Reading and Writing Workshop: The Essentials of Getting Organized

I found Rebekah’s visual guide to planning for writing workshop tremendously helpful, and I know many of you did, too. In an effort to be transparent and share the systems that work for us, this week I am going to write a little bit about the various organizational tools that help my workshops run more smoothly and keep the materials my students and I need at our fingertips.

Master Workshop Binder

My Master Workshop Binder

For a year or two I tried to go completely paperless. I condensed dozens of binders (one for each study or unit) into two or three by making or finding digital copies of everything. I forced myself to move conference notes online, and I asked the students to set up digital writing folders. At first, I loved how much space a purely digital system opened up in my room. Our classroom unfettered by papers, thick 2-inch binders, and handouts, we had more room to think. However, I also found that we sometimes wasted time trying to locate essential papers since they weren’t right at our fingertips — and sometimes I just needed to write something down on a piece of paper and save it. Over the past two years, I have refined my system — it’s about 75% digital and 25% analog. The trick is keeping hard copies of what’s essential, and letting a digital binder house everything else.


My no-frills Master Binder.


As you can see from the picture, my Master Binder is nothing fancy — a simple, white, 1-inch binder with different sections for each of the classes I teach and a copy of our school schedule tucked into the front clear pocket. Within each class section, you’ll see four subsections: handouts, mentor texts, rubrics/checklists and rosters/conferences notes — tools that correspond with the components of writing and reading workshop.

Sections and sub-sections in the Master Binder.

Sections and sub-sections in the Master Binder.


The handouts subsection contains two to three handouts at any given time:

  • Current study overviews (a description of the current study and expectations) and checkpoints (reflective writing assignments that are completed concurrently with the main piece of writing students are working on)
  • Reading and Writing Workshop Rules and Guidelines — I modify the rules and guidelines Nancie Atwell shares in In the Middle. If a student is not using time or space wisely during workshop, I simply bring my binder over to her desk, point to the rule or guideline she is not following, and remind her of the expectations.


  • Colorcode each study overview (in your binder and in students’ binders) so everyone associates each study with a particular color and can find the relevant handouts more easily.
  • Put the Rules and Guidelines handout in a sheet protector since you distribute it during the first week of school and refer to it throughout the year.

Mentor Texts

Almost all of the instruction in my class stems from mentor texts — from the work of real writers. We refer to them every single day of the year — sometimes briefly, sometimes for the full class period — so it’s important that they remain at my fingertips.

IMG_7213 copy

A mentor text from our Letter to the Editor study.


  • After you are done with a study, consider filing your personal copies of the mentor texts in a larger binder that you can tote around with you for cross-genre mentor text work in conferences.

Rubrics/Study Checklists

In this section I keep my stash of rubrics and writing checklists from every single writing and reading study from the year. When conferring, I can turn to a rubric or checklist, point to a skill, and ask a student to show me evidence that he is trying the work of the mini-lesson and working this skill into his writing. This section also serves as a quick reference for where we’re headed in the unit — one that I can show a student, a parent, or even an administrator who is interested in what we’re up to.


  • Consider using this section to plan for future writing studies. With a list of all of the skills you’ve previously taught in front of you, your planning will be easier and better connected to the students’ prior knowledge.

Rosters/Conference Notes

The last section of my master binder houses a handful of rosters where I write conference notes and/or status of the class updates. The spreadsheet I use is nearly identical to the one Nancie Atwell shares in In the Middle – a simple chart with names printed horizontally and dates printed vertically. I print 8-10 rosters for each class at the beginning of the year, so I never have to print another during the year. They are ready to go when I need them at the beginning of a new study.


On this conference record, I recorded students’ individual goals/plans for the day during roll call.

In the past I’ve tried various digital applications — a Google Doc, Confer — but I found it difficult to type my notes and listen to students at the same time. Even an iPad or phone felt cumbersome, though not as difficult to manage as a laptop computer. Although I desperately wanted to find a digital system that worked for my students and me, I have found that handwriting notes is the best way to focus on what a student is saying and be able to develop a timely, appropriate response.


