Thinking About Mentor Texts for Literary Analysis

When we are choosing genres to teach in workshop, one consideration is always at the forefront: is this real writing? Is this writing real writers do? Can I find authentic examples of it out in the world? Generally, if the answer is “no”, we don’t teach it.

With one notable exception: literary analysis.

In our mentor text explorations, we have yet to find an example of pure, academic literary analysis roaming around the real world. And yet, we acknowledge the need for students to work in this genre.

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 9.56.45 AMBut, maybe not for the reasons that you think.

In many — maybe most — high school English classrooms, literary analysis is the primary mode of writing. It’s the whole shebang. There are many reasons for this, but I think the most potent one is simply this: it’s tradition. It’s what you and I did when we were high school English students. And we enjoyed it. And we were good at it. And that’s why we became English majors. And then English teachers.

But literary analysis is one star in a vast universe of analytical writing. The traditional high school English classroom makes it the sun.

While you won’t find a literary analysis feature article in The New Yorker, analytical writing is everywhere. Political analysis of the 2018 Presidential election. Personal analysis in essays and memoirs.  Sports analysis. Analysis of Furious 7 and Mad Men. And, yes, in its way, analysis of literature in book reviews. Analysis is everywhere.

So, in our view, students should be writing analysis — lots of it — but analysis of all kinds, not just literary analysis. The skills are the same. And if students can skillfully analyze their favorite movie and the effectiveness of the new iPhone and the significance of an important event on their life and the theme of a poem, they will be fantastic, well-rounded  analytical writers who are much more prepared to enter the real world of writing than those students who have only written essays about literature.

Where does this leave us on the mentor text issue?

Like all genre studies, we give students real-world, hot-off-the-press examples of analysis — showing them that the skills they are learning to make a claim about a piece of literature are the same skills that professional writers are using to analyze all sorts of things in the world around them.

Our requirements remain the same — our mentor texts should be accessible and relevant for students, they should be well-written, they should be rich with craft.

Mini-Mentor Texts

Allison wrote about mini-mentor texts in one of our very first blog posts. Mini-mentor texts zoom in on a specific skill — making a claim, using supporting evidence, etc. — in a larger piece of analysis.

Rather than using a cluster of whole mentor texts, we parse out snippets of larger articles as we teach specific skills. We don’t give students the entire article — just the relevant paragraph or two that demonstrates the technique we want to see in student writing. Because these are bite-sized mentor texts, we use them most often with our younger writers who are new to analysis.

Take, for instance, this David Edelstein review of the new Spongebob Square Pants movie — a “text” from childhood that our students would be amused to revisit.  Edelstein gives a charming synopsis of the movie that can help my students as they write meaningful, engaging context for a piece of literature in their analysis. I might pull just this paragraph as a mini-mentor text:

It begins as all “SpongeBob” episodes do, with a hairy pirate who’s there to sing the theme that whisks us to the undersea world of Bikini Bottom, with its ukulele music and flower-cloud backdrops. But wait, here, he’s live-action and played by Antonio Banderas, and he’s on an “Indiana Jones”-like quest to find a magic book. After dueling with a skeleton and shushing some card-playing seagulls, the pirate reads aloud from that mysterious tome, a story of wholesale destruction, societal collapse, apocalypse, all triggered by the loss of the recipe for the wildly addictive Krabby Patties from the Krusty Krab restaurant where SpongeBob works and his best friend, Patrick, the fat, pink, dimwitted starfish, eats. I know what you’re thinking – this has something to do with Plankton, the tiny but very loud owner of the rival, Chum Bucket, restaurant. And you’d be right to an extent. Plankton did engineer a scheme involving pickle torpedoes, a giant robot and a Trojan horse-like coin to get into the Krusty Krab’s safe – I have a feeling I’m losing you. The best thing about this movie is that it can’t be explained, though you can hear how high the stakes are when Mr. Krab straps Plankton down, and with SpongeBob watching, uses diabolical means to recover the recipe.

Notice how Edelstein paints a scene, gives the gist of the plot, and connects with his audience.  I can use it for more than just teaching context, though. This excerpt from Edelstein’s review also makes an allusion to Indiana Jones — a helpful skill to teach students as they work to draw connections between the literature they are studying and the world around them. I can also use it to teach making a claim about a text; Edelstein makes a claim at the end of this paragraph that he will spend the rest of the article unpacking: “The best thing about this movie is that it can’t be explained.”

This mini-mentor text has the potential for use in three mini-lessons perfect for the writing of literary analysis.

