Mentor Text Wednesday: Moving Past Summary in Film Analysis


Mentor Text:  “Captain America on the Potomac” by Linda Holmes for NPR. April 1, 2014.

Skill Taught: Moving past summary in film analysis


My English 9s are working on an essay  on the theme of a Pixar short film of their choosing as an entry point into the world of analytical, academic writing. The films are brief, easily accessible, and yet full of moments to pull apart and scrutinize. Plus, it’s a nice fun break in our spring countdown to the end of the year.

We covered thesis statements, structuring body paragraphs, finding copious evidence, explaining that evidence, writing introductions and conclusions. And still when I conferenced on their drafts I noticed the age old problem we all encounter when teaching this kind of writing: plot summary.

While I didn’t want to delve into the language of film criticism and camera angles, students needed help knowing what they could talk about in a film beyond the simple plot. Sure, they could identify a theme, but what should their evidence look like?

How I Used It:

I gave a brief mini-lesson on close reading a film. Students took notes on how the close reading they have done this year in printed text (based on the work of Christ Lehman and Kate Roberts in Falling  in Love with Close Reading, which I cannot recommend highly enough!) translates to the close reading that we can do on a screen.



Clearly, this is not an exhaustive list, but it gave my students a few concrete places to go in their interpretation that moved them past plot.

We then looked at Linda Holmes’ analysis of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). I love so much about this article: it’s truly analysis more than it is review, it spends much of its time focused on the film qualities of the story (particularly images), it takes something seemingly silly and reveals its potential for depth.

In short, this is EXACTLY what I want my students to do!

Students took to color-marking — looking for summary of the film’s action/plot versus analysis of film technique. The students made a number of interesting insights they could take right into their own writing:

  • “There is only one paragraph made up of one long sentence that is pure summary of the plot. It must not be that important.”
  • “The writer uses what she sees on screen to think about the theme of the movie.”
  • “This is mostly about what the movie is about, not what happens during the movie.”
  • “The writer helps us understand by making comparisons to other movies.”
  • “If we were writing about a movie with actors in it, we should list their names in parentheses beside the character they play.”

Before students moved back into their drafts, they broke into groups according to the short film about which they were writing and watched again — this time for deeper, close reading of film elements. Armed with new evidence and a better sense of direction, they began revising.


Offering Choice During Mini-Lessons

In April, in Creative Writing, we’ve taken a detour from technique-driven units of study. Students are participating in a National Novel Writing Month-inspired challenge, choosing from one of the following writing projects: 30 poems in 30 days, a novel (10,000 words minimum), a screenplay (45 pages minimum).

As the weather turns from winter to spring, everyone welcomes this opportunity to go where the wind takes them.

This change in routine, however, can present a classroom management challenge. With students writing in three different genres–one of which students are very unfamiliar with (screenwriting)–I wondered:

  • How can I best support these writers while giving them the freedom and time they need to create?
  • How can I tailor this experience to individual writers while disseminating information about genres that many writers need?

Rather than planning a month of whole-group mini-lessons, I created a rich menu of lessons from which students could choose.

With 19 instructional days in April, I am able to offer 19 mini-lessons–and I have asked students to choose a minimum of 5 that will best support the writing they are doing. Here is the calendar I gave to students:

Screen Shot 2014-04-13 at 3.07.47 PM

Some of the mini-lessons cross over two or sometimes all three genres. Others are specific to one genre. But all students are invited to attend any mini-lesson. They know that experimenting outside of one’s “home” genre can often lead to the most creative work, so this week, for example, a few poets attended my lesson on character descriptions.

On most days, four or five students attend the lesson. Sometimes, one or two students are present. During the lessons, we get creative and push unoccupied desks and chairs together at the far end of the room–far enough away from other students to establish a small learning community, but not so far enough that non-attendees can’t eavesdrop if they want to!

