Mentor Text Wednesday: Using Ekphrastic Poetry With Students With Disabilities

Today’s guest post is from Donnie Welch, a poet and teacher out of New York who runs writing workshops specifically for students with developmental disabilities! You can connect with him on Twitter @donniewelchpoet or through his website,


Mentor Text:

Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell by Charles Simic

Writing Techniques:

Ekphrastic Poetry

List Poems

Student Boxes


Nature Jewlery Box

Student Work: “Nature Jewelry Box”

In my work with students with autism and developmental delays, art and sensory play are closely intertwined with reading and writing. I decided to combine those elements and start teaching ekphrastic poetry or poetry in direct response to art with some of my older students. A great source of ekphrastic poetry is Charles Simic’s Dime Store Alchemy. Here, the former poet laureate is writing in response to the singular collage boxes of Joesph Cornell. The book also contains a middle section with photographs of some of Cornell’s work that students can use a reference.

How we used it:

Ekphrastic Poetry:

The photos in Dime-Store Alchemy are a great tool! Just as Simic wrote in response to Cornell’s work I offer my students the same opportunity.

In using the Cornell boxes, I set up an anticipation/guessing game that also offers some tactile, sensory input. I have every student reach into a box filled with various sensory items (ie: cotton balls, cloth, confetti, etc.) and pull out a picture of one of the Cornell works from Dime-Store Alchemy I’ve hidden amongst the sensory material. Then I have a copies of all the pictures in the center of the table. Each student has to describe the box they received and the other poets use the pictures on the table to make a guess as to which box is being described.

This is fun memory and abstraction practice for students. They can use logic to reason out one of the boxes (the one that they’re holding) and then work with their peers to figure out the answer based on the clues the student speaking is giving them. Not necessarily every box is pulled out, though all the boxes from the book are on the table, so cleverness alone won’t solve the problem, they have to actually listen to their peer and, in turn, their peer has to communicate clear and accurate clues building on everyone’s imagery skills as they get more and more specific with descriptions.

After everyone’s box has been revealed, we move into writing. The students write about the box they’ve chosen. They all shared some details with their peers and now they turn inward to do a writing project with the confidence that they can in fact write about this piece of art because they already talked about it. I keep the prompt open ended and move around the workshop to offer suggestions if students feel lost. Prompting things like: a story about something happening in the box, someone entering or leaving the box, how it would feel to live in the box, and similar prompts depending on what I know about each individual student’s interests.

Box Fox

Student work: “Box Fox”

List Poems:

Simic’s book is full of list poems. This is a new format for many students, but one that allows them to engage all their senses. Using “Matchbox with a Fly in it” as a source for inspiration, students create list poems of their own based on observations of the photographs of Cornell’s boxes in Dime Store Alchemy.

I invite them to engage all their senses, imagining what it might sound, look, or smell like inside the box. One student even took the initiative to taste the paper the image was printed on, though reported it was pretty bland. This kind of sensory exploration and abstraction is important work for all writers and the list poem’s structure offers a comfortable form to express observations without worrying about a complex structure or delving into figurative language.

Student Boxes:

After all the writing lessons, students try their hand at making their own Cornell style boxes. (You can see examples of their work throughout this post!) The process usually takes a couple of sessions and involves planning and debate before the actual construction since each workshop has to work together to make one box.

While this is a fun exercise, it’s also an important practice in connecting the two forms.

Ink Box

Student Work: “Ink Box”

In actually taking the extra step to make a piece of art after writing poetry, the students gain a tangible appreciation for the way physical art and poetry can go hand-in-hand. The students undergo a hands-on learning process. While it’s one thing to look at a piece of art and appreciate the amount of work that went into it, it’s another thing entirely to do the work yourself!

This kind of understanding helps students take the perspective of Joesph Cornell and, by extension, Charles Simic. It also goes a long way in helping bridge the ideas of the poetry and the artwork in Dime Store Alchemy.