Whole Mentor Texts

While mini-mentor texts are perfect for teaching literary analysis skills, whole mentor texts are great for teaching skills melded with voice and style in analytical writing.

My students love the casual-yet-authoritative style of The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, whose piece “Candy Girl” — a character analysis of Kimmy on Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt — we studied as a mentor text for their own analytical piece on a character from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Nussbaum’s piece bears all the essential skills students need to include in a work of literary analysis: a claim, reasons that support that claim, copious evidence that props up those reasons. But, from this text, students also explored how to sound expert and human at the same time (my students often swing between sounding like a robot with a thesaurus or a tween chatting with friends at the mall). They noticed the effective use of parentheticals to hold extra information and commentary. They picked up on Nussbaum’s use of dashes for emphasis and to quicken the pace of her argument. They examined her skillful and clever transitions — pulling the idea from one paragraph down into the next paragraph to deepen her nuanced argument.

Whole mentor texts are perfect for our older writers who are already familiar with the essentials, and thus can more easily digest and translate an entire article. These students are ready for something more — ready to take their writing to the next level.

Now that you’ve gotten a taste of how we think about finding mentor texts for studying literary analysis, Wednesday we will dive into a workshop analysis unit — a technique-based study comparing/contrasting two pieces of literature.

Moving Writers’ Literary Analysis Blog Blast: April 27 – May 6

Last week, I promised more details on using the workshop approach to teach literary analysis. I haven’t forgotten you!

And, so that you won’t have to wait to hear all we have in store, next week we will celebrate our very own Literary Analysis Blog Blast Week. Here’s the lineup:

Monday, April 27: Ways to Think About Mentor Texts for Literary Analysis Workshops

Wednesday, April 29: Technique-Based Analysis Studies — one kind of analysis workshop, with suggestions for mentor texts, mini-lessons, and samples of student writing.

Friday, May 1: A second sample unit for a technique-based study

Monday, May 4: Literature-Based Analysis Studies — another kind of analysis workshop, with a sample unit.

Wednesday, May 6: Take-Aways, Discoveries, and Next Steps for Literary Analysis Workshops

We hope that you will join us each day as we tackle a topic that is so central to high school classrooms!

If you’re in town on April 30…

On Thursday, April 30, Rebekah and I are presenting at the Central Virginia Writing Project’s Spring Writing Mini-Conference at the University of Virginia. We will be talking about using mentor texts (surprise!) and also about our experience of turning our teaching ideas into a blog and eventually a book.

If you attend one of our sessions, you will be entered into a raffle to win a free copy of our book due out in September!

Win a free copy of our book!

Win a free copy of our book!

Below are the descriptions of our presentations:

Session 1: Using Mentor Texts From Planning to Publication

Presenters: Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell

Audience:  9-12      Room: Ruffner 206

Classroom teachers and new Heinemann authors, Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell will share how to use multiple, current, engaging mentor texts to reach every writer in the room. They will show how mentor texts inspire and instruct students through every stage of the writing process, from planning to publication.

 Session 2: Turning Teaching Ideas into Publications

Presenters: Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell

Audience: Teachers K-12       Room: Ruffner 206

Authors Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell, will share their experiences turning their teaching practices into a blog and then a published book with ideas about how teachers can do the same. They will give suggestions for ways to take a seat at the English Ed table and join a bigger professional conversation through writing and speaking.

We will be presenting alongside some amazing speakers, including the keynote speaker Dr. Natasha Henry, whose talk is titled “Beyond Tradition: Reconsidering Writing Instruction and Student Writers.”

Click here for more information about the mini-conference and registration materials.

A Writing Workshop Cure for the April Doldrums

Photo via Creative Commons

Melancholy by Edvard Munch Photo via Creative Commons

T.S. Eliot wrote, “April is the cruellest month.” Sadly, this observation rings true for many students. I don’t know what it is about April, but it seems to bring on the stress, boredom, and lack of motivation that one would normally associate with months like December and February.  The guidance counselor at our school recently shared about the dramatic spike in the number of students who visit her office during March and April every year. We see a lot of rain in Virginia, too.

Sometimes one of the best ways to comfort students who are feeling low is to honor their feelings of stress, sadness, and melancholy rather than try to distract them or encourage them to stay positive. A study of the elegy — a poem that expresses sorrow or lamentation — can be a way to honor students’ emotions and help them reflect on their feelings in a healthy way while studying some absolutely brilliant poetry. Continue reading

Writing Workshop Transforms Literary Analysis, Too

Last Friday, I dismissed my fourth period IB English class early. We simply couldn’t go on.