Here are a few other things I’m doing to enhance the small-group mini-lessons:

  • At the beginning of the week, I talk a little bit about each mini-lesson so students can plan ahead. I tell them to put a checkmark or star next to the lesson(s) they plan to attend.
  • On Mondays, we meet in genre-based writing groups for 10 minutes to share, reflect, troubleshoot, exchange feedback on drafts.
  • On Fridays, we share 1-2 minute excerpts in the author’s chair at the front of the room (I split the 13-student class into two groups, with 6-7 students reading each Friday).
  • During the week, students can also conference individually with me.
  • To keep a record of their attendance at mini-lessons, and to keep their work goal-driven, I ask students to submit a weekly log in which they summarize what they have accomplished throughout the week, share feedback on the mini-lessons, and plan for the following week.
  • When students are not attending a mini-lesson, they are conferring with me, with one another, or simply working on their projects.

As a bonus, I have been able to bring in our religious studies teacher, whose hobby is writing, to teach some of the mini-lessons. He is currently transcribing an autobiographical screenplay into a novel. Guest writers breathe new life into the curriculum. Teacher guests allow students to see that we teachers are more than our teaching.

The workshop is running beautifully. It truly is a happy, productive place. Below I’ve listed a few reasons why I think it’s working so well, in addition to some other possibilities:

  • Next to one-on-one conferences, offering choice allows for ultimate differentiation. On end-of-the unit reflections, when I ask students which mini-lessons were the most and least helpful, sometimes students say, “This mini-lesson was the least helpful because I already knew how to punctuate compound sentences.” Students who are already familiar with the content of a mini-lesson can opt out; those who need more guidance can attend.
  • Small-group mini-lessons can be used to supplement individual conferences. Here’s what I might say to a student after an individual conference: “If you look at the calendar, you’ll see that next week I’m teaching a lesson on powerful punctuation. I’d encourage you to attend this workshop as a follow-up to our conference today. Mark it on your calendar.”
  • Students who are doing particularly strong work in a specific genre or with a specific technique could be asked to lead or co-lead a mini-lesson.
  • The menu gives students more options during workshop time. In the past, students who are suffering from writer’s block or are having an “off”day during workshop may choose to waste time. Instead, they can choose to attend a mini-lesson in hopes of gaining much-needed inspiration or direction.
  • By the end of the year, students should have a better idea of what they need as writers. Allowing them to choose the support they receive fosters independence and feels more authentic and differentiated than whole-group mini-lessons.

Do you offer small-group mini-lessons or conferences? How do they work logistically? How do you plan for them?

Mentor Text Wednesday: Restaurant Review PLUS Interview with Writer


Mentor Text:

Wells, Pete. “Fred and Barney Would Feel Right at Home.” The New York Times. The New York Times Co. 28 Jan. 2014. Web. 7 April 2014.

Author Information:

“At the Critics’ Table.” The New York Times. The New York Times Co. 3 Sept. 2013. Web. 7 April 2014.


Driving to work this week, I had an epiphany.

Mentor text study should not be limited to the study of texts but should include the study of the mentors themselves.

Here’s what Katie Wood Ray has to offer on this topic: “In genre studies, particularly, it’s a good idea to find out as much as you can about the people behind the texts you’re reading and the kind of work they do to support their writing. If possible, you may find interviews with writers and either include them in the stack of texts for students to read, or in whole-class gatherings, you might highlight what you think are the important points from the interviews. Also, ask students to pay attention to any author’s notes or information on book jackets that might provide insight into the writers and the work they do” (128).

I had read this passage in Study Driven before, but it didn’t sink in until this week. And then the guilt hit. I use mentor texts religiously but rarely do I stop to talk about the person behind the words.

What message are we sending to student writers about writers when we talk around  authors but not about them?

In an effort to make good on Ray’s suggestion, I immediately went to work to find author information to support the text we’re currently reading in our review genre study–a review of M. Wells Steakhouse in Long Island City, Queens.