How could you envision using these pieces with your own students? What other forms of writing have been particularly effective in working with students with disabilities? Leave a comment below, connect with Donnie on Twitter (@donniewelchpoet), or join the conversation on Facebook


March Museums and Mash-ups: Springtime Experiments in the Classroom

As the daffodils start sprouting near sidewalks and the draft in my apartment warms to where I don’t feel compelled to don a housecoat at all hours and become more of a Rose Nylund than I already am, the longer, sunshiny, pollen-y days give me the itch to experiment.

In the last two weeks, my classes tried two experiments. One, a virtual field trip to the collection at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, offered students a chance to learn about the context of August Wilson’s Fences by examining photographs and artifacts related to the play’s 1950s Pittsburgh setting at closer range than a real field trip might allow. For example, students interested in athletes of the period could zoom in close enough to see the frayed stitching on a buttonhole in tennis great Althea Gibson’s Wightman Cup blazer, the tiny script of the cartoon on the back of a Hank Aaron baseball card, or the pencil marks on a protest sign that called out a baseball player turned segregationist city councilman (if his former team had been integrated, the poster posited, then the community ought to be, too). (Think of how you could pair an artifact like that with Rebekah’s picket sign mini-study!) If you can think of any reason to take students to this collection (or, better yet, to the museum itself) go. The collection prompted some profound questions and gave students a taste of one strategy actors use to prepare for roles.

Our second experiment is a kind of a high-resolution zoom lens for text (I say “is” because we are still in the midst of it!). 

As I read seniors’ drama analyses a few weeks ago, the comment I found myself repeating was “Can you share some evidence to support your ideas?” Students could see the “forest” of our dramas, but they weren’t acknowledging the trees. Many students are worried about using quotes on their final exams. “Quote the text anytime you have the chance in class,” I tell them. “The more you use the words, the more likely you are to know them by heart.”

Easier said than done. These students have to hang on to four plays–their lines, their conventions, their themes–and compare and contrast those plays through the lens of an exam prompt.

So how, in the midst of a crazy-fast whole-play study that demands students’ navigation of four different forests, can I get them to stop and appreciate a branch, a blossom?

Enter the mash-up.  Continue reading

A Micro Writing Unit: Picket Signs


7th graders’ peaceful protest down the halls on Friday.

Peeking at Twitter last Wednesday during the school day as teachers and reporters posted pictures of students during the National Walk Out, I couldn’t help but cry.  Isn’t that always the way you feel when you are so, so sad and also when you see people you love do something extraordinary?

Screen Shot 2018-03-18 at 3.37.20 PMBut when I saw slideshow after slideshow of students’ picket signs, I knew we had the makings of a very powerful micro unit of study on our hands.

Because yes, all language is political. Studying the very concise, highly-specific language of picket signs beautifully illustrates just how important our words are and how much power they have to affect change.

Now, I’m all for a through-the-lesson-plans-to-the-wind burst of instructional inspiration, but I was extra lucky that this time I didn’t have to. My 7th graders are in the midst of a cross-curricular study of World War II. In English, we’re working through The Diary of Anne Frank and Night in literature circles.  I knew that “Never Again” — a phrase used both in remembrance of the Holocaust and by the Parkland shooting survivors — would be our way in to thinking about the power of language in protest.

In one 55-minute class period, we moved through the same rhythms we move through in any writing unit: read mentor text, made noticings about, bathed them in talk, and then used them to plan, draft, revise, publish, and share.

Here’s a tiny unit for you and your students — take it, share it, adapt it, enjoy it.

Mentor Text Immersion (30 minutes)

Continue reading

Puzzling Through a Movement

One of the reasons I love eduTwitter and the friends I’ve made here on Moving Writers is because it makes me feel less like I’m on my own teaching island. The other day, I tweeted a question about a resource for evaluating bias, and Tricia responded that she was looking at the same site with her students. Then, as I started to piece together the ideas for this post, I read Mike’s latest and realized he, too, was grappling with very similar issues.

Now, with an event as staggering as Parkland and its fallout, it’s no surprise that teachers are on the same wavelength. This time feels different, though.  And I know we’ve heard that so many times it almost seems trite. But I don’t just mean that it feels different from a political standpoint. Maybe it’s the students and how crazy-proud we are of their activism, but teachers this time seem to be digging deeper into our literacy practices.

