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

Two Writing Workshop Calls to Action

Hi, friends. We’re back. Our little project is safely in the hands of our publisher, and we are so happy to turn our attention back to the blog.

Ever since NCTE, I have been thinking about the challenging realities so many teachers face in their classroom. Not only poverty, not only discipline issues, not only lack of educational funding, not only unsupportive administrations — but also the challenges posed by the curriculum, by rigid pacing guides, by benchmark testing, not to mention state testing. We talked to teachers at NCTE who said, “This kind of writing instruction is great, but I just don’t know how to make it work.” I attempted to address that question here.

But then, I chatted with a former student this week. She visited to observe one of my classes since she was home between student teaching assignments. She had just spent a semester in an inner-city middle school where the pacing guide dictated which pages of the literature textbook and what forms of writing should be taught each week. When she left, I got curious and found it up online. Here’s what was listed under the heading “Writing Workshop” for the week of December 8, 2014: Continue reading

Be right back…

Screen Shot 2015-01-01 at 8.16.43 PMThis scene is lovely and peaceful and not very similar to what we are feeling right now in our very last two weeks of finishing our first book.

So, friends, we are on a little break from writing on the blog so that we can finish writing the book. We will be back with all sorts of new ideas & renewed energy on January 19!

While we’re gone, spend some time with our Mentor Text Dropbox, browse our archives, or send us a Tweet to let us know what you would like to see featured on the blog in 2015! You can find us at @rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett.

Mentor Text Round-Up: Year-End Lists

As I’ve trolled my Twitter feed in the days after Christmas, it seems that everyone is publishing their year-end lists — bests, worsts, most-shockings, favorites. I started thinking about what a fun mini-study this could be, especially when we return to school at the beginning of a new year and the end of a first semester of school. As Allison reminded us last week, this time of year is ripe for reflection, and we could use this genre as form for our ruminations.

A year-end list seems simple enough, but when I started looking at them with a writer’s eye, I noticed that there are actually many opportunities for craft lessons embedded within this genre. Year-end lists require an incredible amount of synthesis and are useful in helping students draw — and write about — their conclusions on a topic. They require evidence and ask the writer to give a “so what?”

Digital year-end lists also often include interesting multimodal presentation pieces — video clips, images, playlists, and hyperlinking. What an interesting way for students to engage in this kind of thinking — what do these insertions add to the text? When does a video clip work better than a still image? How can hyperlinking extend their ideas through other texts?

Your students don’t have to compose year-end lists. They could work on favorite lists — favorite movies? Favorite sports moments? Favorite mentor texts they have used in their first semester writing?  What about a synthesized, annotated list of books they have read in the first semester? A top-ten of things they have learned during semester 1 — in your class or in all of their classes combined? My students may well work on lists of Most Important Things You Should Know After Maternity Leave. Or, save this mini-study for the end of the year — perhaps for their exam writing? As a way for them to present their own writing portfolio?

Here are seven mentor texts for your year-end list studies and a couple of their most interesting features:

Continue reading

What am I doing now? How might I do it better?

My dominant emotion during the holiday season is gratitude with a lot of reflection mixed in. As I wrap gifts, bake treats for neighbors, stand in line at the the post office, assemble holiday cards, vacuum the fallen needles under the tree, my mind wanders from family to school to the new year. What am I doing now? How might I do it better?

I think it’s safe to say that my students’ dominant emotion during the holiday season (pre-winter break) is stress. As they organize their binders, prepare for upcoming exams, participate in end-of-season sporting events, shop for Christmas presents, wait for college acceptance letters, I want them to be able to pause and reflect on all they have accomplished over the past semester and all they have to look forward to in the spring. I want them to be able to describe their strengths in the middle of the year and develop goals for the new year. I want their reflections to be meaningful and lasting, not a box to check off or a list of goals to forget about. I want the questions we tend to ask ourselves in January and May to become integral to their everyday learning. What am I doing now? How might I do it better?


Image by PublicDomain Pictures used under Creative Commons lic

In an effort to bring these reflective questions to the forefront, I’ve compiled a list of five different reflection tools I have found useful in the past or have recently discovered. Some are geared towards students and others towards teachers, but every tool can be adapted for all. That’s the beauty of reflection. The questions and tools that help us look back so we can look foward are useful for everyone.

Non-traditional Portfolio Midterm Exam

My students breathe a deep sigh of relief when I handout this midterm exam guide. The exam is not much of an exam at all but rather an opportunity to synthesize, reflect, and plan for the second semester. When they read about the project, many of them perk up and emerge from their deep end-of-semester comas of exhaustion. They thank for me not asking them to cram more information into their already-overloaded brains. They are grateful to be able to make something meaningful, something that can be shared with family and friends, rather than pushed to the back corners of the brain after exams are over. Rebekah developed the exam for finals last year, and it worked so well that I decided to make it the midterm exam this year so we could get more mileage out of it and continue building the portfolio into the spring.

Now and Better Chart

Last week I went to an IB workshop in New Orleans. The chart below was offered to us at the end of the three-day workshop as a way to think about how we are currently implementing IB values in our classroom and what we can do in the future to make our IB teaching stronger.

What am I doing now?

How might I do it better?

IB teacher or not, this simple chart might help you refocus and set goals for 2015. If using with students, you can keep the chart open-ended or ask them to focus on their writing or reading lives. Students can add to this chart in different color pens throughout the year.

Top Ten Lists

The Top Ten List is actually a list of goals in disguise! This idea comes from David Letterman’s Top Ten List, a regular segment of the Late Show. You can get dozens of mentor texts from his website here.