How I Used It

Students are in the “immersion” phase of genre study. We are using these questions from Study Driven to frame our reading:

  • What kinds of topics do writers address with this genre and what kinds of things do they do with these topics?
  • What kinds of work (research, gathering, reflecting, observing, etc.) does it seem like writers of this genre must do in order to produce this kind of writing?
  • How do writers craft this genre so that it is compelling for readers?

We read through the review once together.

Students then did a second draft reading in which they paid special attention to the focus questions and made notes in their margins.

Afterwards, we plotted our noticings on the board. Here is the working list that we will continue to add to and refine as we immerse ourselves in several more mentor texts:

Review (Restaurant) – Initial “Noticings”

  • Includes slideshow with images from restaurant
  • Hyperlinks to other reviews of restaurants owned by same couple
  • Introduces the concept of “the steakhouse” and sets essay up to “set apart” the new steakhouse
  • Balances unbiased information about the type of restaurant with opinionated review
  • Compares this restaurant to other restaurants
  • Talks more about the substance/food than the chefs themselves (though he does give a bit of background information)
  • Discusses about 11 dishes
  • Uses the language of food
  • Uses figurative language & comparisons
  • Covers apps, main entrees, and desserts—you feel like he’s tried everything
  • No forecasting statement—he takes us on the journey he experienced
  • Has a 3-sentence conclusion
  • Delivers a rating system at the end: atmosphere through wheelchair access
  • Runs about 3 pages
  • Includes prices
  • Has a creative, captivating title that alludes to a television show
  • Includes LOTS of detailed imagery about each dish
  • Has a star system–how do they assign stars? Are the restaurants being compared to ALL restaurants? or restaurants of their kind?

After we charted the noticings, I shared the following clips to enhance students’ understanding of the work of a restaurant critic, as well as introduce them to Pete Wells, The New York Times restaurant critic.

Video: The restaurant critics’ guide to using disguises and fake names

Video: What actually happens at the critic’s table

If you look back at the list of noticings, you’ll see that my students wondered about the rating system. I was able to show them this clip to help explain how critics assign stars.

Video: NYT restaurant critics demystify the star-rating system

Ray, Katie Wood. Study Driven: A Framework for Planning Units of Study in the Writing Workshop. Heinemann: Portsmouth, 2006.

We’ve added a new section to our dropbox project–a folder called About the Writers–where we’ll post author interviews, author notes, etc.–anything to supplement the study of mentor texts and pay homage to the writers themselves.

The Power of Flash Drafting: Less Thinking, More Writing

I am very late to the flash draft party.

It’s not a new concept. Ralph Fletcher mentions it in What a Writer Needs, and he attributes the concept to another teacher entirely. But I hadn’t heard about it until a Twitter chat last month when a group of elementary writing teachers raved about its power to jumpstart the writing process.

This isn’t something I hear a lot about in conversations centered on the secondary classroom, though. Many high school teachers may be flash-drafting; still, in my classroom, and in the classrooms of my colleagues, drafts have typically come to fruition by way of assignment (“Go home and write a draft of this paper. Bring it to class.”), by way of deadline (“I want to see at least a completed draft by Friday”), or by way of finished product (the organic flow of the workshop ultimately leading from some kind of draft to some kind of final product).

I have tried all three methods in the past, and, to some extent, all three have worked.

But in my most recent English 9 workshop, focused on the technique of evidence, I decided to take the leap and try a flash draft instead. After some initial idea generation, students spent one class period (for us, about 45 minutes) writing as much as they could and as quickly as they could. For a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with the propensity for distraction, I asked students to handwrite rather than type. If they felt like they got stuck on one idea or  needed to research something, they should simply put brackets in their paper to indicate that something is missing and keep moving forward. I assured them that our traditional mini-lessons would follow and that this would only be the junk draft — getting ideas from brain to paper. No pressure. No over-thinking. Just writing.

It’s hard to say that this alone is the thing that made the difference in our workshop. However, students spent far less time dilly-dallying, conferences were vastly more productive, and the students unanimously — unanimously — reported that writing a flash draft made their process more efficient and productive.