  • For rosters/conference notes, it’s important that student names run horizontally and the dates run vertically. It’s much easier to view student progress in a workshop when you can read down a column detailing their daily goals and accomplishments.

Student Reading Log

A student's reading log.

A student’s reading log.

My students “turn in” their independent reading every Friday. In class, they report what they are reading and how many pages they read during the week. They also have the opportunity to check in with their quarterly reading goals.

Last year the student reading log was digital, and while it was tremendously useful for me, the students reported that it was cumbersome, and many didn’t complete it on time. As soon as I switched over to a paper log, completion rates increased, and students reported that they felt more connected to their reading because they could see their progress on a daily basis (with the digital reading log, all of the data came to me and was stored in one of my Google Docs folders. Students had to ask to see it or keep a record of their own if they wanted a visual of their progress). Each student has his or her own reading log — one per quarter — and all of these logs are housed in another simple white binder that travels around the room during reading time. They are filed alphabetically by last name, and for particularly large classes, I use alphabetical binder dividers to organize the section so students can access their individual logs as quickly as possible.


  • Supplement the paper log with a digital reading log like this one for snow days and other holidays when students aren’t in school to report their reading progress.
  • Students won’t necessarily look at their goals just because they are printed at the top. Every few weeks, ask them to write about the progress they are making towards the goals. Allow them to revise their goals directly on the log as they learn more about what they are capable of and what time will allow.

Student Turn-in Folder

Every student has her own turn-in folder — a place where she keeps all drafts of a paper, as well as checkpoints and other relevant materials. At the beginning of the year, I ask students to watch this video tutorial for homework and set-up their turn-in folder before class the next day. If students title their folders correctly, they will be shared with the teacher in alphabetical order.

Student Writing Folders A

Student turn-in folders in my Shared Google Drive, in alphabetical order by last name.

Within each student turn-in folder, I ask students to create subfolders for Reading and Writing, and smaller folders for each of the units of study within these broader subjects. It’s very easy to locate a student draft when folders are organized in this way.

Student Writing Folders

The contents of Ravenel’s turn-in folder.

Student and Teacher Shared Folder

Finally, in my own Google Drive folder, I have a separate folder for each subject I teach. This shared folder replaced the old Master Binder I used to keep of every single handout, Powerpoint, reading, etc. that I gave to students. Students have access to this folder in their Google Drive (under Shared). They can also access it through a link on my class website.

My Google Drive

My Google Drive for 2014-15 school year.

This folder mirrors the students’ turn-in folder: every unit of study has its own folder, so students can quickly access materials relevant to the current study.

Teacher Student Shared Folder

Sub-folders of my Google Drive that correspond to student turn-in folders.

In addition to the paper copies I hand out, students like having digital copies of everything. Absent students can access the handouts even before they return to school, and students who have misplaced a handout, can print another copy (I have a rule that I only print one copy of anything for each student — this saves paper and time and teaches the students responsibility, especially since they are able to print another for themselves.)

As I prepared this blog post, it struck me as interesting that a teacher’s master binder tells a story about her classroom — about her philosophy, the structure, and the work she and her students are doing. What story does your binder tell?

No system is perfect — and even the best systems inevitably get tweaked over the years as new tools are released and the shape of our work changes. One thing’s for sure, though: sharing systems with one another ultimately leads to better organization for all. So, in the spirit of sharing, please leave a comment below or find us on Twitter @ allisonmarchett @rebekahodell1 and tell us about the tools that help you keep your classroom workshop organized and running smoothly!

A Visual Guide to Planning a Writing Study

“You can’t teach writing this way if you’re not organized.” – Donald Graves (Atwell 2014, p. 26).

Before I immersed myself and my students in writing workshop life, I heard other teachers say things like, “Oh, writing workshop is organic. The writing happens. It just works.” They advised me that conferences with student writers gave birth to mini-lessons — that seeing what my students needed would teach me how to teach them. That we would all engage in a process of discovery. That there are some things a great workshop teacher just can’t plan for.

