Mentor Text Monday: Engaging Students with HUMANS OF NEW YORK

Mentor Text:  Humans of New Yorkblog and book by Brandon Stanton

Also: LIttle Humansbook by Brandon Stanton

Writing Techniques:

  • Effective interviewing
  • Fusing images and text
  • Concision & drilling down to the essentials


While I’m off, I am dreaming of the mentor texts and units of study that will fill my second semester when I return to school. One text that keeps popping up is Humans of New York, a popular storytelling blog-turned-book by photographer Brandon Stanton. On his blog, Stanton features a photograph of someone he encounters on the streets of New York. The photo is accompanied by the subject’s brief response to an intimate, probing question posed by Stanton. Both the portrait and the accompanying quotation capture something truthful — often raw — and essential about the subject.  The result is captivating, as evidenced by Stanton’s millions of followers and imitators around the world.

Beyond the interesting visuals and quotations that will capture students’ attention and the blog’s huge relevance and popularity, one of the greatest  things about Stanton’s work in the context of a classroom is that he is neither professional journalist nor professional photographer. In a way, he’s just like our students. While his work is great fodder for mentor text work, this fact makes him a great mentor for our writers as they uncover his process and become inspired by his craft. Continue reading

Note-taking Possibilities in Writer’s Workshop

I think most of us will agree that we’d like our students to keep a record of the lessons we teach in workshop each day. They need something tangible to look back at as they progress through each study. And in a perfect world, they’d want something to take with them at the end of the year, a record of learnings they might use in subsequent years of school. But what form should that record take?

I have tried many different forms of note-taking over the years: Cornell Notes, bulleted notes, notes in full sentences, teacher-made notes, student-made notes, class secretary-made notes. Admittedly, some years I told myself that the students would figure it out, would cobble together some iteration of the lesson in their notebooks and be just fine. Other years I’ve taught explicit note-taking techniques and styles. Regardless of what I do, note-taking in workshop has always felt a little awkward to me. Why?

Taking notes in workshop is very different from taking notes in science class, for example. In English, the majority of my lessons are skill-based, not content-based. How does one capture the essence of a skill lesson in note form? Continue reading

Writing Instruction When You Aren’t There

I am not at school and won’t be for the next couple of months. Instead, I’m home snuggled up with this:

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Because of my impending maternity leave, much of my summer planning time was spent pondering a tough question: how do I maintain intentional, quality writing instruction when I’m not there to instruct?

This is a question all writing teachers face eventually — even if it’s not an extended maternity leave, we have lives and families that sometimes demand we step away from our classroom for a time. Though less problematic, we even face this when we are out of school for a few days at NCTE or when we are down for the count with the flu.

This time around, I am really lucky — right now in my classroom is a long-term substitute who has previously taught English in my school and spent more than two weeks shadowing me and learning our routines before I left. (Thank you to school administrators who saw the value in this!)  A dream, really. When I had my daughter, my substitute wasn’t hired until after her birth. I never even met him.

We all know we can’t depend on the fact that a qualified English teacher will be there to teach our students (much less teach writing to our students). How can we planner-loving control-freak educators mitigate the risk of time away? What can we do to ensure that our students are engaging in meaningful writing when we aren’t there and when we have no control over who will be? In the absence of perfection, what’s the best we can do for our students?

I don’t have the right answer, but here are some questions I asked myself as I looked at the school year ahead:

How can I structure our curriculum for the year to best support my students’ writing lives?

In my English classes we have literature study, writing workshop, and independent reading to accomplish. Looking at this list of to-dos, I wondered, “What can I most easily and most fairly expect for a substitute to be able to teach? And what will my students best learn in my absence?”

Sometimes re-structuring the curriculum means pushing some things back. Both of my leaves of absence have very conveniently happened so that I have started the school year, been out during most of the first semester, and then been back at school for the start of semester two.  So, it just made sense to me to leave the heavy lifting of full-time, all-out writing workshop for second semester when I return.

In the meantime, my ninth grade students are still practicing many of workshop’s basic routines (more on that later). They are studying literature as a whole class, the element of my curriculum I thought most subs would be familiar with and for which I could most easily leave suggested activities.  Finally, they are engaging in rigorous independent reading a la Penny Kittle, which they will continue for the entirety of the school year.