Here’s what some of them had to say:

Writing a flash draft at the beginning of this unit changed my process by allowing me to get my words out on paper. It didn’t matter how good the draft was, and it allowed me to see what worked well and what didn’t work well.  

After I had written my flash draft, it helped me to realize that I hadn’t had very good evidence, and I needed to switch things up a little bit. My genre and topic ended up being used in a different way, but if I hadn’t written a flash draft, I probably wouldn’t have realized it until later on.

Writing a flash draft helped me because it gave me a starting point that I wouldn’t have been able to produce by just sitting there thinking about where to start.

My writing completely changed from the flash draft to my final. I got rid of all the writing and kept the ideas.  

My flash draft and my final draft are VERY different. My flash draft was work that I didn’t like very much, so I changed my direction. My flash draft narrative began where my final narrative ends.

 This was the first time that I have tried a flash draft, and it was a complete success. I normally think too much about my first draft, but the flash draft let me just get my initial thoughts down quickly.  

I didn’t collect and read the drafts. Rather, when we returned to class, we started revising according to mini-lessons, conferencing, and meeting in writing groups for feedback. Since students were writing in myriad genres  and I hadn’t provided any mentor texts or prior guidance (and we would be focusing our workshop on a technique rather than a genre study), I didn’t really even use the flash drafts to plan instruction.

These flash drafts were just for the students.

 Giving students the freedom to get their bad ideas out, providing an immediate deadline, and making students do the writing in front of me made all the difference. We were ready to really workshop their writing during the very next class. While students still moved at their own paces, everyone had a foundation from which to grow.

Coming to Terms with the P-Word

My friends don’t understand why I love bikram yoga–the heat (105 degrees), the humidity (40%), the predictability (26 postures repeated twice).

“Don’t you get bored?” they persist.

No. In fact, the predictability of the class is one of the aspects that makes the yoga so enjoyable. Most people learn the 26 postures quickly–it just takes a few classes. Because the class has a predictable sequence, we know what to do and can enjoy a more deliberate practice because the series is so familiar. It never gets boring because our bodies are different every day, so we never know what kind of class we’re going to have. The predictability is a gift.

So when a student wrote on a course reflection a few weeks back that my English 9 class was “predictable,” you would have thought it was music to my ears.

But it wasn’t. “No one wants to be predictable,” I wailed to my husband.

I wrestled with this student’s “critique” all week. He had used the P-word.

I didn’t want to be predictable, but I couldn’t ignore the fact that I had sought comfort in our writing workshop routines day after day–and I honestly believed the students did, too. I picked up Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them, searching for wisdom in my dog-eared copy. “Surely her classroom isn’t predictable,” I thought to myself, but as I turned in for bed that night, page 33 of her book seared into my head, I couldn’t help but think that her classes, too, seemed a bit…predictable.


And I knew for a fact that Penny Kittle’s classes were far from boring. What did her classes have that mine didn’t? I was determined to find out.

In typical fashion, I fixated on this for a while–until Rebekah came to my rescue a few days later and sent me this text message:

Screen Shot 2014-03-30 at 7.37.18 PM.png

With a renewed sense of hope, I began to explore this idea of predictability in the writer’s workshop, and days later, I stumbled upon this quote in Katie Wood Ray’s Study Driven:

When teaching has a predictable rhythm to it, students recognize what’s happening and can engage with the whole process of teaching and learning much more intentionally because it is so familiar. Now, the fact that it is predictable doesn’t mean in any way that it is redundant or boring. The way you go about a study is predictable, but the content that comes from the study is anything but predictable. The teaching is “structured for surprise” (Graves 2001, 51) and it’s the promise of what you might discover together that gives both students and teachers energy for the study.

There it was on page 110 of her book. The rationale I had been searching for. Still, I felt that perhaps my classroom was missing a special ingredient. I wasn’t convinced I was structuring my classes for surprise, so I decided to compare my methods to hers.