They filed out, sniffling, wiping away tears, heads down. Some were silent and left alone; most found a friend or two and whispered as they left, arms around shoulders.

They had just finished sharing their first piece of workshop writing.

You see, a few weeks ago, I simultaneously hit a wall and had an epiphany — one that I suspect had been brewing underneath the surface for quite some time. My IB seniors were all competent writers, I already knew that they will perform well on the IB exam, but I was bored teaching them (unlike my ninth grader workshoppers) and they were just going through the motions, totally turned off of writing (unlike my ninth grade workshoppers).

For years I have tossed around ideas about how full-fledged writing workshop could work in an IB or AP class.  (Amy Rasmussen (@amyrass) at has done a lot to cause these thoughts to ferment and bubble over.)  But, I had never acted on them. Not until a few weeks ago when, frustrated with not being the very best teacher I knew to be, I decided to leap. All in. All the way.

After all, I reasoned, if I truly believe that writing workshop is the best way to develop, deepen, and inspire passionate lifelong writers, how could it be wrong?

In broad terms, my IB students, now fully immersed in workshop life, do two kinds of writing studies — literature-based writing studies and technique-based writing studies. All of which require critical thinking and literary analysis. All of which will help them score well on their IB exam and wow their professors next year in college. But, far more importantly, all of which challenge them and push them and engage them in the process of great writing craft. All of which drive them to create pieces of writing that matter to them.

That’s why we had to end class early last week — because my students’ writing mattered so much to them that reading it aloud brought them to tears. And seeing so much emotion poured  into and out of and through the writing of their peers, other students cried with them.

In the next few days and weeks, I’ll share the process nitty-gritty with you. I’ll tell you about the writing studies we’ve done so far, I’ll share the mentor texts I used and how I used them, I’ll show you how this instructional approach and the writing it yields more than meets the requirements of AP and IB programs, and I’ll show you the results of the students’ labor.

For now, I’d like you to hear from my students.  These quotes come from their author’s notes for a recent workshop paper that asked them to write about two texts side-by-side.

I have seen the power of writing workshop to transform struggling and disengaged writers. Recently, I have seen that it is just as powerful for students who can already check the right writing boxes but thirst for something more.

Dear Mrs. O’Dell,

I thoroughly enjoyed writing this paper much much more than all of the boring papers in the past. I felt as though I was actually a writer working for the New York Times. I felt passionate about what I was writing because I could actually speak to the reader and express my opinions in a way that was actually enjoyable. I think that next year you should tell your students to write all of their papers this way…Thank you for giving us this opportunity Mrs. O’Dell, it has made me enjoy writing much more!   — Harrison

“This is one of my favorite papers I have ever written, which is definitely not something I expected to feel at the end of my senior year. I’m glad you forced me to push my writing to something different.” — Seth

“I really really enjoyed writing this paper! Seriously, this might be one of the first times I’ve ever had fun writing a paper” — Fletcher

“I had a blast and a half writing this paper.  I don’t think it was necessarily easier to write this paper than other English papers, but I do think it was a more enjoyable experience…Thank you for widening my knowledge as a writer and pushing me to write to the best of my ability.” — Alex

In conclusion, I have a confession: writing is an incredibly difficult task for me. I enjoy doing it, but words don’t flow out of my mouth and brain the way some people’s do. I struggle with word choice as well as run on sentences; it seems like my sentences can last forever at times. But I honestly did enjoy this paper. Last night I was about to go to bed after finishing my paper that afternoon, then decided to go back one more time to make sure that I loved what I was saying and that you would be happy with what I wrote. I can’t say that I have done that on many English papers. (I’m just being honest.) Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy English. I just struggle with analyzing pieces of writing, and specifically, comparing two pieces. But I was satisfied with what I wrote. I feel that I took risks in many aspects of my paper, specifically with tone and structure, but also with the general format of what I chose to say. I’m happy with my paper, and I hope you enjoy it as well. — Kathryn

Connect with us in the comments below & on Twitter @rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett. 

A Genre Mini-Study Perfect for April

With Saint Patrick’s Day, Easter, and the advent of spring, greeting cards are abound in our house. Perhaps most exciting of all are the blue cards with storks and animals that continue to show up in anticipation of our first baby’s arrival in early May!

Photo by Coolceaser via wikimedia

Photo by Coolceaser via wikimedia

All of these cards, lined up along the sill above our kitchen sink, got me thinking.