But, sometimes re-structuring the curriculum  means frontloading instruction when we would typically wait. With my eleventh graders, who will move to a different English teacher second semester,  I spent the first month of school in a “writing blitz” — all writing workshop all the time as we reviewed the elements of analytical writing by writing an analysis of a film or episode of a television show.  While I am gone, students will be moving into a pretty traditional, literature-centered English course. While I wouldn’t normally begin the year with such an intense burst of analytical writing, I wanted these kids to have a hearty review of the kind of writing they will be expected to submit, and I wanted them to have a hearty review of writing workshop structures that could help them achieve success in writing even when they are not in a workshop-centered class.

This question of re-structuring works on the micro-level, too, though. Even when we are out unexpectedly for a day or two are there lessons you could push back (things that you really need to have your hands on)? Are there lessons or activities you could push forward (things that your students have had practice with and could more easily navigate with minimal teacher input? Writing group feedback, perhaps? Some structured revision?)

Where do I need to let go?

If we’re honest with ourselves, our expectations are often out of control. I fail to meet my own expectations in my classroom most of the time, so it would be tough for anyone, however wonderful, to step into my classroom and take the reigns. I bet the same is true for you, too.  We — I  —  have to let some things go.

Here’s what I decided to let go while I’m out — writing workshop. Now, this doesn’t mean my students won’t be writing — they will — but in a less holistic and integrated way than were I present. My students will write regularly, and they will write responsively to literature and to their independent reading, but I have decided that it’s not fair to expect my sub to develop and teach mini-lessons, move through various genre and technique studies,  or confer with my students. This is an awful lot to lay on someone walking into my classroom for a twelve-week stint.

Where can you let go when you are gone? Where can you convince yourself to trade what’s best for what’s good?  What are reasonable concessions to make in your teaching context? (I promise, there are some.)


What writing routines can I establish that my students and any substitute can continue on their own?

While I wouldn’t ever expect my substitute to teach mini-lessons and confer with students, there are plenty of elements of workshop that my students can be practicing and incorporating into class life over the next three months:

    • Using the Reader’s/Writer’s Notebooks – In the month I was with my students, we spent a lot of time setting up notebooks and practicing how to use them. As they continue to collect ideas and bits of work in their notebooks over the next few months, they will also be preparing gems they can polish in future, bigger pieces of writing in semester two
    • Notebook Time — Notebook Time is the time for writerly play and experimentation during the first 5-7 minutes of class. Students respond to poems, study and imitate powerful sentences, draw conclusions about data, practice revision, playing with writing territories, and collect seeds of ideas for future pieces of writing. Having modeled it during our shadowing period and having shared some resources for Notebook Time, I feel confident that this routine practice and writing play time is something that can continue through my leave.
    • Sharing Writing & Collaborating — Students are always encouraged to share their responses to the daily Notebook Time. My students will also be working in smaller collaborative groups to share about independent reading and to complete activities and projects related to their whole class reading. The more practiced students are at  sharing their work, having conversations, and collaborating together, the more effective writing groups will be in the second semester.



When you are out — what writing routines can your students practice without you?

Closing Thoughts

The reality — something I have had to pep talk myself on over and over again — is that it won’t be the same as when you are there. I haven’t yet had a group of students who can teach themselves an entire unit of workshop study. So, some things will have to give. Taking a break from the classroom is never perfect, but that doesn’t mean we need to ditch our best laid writing plans entirely. After all, isn’t any consistent, intentional writing practice better than nothing?  With flexibility – and some relinquishment – we can provide our students with writing opportunities that will benefit their writing lives while we take care of our outside-school lives. We will all be better off for it when we return.


I would LOVE to hear how you work to make writing instruction continue when you are out — for illness, for maternity leave, when recovering from a surgery. What tips and tricks can you add to our community? Leave a comment below or find us on Twitter @RebekahOdell1 and @Allisonmarchett. Use #movingwriters.

Notebook Time: What It Is & Why We Do It

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Rebekah and I often often tweet ideas for notebook time, and recently many of you have been asking us to explain it and show how it fits into the workshop.

Put simply, notebook time is an opportunity for students to play in their notebooks with different ideas, information, and genres. In our classrooms, notebook time occurs at the beginning of class as a prelude to the minilesson and writing/conferring that will happen later. It usually lasts between 4 and 6 minutes, leaving 5-15 minutes for the writing lesson and 20+ minutes for writing and conferring in our 46 minute block.