  • At the start of a new unit of study, she immerses students in the texts she wants them to write. Check.

  • Then, once students have a sense of where they’re headed, students move into a close study of these texts. Check.

  • Students generate a whole-class list of “noticings” across texts. Here is an example of a list made during a study of feature articles in a fourth grade classroom:

(The list goes on–what an inspiring list!)

Often I generate lists of noticings with students, but sometimes I dive right in to my own pre-determined series of mini-lessons. So here’s where our methods begin to diverge.

I have a fixed set of lessons I plan on teaching. Katie Wood Ray chooses what to study from students’ noticings:

You really have two choices about how to decide what to talk about during the next days of inquiry-driven lessons: you can choose something or you can let your students choose something. I would probably recommend that you do some of both over the course of close study. You’ll want to have some say in determining what seems to have the most potential on the list of possibilities, but you want to be sure that students’ interests are honored, too. Of course, since the list is comprised mostly of their noticings, you really ensure that you are following their interests no matter who does the choosing. (132)

After reading this passage, I panicked a bit. I thought of my color-coded Google Calendar, the mini-lessons planned out for weeks. I thought of my visually pleasing rubrics–the ones I often gave to students at the beginning of a new unit of study so they had a “roadmap.”

I thought about Penny’s classroom. In her book, she talks about the qualities of genres but never presents a set of plans–a prefixed curriculum.

And then I looked back at the list of noticings those awesome fourth graders had generated–all those wonderful, creative, possibilities–and I knew what I had to do.


I realize that I have to relinquish some of the control and do a better job of honoring students’ instructional interests. Choice has always been at the heart of my writer’s workshop–but now I know that my interpretation of “choice” has been one-dimensional. My lessons have always been teacher–not inquiry–driven.

So now, with a deepened understanding of the role that possibility plays in writer’s workshop, I’m excited to dive into my next unit of study with students. My mantra!?

Embrace possibility. Possibility. The new P-word.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

~ Allison

Kittle, Penny. Write Beside Them: Risk, Voice, and Clarity in High School Writing. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2008.

Ray, Katie Wood. Study Driven. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2006.

How do you honor students’ instructional interests in your classroom? Feel free to add a comment below or find us on Twitter at @allisonmarchett or @rebekahodell1.



Mentor Text Wednesday: Teaching Students to Write Meaningful Comparisons & Contrasts


Mentor Text:  Bowman, Donna. “On the Eve of Its Finale, It’s Time to Compare How I Met Your Mother to Itself.” The A.V. Club. 30 March 2014.

Skill:  Teaching Students to Write Meaningful Comparions & Contrasts


My IB seniors are barreling toward their Big Exam. Truthfully, they have done so much heavy mental lifting in this course that the Big Exam doesn’t seem quite so daunting. Still, on one of the exam days, they will be asked to write a paper in which they consider two works that they have studied side by side.  This doesn’t scare them at all — after all, isn’t comparing and contrasting something they have done since elementary school?

It scares me, though. Because I know how challenging it can be to not just compare and contrast but to do so gracefully, with meaning and nuance.

I found this mentor text in my daily pop culture reading. I find I get far more mileage out of a mentor text that brings pop culture into the classroom. And, as Allison pointed out, some genres — particularly literary analysis — don’t have a real world corollary. Instead, we must rely on mini-mentor texts, excerpts of real-world writing that demonstrate the same analytical skills we look for in our students’ writing about literature.

How I Used It: 

I shared this article with my students in its entirety. It’s long, but they were interested since it references a show with which many of the are familiar. I asked them to read with a comparison/contrast lens — where does the writer do it? How does this writer do it? How does it confound their expectations?

When we discussed it, students immediately noticed that Bowman compares How I Met Your Mother to a litany of other sitcoms – Friends, SeinfeldThe Office, and Cheers to name a few. She also makes some unexpected comparisons — like to ER — which my students noted makes her argument all the more persuasive because it is not limited to the easiest, most obvious points of comparison.