And all of these things are true. But what I quickly found out is that we were all adrift if our writing studies didn’t have the foundation of some serious intentions.

A thriving workshop can’t be all organic, in-the-moment discovery. The learning can’t be entirely student-directed.  These elements are truly vital to the life of a workshop, but like a boat rocking and swaying on the whims of a wave, a workshop also needs a firmly-rooted anchor.

So, what? and how? How do we get from the very beginning places to the launch of a workshop that will have the appropriate balance of structure and freedom to go where the learning leads us? Today, I’m going to take you on a visual tour of my planning process — one that I’ve tweaked and honed over the years, and one that works for me.


My first brain dump of the year in my new sketchbook! No more losing Post-It notes.

Brain Dump 

Time FrameAnytime (1 year-1 week before teaching)

I have trouble thinking digitally, so virtually all of my conceptual planning takes place on various pieces of paper. This year, I bought a sketchbook  to keep all of those Post-Its and scraps of paper together.

When I begin planning a study — either a genre study or a technique study — I turn to a blank piece of paper in my notebook and start a brain dump, writing down everything I might want to teach.

In truth, this brain dump page evolves over time. I start a page the first time I think of something I want to remember to teach in that particular writing study — sometimes that’s months before I will actually teach it. Sometimes it’s the week before. Sometimes it’s a year before. (I just finished this year’s poetry study, and I immediately created a “Poetry Study: Next Time” page for ideas I want to remember for next year’s poetry study.

Brain dump for a poetry study

Brain dump for a poetry study

This includes:

  • New processes I want to implement / process lessons I need to teach : For example, in my current writing study, I know I want to introduce the process of working with feedback partners. In early writing studies, process lessons might include what happens in a writing conference, what to do when you get stuck, or how to respond to the status of the class roll call.


  • Craft lessons I know that I will need to teach: In each writing study, there are a handful of craft lessons that I know I will need to teach. When I do a study of poetry, I will need to teach about where poets break their lines and why. When we study commentaries, I know students will need a lessons on developing claims and supporting them with evidence. In a technique study on voice, I know students will need a lesson about how punctuation creates voice in a piece of writing. Now, that said, there will be mini-lessons that crop up organically as students made their noticings about the mentor texts, as I teach (and need to reteach), as I conference. These are just starting points!

    Brain dump for a writing study of narrative scenes

    Brain dump for a writing study of narrative scenes

  • Ideas for Mentor Texts: While nearly every writing study I teach includes brand new, hot-off-the-presses mentor texts, there are a few I know I will return to. I jot these down in my notebook so I can remember to investigate them. Again, this list is fluid — I often add mentor texts to the initial cluster as I teach. These are just starting points.

  • Possibilities for In-Class Activities or Extensions  -

    In workshop, writing

    is the activity, so we don’t do many extra activities. I want to give every second I can to crafting and conferencing. Still, some activities can greatly enhance the writing experience or give life to a mini-lesson in a particularly evocative way. For example, in my current study of narrative scenes, students brought in the first sentence of their independent reading books. Using these leads, we created a graffiti wall to help us examine trends in hooking readers. When this popped into my head, I jotted it in a bubble on my brain-dump page.


Time Frame:  1-2 weeks before launching a study

After playing a bit and dumping out the contents of my brain, I then try to find a logical order for the initial mini-lessons — the ones that I know I will teach. I list these in my notebook, too.

Organizing the lessons for the narrative scene study.

Organizing the lessons for the narrative scene study.

At this point, I also consider which mentor texts I will introduce and when. On occasion (particularly for shorter genres like poetry or scenes), I will give students the whole mentor text cluster in one big chunk at the beginning of the study and circulate back through them individually or in pieces as we work through the mini-lessons. For longer pieces — commentaries, analysis, for instance — I give them the mentor texts one at a time as they pertain to the mini-lessons at hand. (This step also helps me see where I have gaps in my mentor text cluster — lessons for which I don’t have a strong mentor yet!)