Notebook Time Invitations

We learned about notebook time from Penny Kittle at the Central Virginia Writing Project last November. Penny talked about using notebook time to help kids think and write from information. For example, she brings in the Harper’s Index and asks students to choose one statistic and write from it. “If you bring in really interesting information,” she said, “kids want to write from it.”

After Penny planted this seed, we brainstormed all the other kinds of information we might bring to students at the beginning of class to inspire thinking and writing. We call these Notebook Time Invitations.

Sentence Study – Invite students to mimic a well crafted sentence found in your own reading or class texts.

Adaptable Poems – Invite students to mimic the structure of a poem or to use the first line as a starting point.

Raw Data – Invite students to examine raw data/statistics, using the following guiding questions: What do you see/not see? What does it say/not say? What kinds of writing might bubble up from this data?

Quickwrite Inspiration – Invite students to explore the answer to a question or prompt.

Spoken Word – Invite students to watch a spoken word artist perform a poem and mimic the structure of the poem or use the first line as a starting point.

Notebook Seeds – Invite students to “go shopping” in their own notebooks for ideas/seeds. (Kittle, CVWP PD, November 2013)

Our old post Sentence Study with Anna Quindlen will give you a good sense of how to conduct notebook time in the early days until students are able to work independently with little introduction or instruction.

Selecting Invitations for Notebook Time

With so many options for notebook time, how do we select invitations? Below I’ve outlined several possibilities that have worked for us in the past.

Possibility: Choose invitations that correspond to the current unit of study with the thought that students might be able to generate work during this time that could feed their current writing.

Possibility: In the last week or so of a study, give students a sneak preview of the next unit of study by choosing notebook time invitations that correspond to that genre or technique.

Possibility: The themes of notebook time do not have to correspond with your current unit of study at all. Mix and match types and genres to remind students that writers play inside and outside of their work all the time.

Possibility: If your students are engaged in back-up work, notebook time might be an opportunity to brainstorm ideas for their writing “side projects.”

Possibility: Invite students to share their own ideas for notebook time. Pass around a monthly calendar and have students sign-up for a day. Students could email you their NBTI the day/night before.

Possibility: Tie notebook time to instruction by inviting students to reread and revise for an extra two minutes. Establish the previous day’s lesson as the “revision focus.”

Does Notebook Time Really Work?

In my experience, I can point to notebook time as the sole factor in my students’ increasing appetites for writerly play and risk-taking. And the invitations work so well because they are just that: invitations. We invite students to experiment. “See what comes up in the next four minutes,” we say. We invite them to share an idea, a line, the whole thing at the end of the four minutes. (Sometimes they beg for additional minutes). We invite them to write without evaluation. (We don’t grade NBTI). We simply invite them to “keep their hands moving for four minutes.” The stakes are low. The sense of possibility is high.

It’s rare that we catch a student just sitting there, wasting away this time. But if we do–and it’s not a pattern–we allow it. Notebook time is an invitation to write, and sometimes to write, we have to pause, pens perched above the notebook, eyes staring into the abyss of the white page…and just think.

Below you’ll find one week’s worth of notebook time invitations! Please leave a comment below or tweet us @allisonmarchett and @rebekahodell1 to share students’ responses or your experience with notebook time this week!

Notebook Time: Week at a Glance

Monday – Sentence Study: “I didn’t want” from The Fault in Our Stars

Tuesday – Raw Data: A Brief History of Cool

Wednesday – Adaptable Poem: “Work Boots: Still Life”

Thursday – Quickwrite Inspiration: Tell me about your mother’s hands. Go.

Friday – Spoken Word: “Spelling Father”

Rebekah and I have collected all of our favorite NBTIs in our Mentor Text Dropbox. Click on Notebook Time, and search through the different categories for inspiration! Please shoot us an email if you have a NBTI to share, and we’ll gladly add it to our collection.


Using Technology for Mentor Text Hunting

We spend a lot of time on this blog talking about all of wonderful things mentor texts can do for writers of all ages and abilities. If you haven’t noticed, we’re mentor text obsessed.

 But,  in the interest of full disclosure, here is undoubtedly the worst aspect of using mentor texts in my classroom: it can take a lot of time.

 In my early days of conscientious writing instruction, I would often look for mentor texts for my students by staring at my bookshelves, randomly choosing books that I remember liking, and flipping through them until I found a passage that might work. Spoiler alert: it didn’t. More often than not, what I got was a passable text that sort of did the job. My approach was lame. The texts were lame. My lessons lacked spark. At best, students didn’t care about mentor texts. At worst, they hated them.