They also picked out some clever allusions in the article – completely unexplained references to The Good Wife and Friday Night Lights — thrown in for good measure, as a nod to a well-watched and well-read audience.

After noting where we found comparisons, we looked at how Bowman structured them. First, we noticed that rather than writing lengthy summaries of each show she references, she gives clues and brief recaps to get readers on the same page. For example, when comparing the series to Friends, Bowman writes:

At its outset, no one could talk about HIMYM without talking about Friends. The connection is obvious: single young adults hanging out in New York City. Alan Sepinwall, writing about the show a few episodes into the first season, called it “the best Friends knock-off ever made, but it’s still a Friends knock-off.”

It’s simple. It incorporates quotes from experts in a sophisticated way. It doesn’t talk down to its audience.

She also often makes multiple points of comparison in a single paragraph — rather than comparing one whole show and then another, Bowman opts for the more fluid, more sophisticated point-by-point comparison.

When discussing the structure of the piece, we also talks about the unique medium of digital writing. In this piece, it allows Bowman to give her reader the opportunity for additional information if they should want it by linking to other articles.

So, what were our takeaways? How do these rules for successful TV writing translate to successful literary analysis?

  • A point-by-point comparison is far more effective than a whole-by-whole comparison
  • Unexpected (but relevant) comparisons are more effective than predictable comparisons
  • A writer should make effective references to a specific work without wasting the reader’s time explaining with lots of summary.
  • The hyperlink can translate into more traditional writing — give your reader enough information that they can do more research if they wish, but don’t feel the need to give them all of that information in the body of your paper.  This might look like a brief mention of another writer or title of note.


Did you know that you can join in on the Mentor Text Wednesday fun? Comment with a link to your Mentor Text of the week on your blog. Grab the Mentor Text Wednesday badge at the bottom of our site!  Or tag us on Twitter @rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett. 

Mentor Text Wednesday: Inspiring Mentor Texts


Mentor Texts:

“Repetition” by Phil Kaye

“In Childhood” by Sarah A. Chavez

Skill: Seeking inspiration from outside sources

Most discussions about writer’s workshop usually center around two components: mini lessons and conferring. They are the favorite children of workshop. But lately Rebekah and I have been turning our attention to mentor texts.

When students leave us in June, mentor texts will remain as the sole source of instruction for students. Not all of them will be lucky enough to enroll in a workshop-style class complete with conferring and mini-lessons the following year. And in college, aside from office hours, they’re on their own. But they will have mentor texts.

With this in mind, we’ve been looking at how to better teach students how to use mentor texts. Recently Rebekah posted a great chart that uses an if-then structure to enable students to utilize mentor texts. The chart notes that students can gain a lot from reading mentor texts, including finding inspiration. I think this an essential piece–helping students seek inspiration from sources other than themselves.

Throughout the year I carefully plan notebook time, bringing in mini mentor texts that may inspire my students to write, as well as offering them prompts that bubble up from these mentor texts. As the year goes on, however, I remove some of this scaffolding and put the responsibility to find the inspiration on my students.

How I Used Them:

We begin by reading (or viewing, in some cases) the mentor texts twice. Then I ask, “What topics, lines, or patterns do you see here that might inspire some of your own writing?”

Students have listened to me present topics, lines, and patterns throughout the year, so they know what I am asking:

  • topics that are present in the mentor text that might inspire some of their own writing

  • lines that might serve as “jumping off points” for their own work

  • sentence patterns they might “try on”

Below you’ll see the two mentor texts I recently used to inspire student writing, as well as the Topics, Lines, and Patterns my students culled from each one.