Monthly Calendar/ Broad View

Time-Frame: 1-2 weeks before launching a study

I print out a monthly-view calendar and lay my mini-lessons on top of it so that I start to get a sense of how long this writing study will take. I don’t set firm due-dates in advance, but I do like to let students know a general timeframe they can plan around — “This study will wrap up in about 4 weeks.

The big picture of our narrative scene study.

The big picture of our narrative scene study.

On my monthly calendar, I label our Reading Fridays (all independent reading and conferencing during class) and any holidays that I can anticipate. I also label period places for checkpoints along the way — little moments of writerly reflection built in to our schedule.

Of course, things happen. Assemblies get scheduled. Snow days happen (and happen, and happen). I have yet to have a calendar work out exactly as planned in advance. Still, this gives me the broad strokes I need to keep the writing study moving at an appropriate pace. It’s a roadmap for knowing where we are headed.


Detailed, Weekly ViewFullSizeRender-8

Time-Frame: Week by week as we go

Finally, as I teach, I transfer that big, monthly view of lessons into my real, daily lesson plan book. (For the last two years, I have used the beautiful, fabulous, affordable, personalized teacher planners of Plum Paper. They even offer an option to have your classes or subjects pre-printed on each page!)

I only write this in one week in advance because so much can change. And this is the place I do my detailed planning — the notebook time invitation or book talk I will share, any homework I will assign, etc.

A week of writing study

A week of writing study



FullSizeRender-6There you have it — my process. Maybe there is something here that you can use to help you get the big and small picture of each writing study you teach.  Planning is very individual and specific to the personality of the teacher, so I would love to hear other systems you use!


How do you plan for a unit of writing workshop? Do you have any go-to methods of organization? Do you sketch it out on paper or do you plan digitally? Share your thoughts in the comments below or with us @Rebekahodell1 and @Allisonmarchett.


Sequencing and Scaffolding Writing Studies


Eighth grader Hugh works on his letter to the editor.

Whether you work with students for two years or are searching for an effective way to organize writing instruction in your classroom, you have no doubt thought about sequencing your writing studies so they build on one another.

This year I have the privilege of teaching a group of 8th graders whom I will also teach as ninth graders next year. One of my challenges has been in sequencing my writing curriculum to meet my students where they are now and anticipate where they will be next year.

Below is a snapshot of the studies I am teaching this year in 8th and 9th grade.

8th Grade Writing 9th Grade Writing
Interviews (The American Teenager Project) Interviews
Poetry Memoir
Narrative Scene Critical Review
Letter to the Editor Commentary
Short Fiction Poetry
Literary Analysis: Short Fiction Literary Analysis: Poetry
Multigenre Project Photo Essay

As you can see, students in grades 8 and 9 are exposed to a variety of modes: each year, they explore narrative, expository, argument, analysis and digital writing. I teach some genres in both years — interview and poetry, for example.

I plan for 8th and 9th grade simultaneously so that the 9th grade curriculum picks up where the 8th grade curriculum leaves off. For example:

  • In 9th grade, we circle back to narrative writing with memoir, and then move through a series of writing studies that provide an opportunity to review and extend what was learned in the previous year.
  • The 9th grade poetry unit builds on the 8th grade poetry unit by introducing formal verse and meter.
  • Both 8th and 9th graders practice literary analysis, but the 9th graders are asked to do the more challenging of the two genres: poetry analysis.
  • The 9th grade Commentary study continues naturally from the Letter to the Editor unit in which students are first shown how to write strong claims with supporting reasons and evidence. Below is a snapshot of the mini-lessons about literary craft taught during both studies.
Grade 8 Letter to the Editor Study Grade 9 Commentary Study
Formatting a letter Crafting a strong and arguable claim
Crafting a strong claim in response to a piece of writing Providing reasons that support your claim
Using examples and anecdotes to support your claim Using different types of evidence (example, anecdote, statistic, expert testimony) to support your reasons
Acknowledging the other side Using concession and counterargument
Using transitional words and phrases Creating cohesion with transitions and key words

