselves. The natural follow-up question would be, “What other information do you need for this to really make sense to you?”

The answer? They need to see it. They need to see the play happen in the game to understand the writer’s argument.

This is exactly what all readers need when we read an argument — we need to actually see the play happen in order to understand it. We bring this back into their writing: when we present an argument in our writing, we have to support it with evidence. Evidence is “showing the play” to help the reader understand.

I would then project Brown’s original article — full of images, charts, and video clips of football games. We would reread the body paragraphs and talk about what the evidence — what showing the play — adds to our understanding.

In an essay of literary analysis, students need to show the play in the text that supports their interpretation. In an editorial, students need to show the plays of expert testimonials, facts, and statistics that boost their opinion. In a persuasive appeal, students need to show the play of why their issue should become important to a reader, too. In a memoir, students need to show the play of a moment’s significance in their broader story. This skill is everywhere.

While this example is striking for our athletes, it’s also a  concrete visual that every student will remember. And this can become a refrain in our classrooms, among our writing groups, in our writing conferences: “Show me the play in your writing.”

Other Possibilities:

  • This is an awesome example of multi-media writing — combining words, images, and videos!

  • Many of my student athletes like to write about games. However, as you know, the “story of the big game” gets tiresome after three, four nearly identical essays. This can be a great mentor for another place to go in sports writing — the profile of a particular player and his or her important contributions to the game.

How would you use this text in your class? What other sports mentor texts have you had success with? 

Comment below OR grab our Mentor Text Wednesday badge at the bottom of our blog, add your own MTW post, and link up with us! Add your link in our comments.

Top Ten of ’13-’14: #8

A Lesson For Tomorrow: Sentence Study

Last week Rebekah blogged about teaching students how to find and use mentor textsto increase their independence and cure their writing blues.

She posted a fantastic chart that uses a problem-solution or if-then approach to guiding students to and through mentor texts.

As her chart indicates, sometimes a mentor text is just a sentence. How many times have you watched students struggle to put their idea into a sentence? To get the first words down? Sometimes individual sentences seem to pose a greater challenge to students than the essay itself.

We can help students get started by directing them to mentor sentences and showing them how to fit their own ideas into a sentence’s framework. This is known as thepastiche technique.

Sentence Study: An Example

Last week I happened upon a great sentence from an old New York Times article written by Anna Quindlen:

Every year about this time I get the urge to buy a copybook. And some of those little rectangular pink erasers that look good enough to eat. And a whole lot of those round reinforcements, which were supposed to be pasted around the holes in your loose-leaf paper but were more often made into designs on the inside cover of your loose leaf binder.

I knew it would make for an excellent mentor sentence because 1) it offers a framework (Every year about this time I…And…And…) and 2) it packs in detail.

When studying sentences, the first thing I do is project the found text onto the board. I read it aloud twice and ask students to jot down anything they notice in their notebooks.

Here are some of the features we noticed:

  • She begins her sentences with “and”

  • The second and third sentences give specific examples of supplies she wants to buy

  • Each sentence becomes longer and more descriptive

  • She uses the second person in the third sentence to draw the reader in

  • She uses a triplet (three sentences) to convey her point

Then, I help students find the framework in the sentence and the creative parts. In this case, the framework is the idea of getting an urge to do something at a specific time of year (Every year about this time I…And…And…) The creative parts are: the specific time of year, and the things you get the urge to do. For this sentence, I asked students to brainstorm other moments or times of year that might elicit imagery and examples. Possibilities include:

  • Every Saturday morning

  • Every first day of spring

  • Every Christmas

  • Every Fourth of July

(Found in Peterson)

  • Every time I put on my basketball sneakers

  • Every time my alarm goes off

(Created by students)

Then you write in front of them, modeling the process of using and adding to the framework. Here are two examples that I wrote with different classes. You can see the edits I made in later periods (in red).

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 1.53.24 PM.png
Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 1.53.44 PM.png

Finally it’s time to let them go. I give students 5-7 minutes to craft their own sentences. If students need more scaffolding, have them choose one moment and brainstorm, alone or in groups, different details that describe that moment. Then they can play around with placement and rhythm within the template.

Students who finish early can revise to make their sentences a little bit better. Later, invite students to share their sentences in writing groups or pairs. Ask a few volunteers to share out.

Here’s a sentence written by my ninth grade student, Benton. I can still hear the collective gasp of awe and admiration that filled the room when he finished reading his gorgeous sentence.



Peterson, Art. The Writer’s Workout Book: 113 Stretches Toward Better Prose. Portsmouth: Heinemann. 1997.

Quindlen, Anna. “Life in the 30’s.” The New York Times. The New York Times Co., 9 Sept. 1987. Web. 10 March 2014.

What sentences have you stumbled on that will make excellent mentor texts? Please contribute to our dropbox project and add your sentences!


Top Ten of ’13-’14: #9


An Introduction to Mentor Text Wednesday

Welcome to our very first Mentor Text Wednesday!

Mentor texts are powerful in the hands of writers  – they engage our students, they motivate our students, they guide our students, they inspire our students. We know they work.

But finding mentor texts is a time-consuming task for teachers. I have spent hoursskimming and dodging between texts trying to find just the right mentor text for my students — occasionally just to end up picking something simply sufficient rather than stirring.

We believe that by joining forces we can do better. We can find superior mentor texts for ours students that we can guarantee will move their writing forward, and we can save agonizing hours of searching.

To this end, we are doing a few things:

  • Launching the Mentor Text Dropbox Project – You will see a link for our Google dropbox at the top of our site! This is an ever-growing database of mentor texts that have been proven to work, organized by genre. Please feel free to search, borrow, use, share, and add your own! Let’s help one another!
  • Mentor Text Wednesdays — This will be a weekly feature in which we highlight a mentor text, tell you how we used it, provide ideas for additional skills to teach using the text, and invite you to do the same!
  • Participate in Mentor Text Wednesday on your blog! Scroll to the bottom of our page, and you will see a Mentor Text Wednesdays badge that you can post on your own blog and share along with us! Comment on our weekly post with your URL, and we can link to an even broader network of mentor text resources!

(The Inaugural) Mentor Text Wednesday

“Scary New World” by John Green, November 7, 2008, New York Times

Writing Workshop Genre: Critical Book Review

This mentor text doesn’t need much front loading from me because students can immediately access its voice and its topic.

This mentor text first succeeds because it instantly sucks my students into its web of persuasion — first, it is authored by John Green, by far their favorite young adult author. It’s as though their famous buddy, John, wrote a book review, and they are eager to hear what he has to say.

It also immediately engages students because of its subject – The Hunger Games, which they have nearly all read or seen, and, more broadly, dystopian young adult literature, which they are all reading. Another wonderful benefit of using this mentor text has been the interest it generates to read the other text reviewed, Susan Beth Pfeffer’s The Dead and the Gone! It’s a mentor text and book talk in one!

How I Use It: 

I use this as my first mentor text of the unit, paired with a book report of The Hunger Games. Students read the book report and then read Green’s review.  In groups, students make a list of the differences they notice, which we then share out and compile into one class chart: Book Report vs. Book Review.

They pretty much figure out that book reviews have a lot more than just summary.  :)

Then, we go back in with highlighters. With their groups, students highlight plot summary in one color and everything else in another color. I want them to be able to easily see proportions in the text — the balance between the amount of summary and the amount of analysis, connection, and opinion.

Some Other Possibilities: 

  • How to write concise plot summary
  • How to write about theme
  • Giving a balanced opinion
  • Comparing and contrasting similar texts

What else would you teach with this text? Leave a comment with your ideas!