Mentor Text: “Repetition” by Phil Kaye

Read the transcript here




  • words that hurt me

  • divorce, separation, falling outs

  • family stories

  • routines that become dull unless we “live in a way” that allows us to find joy in them (students made a connection to Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “An Invitation to Ernest Mann”)

  • “My mother taught me this trick”

  • “You watch the sun set too often, it just becomes 6 PM”

  • “Nothing is forever, she said”

  • “___________ is a cage made of mirrors”

  • “Fate is a cruel and efficient tutor”

  • Using the phrase “even now” to show your present perspective

  • Repeating the word “every” and following it with a specific detail before summarizing what these things mean together

Mentor Text: “In Childhood” by Sarah A. Chavez




  • childhood stories

  • poverty stories

  • tricks of the imagination

  • building/making

  • “In childhood, ________ and I…”

  • Last sentence opens with a participial phrase that zooms in on the action, and is followed by a series of four verb phrases that elaborate on the actions

  • Alternating simple and complex sentences

  • Writing a 7 sentence, 8 line poem

When my students leave me, I want them to know how to be a writer, which means, at the most basic of levels, to seek inspiration in everything around you and write into that inspiration.

Which mentor texts inspire writing in your students? Feel free to leave a comment or join us on Twitter @allisonmarchett @rebekahodell1.

- Allison

Moving Students from Idea to Draft: a Sticky-Note Structure


Structure seems to be something young writers innately sense … or don’t.  Those who don’t tend to have explosive bursts of thought, leaving word shrapnel all over the paper.

To try to combat this, one of my first mini-lessons of the year is on brainstorming — hoping that if students write their ideas down somewhere, there is a better shot of putting them together in a meaningful order. I emphasize that brainstorming — at least in my class — needs to be tangible. It can be listing, jotting, even doodling, but it has to happen on paper.

When I taught the mini-lesson this year, I ended by rattling off a list of potential supplies to help students get going with their tangible brainstorming: “I have blank paper if you need it, markers, colored pencils, highlighters, I even have sticky notes if you think they would help.”

Please note: at this point, I had no plan for those sticky notes. I just threw it out into the void as an option, not knowing what anyone would really do with them.

Students got to work. Cecile , an ELL student, was working on a critical review of Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone (a book that is in high rotation on my bookshelf. If you don’t have it already, get it now!). She started off with pen-on-paper, writing down the ideas that came into her head about plot and important thematic elements. If you look at the picture of her notebook, you can see that she quickly got stuck. She asked me for some sticky notes.

Cecile spent two entire workshop days listing facts and tiny tidbits of ideas on post-its. When I conferenced with her, she would reply that she was brainstorming, “Getting it all down.” So, I let her go.

When she was done brainstorming, she spent another two class periods carefully moving the stickies around — grouping them, rearranging. She would stare at them, peel them and re-stick them somewhere else. Finally, somewhere around day five or six, she wrote. She wrote furiously.

With her structure complete, the writing flowed easily.

At the beginning of our next workshop, I asked if she would share her sticky-note method with her peers. She told them:

  1. Put no more than one sentence on a sticky note

  2. Write down every single thing you can think of

  3. When you’re done writing, you will have a lot of sticky notes. Don’t be afraid.

  4. Look at them for a while, and think about which ideas go together. Put them in an order.

  5. Write.

Sticky notes have since become a hot commodity in my classes. They help so many of my students who have trouble organizing their ideas. Here are some tips and variations for your students:

  • This is a great activity for writing groups or writing partners  – introduce the idea by giving students the ideas from a mentor text and ask them to organize them. Compare to the original mentor text, discuss the differences, and their effect.

  • Writing groups can also use sticky notes to help one another organize during pre-writing.

  • Smaller sticky notes work better than large ones — when they are small, students make their ideas smaller, more isolated, and this helps students see the different nuances of a single idea. (This is particularly helpful for students who want to write in one giant paragraph, claiming their paper only has one idea.)

  • For students ready to take their writing to the next level, I offer a second color of sticky note for them to add transitions between paragraphs as they organize.

  • Some students work better on a large sheet of poster paper rather than smaller notebook pages — they use their phones to take pictures of the different iterations they work out as a record of their thinking. Those pictures then get pasted in their notebooks.