I like to think of commentary writing as the older sibling of letters to the editor. Both require students to take a stance, but commentary writing requires students to:

  • sustain an argument for several pages
  • develop paragraphs more fully
  • incorporate outside research
  • have a strong understanding of alternative viewpoints

Because of the way in which commentary builds on LTEs, the two genres make for an excellent two-year study, or even a back-to-back study in a single-year course in which students need more scaffolding.

The LTE/Commentary sequence reminds me to find bridges that exist between genres and plan with these bridges in mind.


Some of my 8th graders are starting to look and write like 9th graders.

As you begin to plan for the spring, consider setting aside some time to think through the sequencing of your units of study. Are they arranged to maximize student learning? To give students a chance to review before learning something new? To help students make connections between studies and across grades and disciplines? The following tips may help you and your colleagues plan.

Be vertical and horizontal.

Talk to your colleagues in the grades below and above you about the types of writing their students are doing. Create bridges between years by selecting genres that build on the ones that precede and follow it.

Expose students to a variety of modes.

With your colleagues, brainstorm all of the genres that fit within the following modes of writing: narrative, expository, argument, analysis, and digital. Agree to teach 1-2 genres within each mode every year.

Use common language.

Across your department (better yet, across your whole school) agree upon the terms and phrases you will use to describe writing to students. For example, claim, central argument, and thesis mean essentially the same thing. But will your students become confused when they hear their 9th grade teacher using the term claim and their 10th grade teaching using the term thesis? To avoid confusion and establish consistency, create a one-pager that details the language you will use to discuss writing across grades and disciplines.

Create lessons that build towards greater complexity.

In the Letter to the Editor/Commentary comparison above, you’ll notice that the lessons in the right column mirror the lessons in the right column but with an added layer of sophistication. For example, 8th graders must be able to acknowledge the other side of the argument, but 9th graders must take the next steps in making a concession and then refuting the claim. Create and arrange lessons that provide opportunities for review and extension.

How do you sequence writing studies in your classroom? If you teach students for two years, how do you create bridges between the years while differentiating instruction? How do you collaborate with colleagues to ensure cohesive, forward-moving curriculum? Please comment in the space below, or find us on Twitter @allisonmarchett @rebekahodell1.

#engchat: March 16

In an age of standards, how can teachers bring the creativity and vitality of a writing workshop into the secondary classroom?  How can teachers devote meaningful, consistent time to writing instruction while balancing the demands of literature study, independent reading, test preparation, and a standardized curriculum?

For the #engchat conversation on 3/16/15 (at 7 PM EST), join co-authors Allison Marchetti (@allisonmarchett) and Rebekah O’Dell (@rebekahodell1) as they share some strategies from their blog ( and forthcoming book, Writing with Mentors (Heinemann, August 2015).

Some questions we may pursue are:

  • How can classroom routines support meaningful, consistent writing instruction?
  • Where do you see room in your curriculum for units of writing study?
  • How can mini-lessons be streamlined and sequenced to both meet the requirements and push past the limits of a standardized curriculum?
  • How can the power of mentor texts be harnessed to teach any element of good writing (and reading!)?
  • What conferring strategies can help you maximize instructional time and move writers forward?

We can’t wait to share strategies and inspiration with #engchat friends soon!

Questions to Help You Choose Mentor Texts

Do you remember Captain’s Choice? Those moments standing on the field during gym class as the boys and girls carefully selected players for their teams? We can still see their eyes darting back and forth as they sized up their potential teammates. For some of them it was – and still is – serious business. They had real selection criteria. How fast is she? How much experience does he have? How many goals did she score last week?  For some of us, it was a painful experience. But looking back, we don’t begrudge them. We realize now they were simply trying to build the best possible team.