 That was years ago. The blogosphere boom and rampant presence of good writing on the internet has made mentor texts far more available than ever before. And still, until early 2014, my process for finding mentor texts had been largely unchanged. Now, instead of standing in front of a bookshelf, I would sit in front of my computer screen, pull up a website I liked, and randomly search, finally landing on a text that was okay-enough to work.

 Two innovations have completely changed the way I find mentor texts. What used to be drudgery is now a hunt that is fun — something I actually enjoy and look forward to. Continue reading

Teaching High Schoolers How to Read Like Writers with Cynthia Rylant’s When I Was Young in the Mountains

Fact: high schoolers love storytime. They love sitting cross-legged on a patch of carpet as the teacher reads a story from a chair, fanning open the pages of the book.


When I told them we were having storytime, my ninth graders appeared confused at first, exchanging dubious glances around the room.

“Like in elementary school when the teacher read aloud?” someone asked.

They gathered around me on the carpet in front of the white board, fidgety at first. I held up the cover of the book. “When I Was Young In the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant. Does anyone want to make a prediction? What do you think this story will be about?” I summoned the calm reading voice of my mother, an amazing first-grade teacher and storybook reader, and we began.


Continue reading

What a High School Writing Teacher Can Learn from Preschool Writer’s Workshop

I teach big kids and always have. High schoolers. But since writing instruction is my great teaching passion — and since summer provides few outlets for actual interaction with students — my almost-three-year-old daughter became my student as I subjected her to a summer of preschool writing workshop.

How does this endeavor equal summer fun and relaxation? Well, let’s be honest — it was mostly a convenient excuse for me to spend some time studying writing workshop with our very youngest writers, something I know absolutely nothing about. But Allison and I borrow and adapt techniques from elementary workshops in our high school workshops all the time — I figured, why not extend that into preschool? What gems might I find?

Also: it was just a fun experiment for mom.


I did a bit of preliminary research on the Internet to try to find an answer to my central question: what do you do with a toddler writer. Every source I found redirected me to a single book, so I digitally scurried to Amazon and ordered a copy of Teaching, Drawing, Writing: Lessons for Our Youngest Writers, the bible of primary writing workshop. While most of the lessons and techniques outlined in this book were a bit advanced for Georgia, it was an absolutely fascinating read and got us started with doodling, captioning, and dictating.

As we worked, I wondered which elements of a pre-writing writing workshop, if any, could be useful in a high school workshop. I took away three big ideas to try with my classes this year:

Make writer’s workshop more like play

With my daughter, writing workshop meant stickers, a pretty notebook, and special markers. We put these items in a writing workshop box, and only when we were doing workshop could she use them. She begged me for writing workshop time every day. 

This was hugely incentivizing for her , and, when I thought about it, it would still be hugely incentivizing for me! In fact, I do motivate myself with pretty school supplies — the new post-its I buy each August, the colorful pens I purchase to make sitting down with a stack of papers more fun.

Why shouldn’t it be this way for my students? This year, I want to make writing workshop — and particularly my students’ writer’s notebooks — more playful. I am encouraging my students to decorate the inside of their notebooks as much as the outside. I am suggesting they doodle when they have run out of ideas during notebook time rather than merely allowing them to doodle. I am not just acknowledging that markers exist, but actually setting them out while students work in their notebooks.  

My hope is that this will bring more ownership and joy into our work. 

The writer’s notebook is the writer’s notebook

To that end, I am trying to do a better job of constantly reminding myself that the notebook belongs to my students and not to me. I want it to be sacred to them, so I need to treat it as sacred and keep my hands off!

This summer, I constantly fought the impulse to insist my daughter use her notebook in the way I envisioned. My blood pressure shot up when she would want to color on two (or three! or four!) pages instead of just one in order to tell her story. I would get anxious when she left one story unfinished before moving on to another or change stories midstream. I’m just that uptight. With the possessive truth of a three-year-old, Georgia consistently reminded me that her notebook was “mine” and I should keep my hands off.

And it is her notebook, so she should use it in the way she sees fit. So should my students. Though I almost never write in their notebooks, I do tend to micromanage them. I like for all writer’s notebooks to be organized in my image. My students, especially my younger, struggling writers, need help with organization — they need a vision and sometimes a prescription for what that should look like. But they also need the freedom to explore what feels right to them. If given room to grow, this freedom will breed independence, and both their learning and writing will be better for it .