  • For students in a structural danger-zone while drafting, I occasionally encourage them to take their draft and go backwards to sticky notes. Sometimes pulling the ideas apart helps students see a better, more cohesive order to their thoughts.

Do your students use sticky notes to organize their writing? For brainstorming? How do they work in your classroom? Leave a comment below or connect with us on Twitter: @rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett.


Mentor Text Wednesday: Ken Tucker’s Review of Pharrell’s New Album


Mentor Text: Tucker, Ken. “Pharrell Williams: Just Exhilaratingly Happy”. 6 March 2014. 

Technique: Using Figurative Language as Evidence


Ken Tucker read his review of Pharrell’s new album on Fresh Air as I drove home after work one Friday. “A MENTOR TEXT!” I screeched. (Literally.) And sometimes — the most wonderful times — we find mentor texts this way, in moments of spontaneous inspiration, rather than hours of deep searching.

In my current workshop on the technique of using evidence, my students are prone to view evidence only in its driest iterations —  for them, statistics are evidence. Quotes from the text are evidence. Expert testimony is evidence.

But I want them to see that evidence is anything in our writing that illustrates or supports the point we are trying to make, the perspective we are trying to present. Evidence is both the logical facts we present and the playful way we mold our language.

What jumped out at me as I listened was Tucker’s use of figurative language. When we use figurative language — making comparisons, using idioms, engaging in hyperbole — we are supporting our point in a different way. We are illustrating our perspective by helping the reader make connections. I was struck by this particular piece because Tucker’s review wasn’t a lilting narrative. It wasn’t a “This I Believe” essay. This was a critical review using figurative language to illustrate its point to incredible effect.

How I Used It: 

I used it really simply.

I gave students a definition of figurative language & five kinds of figurative language on which to hone in:

Figurative Language: Language that is not literal. In other words, it doesn’t mean exactly what it says.

  • Simile: a comparison between two unlike things using “like” or “as”

  • Metaphor: a comparison between two unlike things without using like or as.

  • Personification: giving human qualities to an inhuman object

  • Hyperbole: extreme exaggeration used for effect

  • Idiom: common, local sayings that don’t have a literal meaning

We chatted about these — sharing examples. I then asked students where they expected to see figurative language. Naturally, they expected to see it predominately in narrative. And that’s true.

But my goal was to show them how this can work in genres other than narrative.

I pulled up Ken Tucker’s review – it was perfect timing since the album is new and Pharrell recently performed on the Oscar’s. It also worked well because though students are familiar with Pharrell, most had not heard the songs mentioned in this excerpt.

I asked them to zoom in on the second paragraph to see where they could locate examples of figurative language:

“Brand New” is a song that dares you to think of it as brand new, as opposed to a canny recasting of riffs reminiscent of the Jackson 5. Pharrell is so confident in his ability to beguile you as producer, songwriter and singer, he all but buries the major guest star on that track:Justin Timberlake. Even when Pharrell dares to come off as slightly predatory, as in “Hunter” — about tracking a woman — it’s all done in the mildest manner possible. “Hunter” is also one of the high points of this album, with a rubber-band rhythm that stretches and snaps with witty elasticity. His high voice can remind you of Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye, as can a few of his musical hooks, but his tone is also pleasantly ghostly, wafting in and out of a melody with sinuousness that can be sly or sexy or serene.

The students found:

  • “buries the major guest star”
  • “rubber-band rhythm that stretches and snaps with witty elasticity”
  • “his tone is also pleasantly ghostly, wafting in and out of a melody …”

After we located these examples, we talked about their connotation — what they make us think of, how we connect to them and what it makes us understand about music we have never heard.

Figurative language is not your standard kind of evidence — nevertheless, the well-placed use of figurative language can help the reader see a new perspective, understand a new topic, or “hear” a new album in a way the reader couldn’t otherwise.

A Lesson for Tomorrow: Sentence Study

Last week Rebekah blogged about teaching students how to find and use mentor texts to 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 the pastiche 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!

- Allison