We think about these boys with a smile now as we select mentor texts to support our current study. Like them, we mean business. In a world full of mentor texts, we have to choose the ones that will best engage and inspire our students and move them forward in their writing. The ones that will give them a vision of the writing they’re about to do — and a text to shepherd them during the writing of it. And like the athletes of our fifth grade gym class, we can’t risk choosing the wrong text and losing our students along the way. So we have some selection criteria, a series of questions that we ask of potential texts, as we go in search of the best models for our writers.

Screen Shot 2015-03-01 at 9.31.48 PM

How To Use the Chart

Gather a few texts that you’ve come across in your reading. The questions are ordered from most to least important, so, beginning with one text, ask of it the first two questions in the left column. (The questions in the follow-up column are designed to give you more information about the primary questions or help you probe the texts more deeply.) These questions will help you do a first-round vetting. If your mentor text does not pass the engagement test and the highlighter test, it’s probably not going to work for you and your students. Next you should consider accessibility, length, and the writer’s larger body of work. Running each mentor text past these questions will help you select a strong cluster of texts for your study.

The topic of selecting mentor texts comprises a good portion of Chapter 2 our book due out in August! We can’t wait to share it with you. In the meantime, please feel free to share your process for selecting mentor texts, and as always, forward any mentor texts you’d like us to add to the Dropbox our way. You can reach us @allisonmarchetti @rebekahodell1.

Turning Mentor Texts into Book Talks

After losing days of school due to snow, I’m in a familiar we’re-never-going-to-get-everything-done panic. I feel this way every winter. The fact is this: none of us have enough time with our students. We constantly feel the pull of more-to-do; we live in the tension of what we have to teach and what we want to teach.

Any time I can double-down and achieve two goals simultaneously, I get excited.

Though I am ashamed to admit this, the truth is that book talks are one of the things that frequently gets brushed to the bottom of the pile in my classroom. I know that they are important, and I am committed to growing readers in addition to growing writers, but if I need just five more minutes during class, the book talk is most often the item that gets cut.

Recently, I have been trying to find ways to streamline book talks so that they happen more seamlessly in my classroom. It hit me: a mentor text can be a little book talk!  If I can be more intentional here, I can achieve a few important instructional moments at the same time:

  • inspire and improve students’ writing through the use of mentor texts
  • entice students to expand their reading horizons into new topics, new genres, new writers
  • highlight the symbiotic connection between students’ reading lives and their writing lives
The mentor texts in our current study of narrative scenes with "book talks" at the bottom -- GONE GIRL, ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART TIME INDIAN, THE GLASS CASTLE, and FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS.

The mentor texts in our current study of narrative scenes with “book talks” at the bottom — GONE GIRL, ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART TIME INDIAN, THE GLASS CASTLE, and FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS.

Since I work hard to find engaging mentor texts, I want to build on that momentum and propel them into future reading. Here’s how I do it — on the bottom of each mentor text in our mentor text cluster, I add an image (of the book cover, the website logo, the author) and a little blurb. For a novel, it might be a short summary or teaser enticing readers to pick up the book and continue reading. For a poem, I might add some author biography. For an editorial or other non-fiction writing, I might include a little information about the writer, other recent articles by that writer that might interest the students, or topics that writer frequents.  My goal is simple: I want students to keep reading and to read new things.

Sometimes I will stop, draw students’ attention to the book talk blurb at the bottom of the mentor text, and chat a bit. Other times, I just leave it for them to read when they are ready. These built-in book talks don’t replace traditional book talk, but they add another opportunity to extend students’ reading and yet another level of meaning to mentor texts in our classroom.

Mentor Texts are for Social Studies, too!

Mentor texts aren’t just for English class.

If mentor texts are meant to inspire writing and teach us something about our writing, then they should exist in every genre. And they should exist in every classroom where writing happens.

It can be challenging, though, to wrap our heads around mentor texts in the content areas. Every kind of good writing can apply to a writing workshop, but not every kind of good writing is applicable in science, in math, in world languages, or in history.