So, even though I have prescribed the basics of notebook setup for my students this year, I keep repeating aloud — for my benefit more than theirs — “This is your notebook. Do this the way that makes sense to you.” 

Baby steps are big steps

When you are writing with a three-year-old, you go slowly. In tiny baby steps. First, we worked on drawing. Then a one-word caption. Next, putting that caption into a sentence. (We never actually made it to dictating a story.)

But I knew that the slow-going baby steps were big steps for my daughter when she proudly paraded her notebook around the house for her father, her grandparents, for anyone who would look at it.

In my classroom, I am always poised and waiting for those big, dramatic growth moments — when a struggling student suddenly (and miraculously) turns in brilliant, inspired work.  I have a tendency to move too fast in an effort to get that result, afraid that we won’t “cover” enough, afraid that students will get bored. But warp speed has a lot of drawbacks, so, I am trying this year to do a better job of reading my students, getting a pulse on how quickly they need to move, and celebrating the little baby steps of mastery along the way.

What techniques have you borrowed from the classrooms of younger or older writers? Are you a high school teacher who borrows from elementary teachers? Are you an elementary teacher who adapts the work of a high school workshop?  Do you engage in conversation with teachers of students radically different from your own? How do you adapt their curriculum, tricks, and techniques to meet the needs of your students?

We would be so interested to hear from you! Please leave a comment below or find us on Twitter @RebekahOdell1 and @allisonmarchett.


The First Six Days of School

Every August teachers everywhere lose sleep over the first days of school. Some of us dream of showing up without lesson plans, copiers that break down leaving us syllabus-less. Some dream of classrooms without enough desks, of desks without chairs.

The thing that keeps me up at night is the impression I’m going to leave with students in the first few days. I rack my brain every year for an activity that will accomplish the following:

  • set the tone for the year
  • inspire students
  • get students writing and reading right away
  • show rather than tell about the routines of the class
  • help students learn one another’s names and get to know one another on a meaningful level

As usual this August I spent several sleepless nights trying to invent an activity that might fulfill this criteria. And I kept coming back to this book that I couldn’t keep on my shelves last year: Robin Bowman’s It’s Complicated: The American Teenager.

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photo taken from Continue reading

Introducing Mentor Texts & Introducing Ourselves

In my classroom, the school year typically comes on like gangbusters. I begin fast and furious as a sort of illusion — more for my benefit than for the students. It’s as though I feel that the faster I tread the beginning-of-school water, the less I’ll feel like I’m drowning.

This year has been very different.

My maternity leave it looming large, and in an effort to stick with the plan I made with my substitute in the spring, I am slowing way down. The result is that we are spending our days doing all of the activities I have always wanted to do to build community .

A couple of weeks ago, Stacey at Two Writing Teachers posted a great idea for using a book of author-inspired art to help students introduce themselves to the class. I decided to take the leap and try it with the added bonus of using it as a means to introduce students to mentor texts.

On Tuesday,  the first day of class, I shared the three illustrations that Stacey shared in her original post. I told students that these, while visual, were still texts that we could study. In fact, they are mentor texts — any text that inspires writing or teaches us something about writing.

I asked them to study these examples and, together, to make a list of “rules” for creating author introduction art:


I wanted students to go through these steps in order to learn how we use mentor texts. What I was surprised to learn was how much my ninth graders really needed these rules in order to create their own author introduction art.  To shift their dependence from teacher to mentor, I redirected all of their questions back to the mentor text.

“Should I use color?” Look at the mentor text.

“How many images do I need?” What does the mentor text tell you?

Students shared their introductions in the form of a gallery walk. As the students roamed and read, I asked them to jot down any questions they had for one another (either clarification or follow-up questions) and to make note of commonalities they noticed among class members.

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When we had all had a chance to silently “meet” one another, we had a group discussion — asking follow-up questions, playing impromptu games of, “Does anyone here have a ____?”, “Has anyone here been to_____?”   By the time class was over, my previously nervous freshmen were smiling and talking to one another.

Only time will tell if this activity had a deep impact on my students’ understanding of mentor texts, but it certainly them some important, early exposure to mentor texts. It set the tone that individual study and inquiry — independence — is going to get them further than asking the teacher. And it helped my students feel more comfortable in my classroom.

Top Ten of ’13-’14: #1

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

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

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

Mentor Text Dropbox Project