What about a greeting card mini-study?

The greeting card industry is doing something right. Every time I shop at Target, I spy at least a dozen people in the greeting card section, pulling cards here and there, in search of the perfect note that puts into words their exact sentiment, hope, thought. Some of the cards on these shelves are worth the price of a small gift: $5, $6, sometimes $7!

Yet many of us prefer to make our own cards and write our own letters because it’s difficult to find a card with the perfect meaning.

As I thought about it, this “tension” seemed to lend itself to a greeting card mini-study in which students consider the following questions:

  • Why are greeting cards so popular?
  • How do writers of greeting cards craft messages that are compelling?
  • How do these writers create messages that are personal yet have broad appeal?
  • What do buyers of greeting cards look for?
  • What kinds of topics are appropriate for greeting cards?
  • What kinds of prewriting work do greeting card writers do?

As it was nearing April, National Poetry Month was also on my brain. Students just finished a poetry study, and we are all looking for ways to share the poems and poets we have come to love with others.  From these thoughts, a National Poetry Month Greeting Card mini-study was born. Details below!

How to Conduct a National Poetry Month Greeting Card Mini-Study

1. Bring in an assortment of greeting cards for students to study. Cards should be of varying length, tone, topic, style, and brand.

2. Put students in groups of 4-5, and give each group a stack of greeting cards. Have them read the cards like writers, discussing and jotting down responses to the essential questions above.

3. Discuss findings as a whole group. Create a class Google Doc with every groups’ responses, or select a student to be the class recorder, and ask him/her to jot down responses on a giant sticky note to display in the classroom during the study.

4. Select 2-3 noticings from the class document from which to create mini-lessons. Possibilities may include: how to achieve a genuine tone, perfect and near rhyme in greeting cards, writing your personal message, different styles of cards.

5. Distribute a mini-genre study overview, detailing the requirements of the study.

6. Consider allotting 2-3 class periods for mini-lessons and writing and conferring. Provide students with art supplies — nice card stock, colored pencils, magazines, markers, glue, scissors, craft paper — whatever they need to design beautiful greeting cards.

7. On the last day of the study, tell students to bring in the address of the person to whom they are sending their greeting card. Conduct a final mini-lesson, teaching students how to address an envelope properly.

8. Stamp and mail the cards!

Some of your students will spend hours searching for the perfect published poem to adorn the front and inside cover of the card; others will write their own verses a la Hallmark. Many will devote their energy to crafting the personal message on the card’s inside. Your classroom artists will create beautiful facades, linking the card’s overall aesthetic to the message and content.  Everyone will have fun.

Below is one example of an in-progress card. Like some greeting cards, Colette’s provides an interactive feature on the back: directions for creating your own newspaper black-out poem and a magazine swatch for getting started!

Colette's in-progress card

Colette’s in-progress card

An interactive embellishment on the back of Colette's card

An interactive embellishment on the back of Colette’s card

Where do you see potential for mini-genre studies throughout your workshop year? How do you celebrate National Poetry Month in workshop? Please comment in the section below or find us on Twitter @allisonmarchett @rebekahodell1.

Writing Conference Road-Show (or Small Conferences with Big Payouts)

Writing conferences used to scare me. Big time. In fact, for me, it was the most-dreaded element of reading and writing workshop. How would I even start? What would I say if the student had a question I couldn’t easily answer? Would the other students really be working while I moved around the room discussing individual drafts?

FullSizeRender-9Gentle reader, I am here to tell you that practice makes perfect.

It has taken me nearly five years of practice. Along the way there have been plenty of awkward conferences and ineffective conferences and mental scrambling to try to find the right solution to a writer’s problems. There were times when I left a conference simply saying, “I don’t know, but I’m going to think about it and try to come up with a solution for the next time I see you.”

But I kept at it, and I finally feel truly confident in our daily writing conferences.

Still,  I had never  tackled a larger portfolio conference — a conversation about the body of a students’ writing so far this year.  This is how our Patron Saint of Writing Workshop, Nancie Atwell, assesses student work and helps writers make goals as they move forward.  She says that if we teach writing and reading in a workshop, we “have to figure out how to put students’ appraisals of their work at the heart of the evaluation process. Otherwise, assessment becomes a betrayal of the workshop” (Atwell 2014, p. 282)

Uh oh. I have a lot of room to grow. Feeling that nag  of something you know you should do (but don’t want to),  I dove in (which I find to be the only way to actually try anything in workshop).

I had a few goals as I set out: Continue reading

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.