I have some very cool colleagues in the social studies department who have challenged me to think about how the workshop model — and mentor texts in particular — can be used in history class.  Here are two, big broad ways to start thinking about this:

  • What are history mentor texts and how to find them?
  • How can non-historical mentor texts teach good writing?

History Mentor Texts Continue reading

Helping Students Find True Writing Mentors

What have you read that is like what you want to write?

I posed this question on an introductory survey to a group of creative writers. Most of them responded with a list of the genres in which they wanted to write — short stories, poems, blogs — but only a few of them named specific writers or titles. One student listed Whitman and Poe as writers whose work she admired. Another wrote about his contributions to an online Lord of the Rings fanfiction platform. But most of the answers were fairly generic — I want to write short stories. I want to write poems. I can’t think of anyone specific.

Their responses puzzled me. Kids who know what they want to be have seen others do the work they want to do. Kids who want to be doctors have had good experiences with doctors and seen inspiring doctors work magic in movies and books. Children who dream of teaching watch their own teachers and come home and play school. Kids who want to be vets have brought their cats and dogs to the vet and watched animal doctors treat their pets with love and respect. Here was a group of students who had signed up for creative writing, many of them hoping to pursue a career in writing, yet they were unable to name writers whose work they admired. They were unable to describe something they had read that is like what they want to write. Why was that?

I started to question the genre study I had lined up first — poetry. On one hand, while all creative writers should be exposed to poetry and poetry writing, I knew it wouldn’t satisfy the majority of the group. Based on their responses to the survey, I had a lot of short story writers, and a few students who were interested in sports writing. I had some seasoned writers and some not-so-experienced writers. How could I ignite a semester of writing, provide common writing experiences, and satisfy the diverse interests of all of these writers at once? And how could I introduce each of them to writers who would truly impact their own work?

The idea of backwards mentoring came to mind as I considered all of these questions. Instead of selecting a genre to study, finding mentor texts in that genre, and asking students to write something that is like the mentor texts, I decided to start with the writing on their hearts and minds and go in search of mentors that could help them write what they wanted to.

So, the first assignment of the semester went something like this: Write for a total of one hour. You can write in a notebook or type on a computer. You can write about whatever you want, whenever you want, in any genre you want. Bring this writing to class on Friday.

Here’s a sampling of what came in a few days later:

  • a lyrical story written from the point of view of a chair
  • an apostrophe poem, written to the state of Virginia
  • snippets of conversation between two characters
  • observational poetry written at an airport
  • a character sketch
  • the beginning of a short story
  • a journal entry written from the point of view of an Al-Qaeda pilot
  • a nonsensical short story about a man named Jacoby, the Mexican mafia, and a leprechaun
  • a definition of love
  • a series of poems and prose passages addressed to someone
  • a prose essay on evil

The following day, I asked students to fill out another survey. Through this survey I sought to understand the inspiration and decisions behind their writing. Some had specific inspiration — dreams, tv shows, airport characters — while others wrote without specific ideas in mind. Then it was my turn to do some work.

I read each student’s work several times and tried to assign it a genre. This was easier said than done. Many of the writing samples were unmistakably poetry or short stories, but some were hybrid genres that were more difficult to classify. For example, one student wrote an essay about evil that had a literary quality to it but also incorporated quotes from a book she is currently reading for pleasure. I did the best I could, fitting each writing sample into a loose category. Then I read their survey responses to learn more about the decisions behind their writing. Finally, I began to think about where I had seen similar writing.