I love this tool because it can be done at any point in the year. And it’s quick and fun! Rebekah and I like to make our top ten lists after we go to a conference or workshop (see my top ten list from the Central Virginia Writing Project Conference with Penny Kittle last November — you’ll notice I couldn’t limit it to just 10). These lists are a quick activity that force you to distill everything you’ve learned into a few bullet points. Here are a few ideas for student lists:

  1. Top Ten Things I Want to Remember as I Write
  2. Top Ten Topics I’d Like to Explore in Writing in 2015
  3. Top Ten Mini-Lessons I Want to Refer Back To
  4. Top Ten Mentor Texts To Provide Guidance and Inspiration
  5. Top Ten Words Use In My Writing

Just like Rebekah and I like to write our Top Ten lists at the end of every conference, you might ask students to write their lists at the end of every workshop, quarter, or semester.

Video Interviews

Last year Rebekah wrote a post about how we were using video interviews as an end-of-the-year reflection tool and summative assessment. Video interviews allow students to show their personality in a way they can’t on paper. You can create a list of must-answer questions and a list of optional questions from which students will pick and choose. Here is a model video interview with my personable student Julia.

A second video recorded at the end of the year could invite students to build on their midterm-responses, providing an illuminating duo of videos.

Class Growth Charts

Rebekah alerted me to this incredibly useful and versatile chart for measuring growth:

Screen Shot 2014-12-20 at 1.41.03 PM

Image by @ChristinaNosek and @mrsalew via Twitter

I’m dying to take this chart back to my colleagues and see where our collective strengths and weakness lie. As I was studying the chart, I realized it could easily be adapted for student use as well. With a few adjustments, this chart could provide a way for students to think about their growth as writers. Here’s the student-friendly version I’m imagining to help students chart writing habits:

I rarely do this I do this occasionally I do this consistently I do this in every piece of writing across genres
Use mini-lessons in my writing
Ask for teacher conference when I don’t know next steps
Read my work out loud during different stages of writing
Use peer conferencing for feedback
Write on a daily or nightly basis
Use mentor texts for guidance and inspiration
Keep my writer’s notebook up-to-date
Meet writing deadlines

Here’s another version for helping students look at their writing skills. The skills going down the first column are the skills you want students to demonstrate in all writing throughout the year. Students can use peer, teacher and self feedback to determine where their red sticker should go.

No evidence of this in my writing Some evidence of this in my writing Consistent evidence of this in my writing Copious evidence in writing across genres and pieces of writing
Incorporate vivid description of people and places
Support my claims with sufficient evidence
Give my work strong titles that forecast the message of the piece
Use strong paragraphing to organize my ideas
Vary sentence lengths and patterns in my writing
Consistently punctuate compound and complex sentences correctly
Bring voice into my writing so it sounds like me
Weave my “so what” through my writing

It might be interesting to revisit this chart at the end of each quarter. Students could use different color dots to represent where they fall in quarters 1, 2, 3, and 4.

As you spend some time this winter break planning for your second semester, you might think about using tools for sustainable reflection — the kind that lasts beyond the one activity and can serve as a useful planning and learning tool from day to day.

How do you incorporate reflection into your writing instruction? Please send us your ideas @allisonmarchett @rebekahodell1 or leave a comment below!

Happy Birthday, Moving Writers + Some BIG News!

One year ago today, we started a blog. Inspired at NCTE13, we felt compelled to join the global English teacher conversation. So, we picked a name, paid a graphic designer $5 for a logo, and hung a sign in our little corner of the Internet.

We started writing. And we have loved it. We love the conversations this blog has sparked with you. We love the way the blog has pushed our own writing. We love the way that, on occasion, the self-imposed pressure to post something new has driven us to experiment in our classrooms to exciting results. Moving Writers has made us better at everything we do.

Moving Writers has moved us.

And all this thinking and writing has propelled us into some very exciting new work. We are writing a book! Actually, we are very nearly finished writing a book for Heinemann that will be published in August 2015.  Mentoring Writers (the working title — we hope it sticks!) gives teachers an approach for using a steady flood of mentor texts from the first day of school to the last, from planning a piece of writing through its polishing and publication.  The mentor texts we use are the same as those you see featured regularly on this blog — hot-off-the-presses, just-published-this-week, relevant, and engaging.

With our FABULOUS editor, Katie Wood Ray, at NCTE14.

With our FABULOUS editor, Katie Wood Ray, at NCTE14.

We are humbled and amazed.

One year ago in our inaugural post, we posed a series of questions we hoped to explore through the blog. Below, you will see how we have started to address some of those big ideas. As you can see, there is a lot more to discuss — lots of territory for exploration, new questions to pose.  Grab a cup of coffee and spend some time looking around.

What does writer’s workshop look like in the secondary – particularly the traditional high school –  classroom?

What conditions, tools, structures, and norms help guide writers towards independence?

What works in our writer’s workshop classrooms? What doesn’t work? How can we improve our craft as educators?

How can we help students maintain control of their own ideas while guiding them as writers? (Penny Kittle)


What are the short and long term benefits of writer’s workshop?

What makes a good mentor text? Where do we find them? How do we use them? Can we enlist students to find them?


Besides editorials, commentaries, and narratives, what other genres could and should be taught to secondary students?


What would a writer’s workshop scope & sequence look like?


How do writer’s workshop and reader’s workshop speak to one another? Build off of one another?

What would it take to change the way our students see themselves as writers?


How can we develop these characteristics in our students: curiosity, clarity, self- confidence, autonomy, and mastery? (Penny Kittle)


How do we bring joy and meaning into the writer’s workshop?

Posts sharing lessons:

Posts sharing mentor texts:

From the bottom of our hearts, thank you for going on this journey with us. We can’t wait for another year of thinking, discussing, and teaching alongside you.

What do you want to discuss? What are you itching for us to explore? Leave us a comment below and find us on Twitter — @allisonmarchett and @rebekahodell1.

- Allison & Rebekah