My goal was to find 3-4 different mentor texts for each student writer. I chose mentor texts that fit one or more of the following criteria 1) resembles the genre in which the student has written 2) has a similar theme/topic 3) contains craft moves the student indicated he wants to learn about Here are some of the mentor text clusters I gave each student:

Maeve’s Mentor Texts

Title Author Genre/Technique
In Blackwater Woods Mary Oliver Nature Writing; Poem
Oread H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) Nature Writing; Apostrophe Poem (in which poet addresses an absent person, thing, or idea)
I Stand Here Ironing Tillie Olsen Short Story; Monologue Writing; Strong Ending
“Feared Drowned” Sharon Olds Poem;  Apostrophe Poem; Vivid Details; Strong Ending

Collette’s Mentor Texts

Title Author Genre/Technique
The Last Night of the World Ray Bradbury Strong Dialogue; Short Story; Dystopian
Harrison Bergeron Kurt Vonnegut Short Story; Dystopian
Excerpt from the City of Ashes Cassandra Clare Fiction; Writing with voice

Cassie’s Mentor Texts

Title Author Genre/Technique
On Pain Kahlil Gibran Prose Poem Essay; Writing about big ideas/themes
On Death Kahlil Gibran Prose Poem Essay; Writing about big ideas/themes
Should Slut Be Retired Anna North Opinion Writing/Commentary; Writing about a text; incorporating quotes from a text
How Movies Can Change Our Minds John Guida Opinion Writing/Commentary; Writing about big themes

Taylor’s Mentor Texts

Title Author Genre/Technique
Excerpt from the City of Ashes Cassandra Clare Fiction; Writing with voice; Revealing backstory
Montauck Sarah Kaye Spoken Word Poetry, Using repetition for effect
I Can’t Forget You Len Roberts Poem; Writing that is inspired by one’s environment

Bo’s Mentor Texts

Title Author Genre/Technique
Excerpt Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin Fiction; Characterization; Limited Omniscient Narrator
Excerpt from Lord of the Rings Tolkien Characterization; Third Person Narration
Interview with John Gardner from The Paris Review The relationship between characterization and setting

Continuing with the theme of working backwards, the next day I gave each student her personalized cluster of texts, a cover sheet (containing the titles, authors, and rationales behind each mentor text) and instructions to read the mentor texts as readers first.

Over the next few days, students will:

  • do some informal research on these writers
  • learn more about the genre in which they set out to write from these genre examples
  • note craft moves in the mentor texts they want to try
  • learn how to exact craft moves from these mentor texts and bring them into their own work

As we move forward in this backwards study, I hope students will form stronger attachments to professional writers. I hope they will come to understand that they are descendants and contemporaries of other writers who are doing similar work. I hope they experience what it feels like to know another writer’s work intimately and to take part in a conversation and a pastime that is larger than themselves.

How do you help students find writers they admire? Please comment below or find us on Twitter @allisonmarchett @rebekahodell1.


I’ve found some mentor texts…now what?


You’ve collected some awesome mentor texts to support your writing study. You’ve photocopied them and passed them out.

Then what?

How do we connect students with mentor texts in a way that will actually help them write? photo 2-6What are the first steps?

My students have been immersed in a mentor text writing study for the last few weeks. A first study in a semester of writing workshop, the goal is to practice the process of reading like writers, extracting writing techniques and craft moves that students might want to try in their own writing, and using that inspiration to inspire and enhance their own writing. (I tried dedicating a whole workshop to learning how to use mentor texts at the end of  last year, and thought it was so helpful for my students that, with a few tweaks, I bumped it to the beginning of this year’s writing studies.)

For this study, I pulled five great mentor texts demonstrating a range of genres and lots of different writing techniques. I just looked for variety in good writing. Here’s the mentor text cluster I gave students:

Continue reading

Meaningful Revision in Five Days

Tara Smith of Two Writing Teachers once posed the idea of an in-between study, a study that occurs during the brief pause at the end of one unit and the beginning of another. In the middle of December, I found myself with an extra week before exams began — not quite enough time to start something new before seeing students off for the holiday.

I had been looking for a way to teach revision meaningfully — not as a series of single lessons at the end of each unit that often felt rushed and last-minute — but as a true unit of study that would allow students to explore different revision techniques and experience the power of transformation. At the time, students were working on assembling midterm writing portfolios, so it seemed a perfect opportunity for a mini unit on revision. Continue reading