In Mike’s post, he makes the case for reading like a writer to analyze angles to help students process modern news cycles. My thinking stemmed from a very similar goal, but also from the way that I stumbled through a (somewhat) failed lesson.  

My failed lesson

I presented my students with several articles following the Parkland shooting and asked them to sort the articles. I assumed they’d sort them on a range of opinions: left to right slant, pro-legislation restricting access to guns and against. I was wrong. They had trouble sorting because, many times, they weren’t even recognizing that the article conveyed an opinion. They fumbled through headlines and quotes and graphics, and I stumbled my way through helping them make some sense of what they were reading.

As they finished sorting, we took a look at what they’d come up with. One group sorted their articles by the ideas that each author focused on (gun control legislation, arming teachers, Parkland students as activists) while another group sorted the articles into those that seemed to be persuasive vs. informative in nature. It was pretty clear that they weren’t going to land where I’d hoped they would, so I tried to claw towards a takeaway.

Puzzle ReadingWe ended up agreeing that, when we’re trying to process an issue as big as this one, there’s a lot that we have to think about as readers. When we encounter a text, we have to approach it with the understanding that it’s just one piece of a puzzle.  In order to start putting together the puzzle, we have to work to understand the ideas presented, the author’s opinions, and the purpose for the text we’re reading.

Backing up

The next day, we revisited this puzzle concept, and we zeroed in on how to start understanding the authors’ opinions. So, we put on our “Reading Like a Writer” lenses, and I asked students to revisit one of the articles from yesterday in order to start answering the question:

When do we see clues that the author’s opinion is showing through?

The conversation started off fuzzy. They said things like, “I don’t know. It just sounds like she’s got somethin’ to say.” So we drilled into that. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: A Love Letter to Saga

Mentor Text: A Love Letter to Saga by Laura Sackton (via BookRiot)


  • Lit appreciation
  • Media Appreciation
  • Review
  • Criticism


Background: Teaching English the way so many of us do winds up highlighting so many great dichotomies that exist in that practice. Write with passion, yet realize that you must do this within constraints sometimes. Read poetry with your heart, but be ready to subject it to an autopsy.

Enjoy and appreciate literature, even though we’re going to attach academic tasks to the reading.

That’s the one that hits me the hardest, and it’s where I see this week’s offering of a mentor text being a good resource. Having students write to a beloved text should prove to be an engaging act of literary appreciation.



Book One of Saga via

As you likely already know, Book Riot is a great source for writing about all kinds of books. I especially enjoy their features on genres such as sci-fi and comics. This specific piece reminded me of a particular series, Saga, which I haven’t read in a while, and now need to carve out some time for.


It is the way that this piece is written, as a love letter to that comic, that makes it such a great mentor text. Continue reading

Using Blogging to Grow Independent Writers (or: How to Kick Your Little Birds Out of the Nest)

Copy of wilson james

It’s second semester and my AP Seminar kids are knee-deep in their official Performance Tasks. For those unfamiliar with the AP Capstone program, that means my kids are doing giant, independent research projects and I am required to take a very “hands off” approach.  I can give general instructions to the whole class, and I can ask lots of questions, but I can’t give specific feedback on drafts or tell kids what to change or add or delete. At times (read: All the time)  it can be a little (read: A LOT) frustrating. My students have so many questions and sometimes I just want to tell them what to do.  

Though it nearly broke me last year, this year I’ve come around to this idea of independence. Teaching this course has forced me to rethink how and when I give feedback.  It’s made me consider how I prepare my students to be ready for all this independence– how I can relinquish control and kick my little birds out of the nest.

I can’t just cross my fingers and hope for the best; I need to help them build habits of good writers and researchers. How do you craft quality research questions? How can you give useful feedback to one another? How do you look critically at your own work? How do you use your own reflection to push your writing forward?

There are tons of great resources on this very blog for helping with all of those steps–the practicing and skill building steps.  This one from Rebekah gave ideas for different ways to approach writing conferences. This one has awesome suggestions for how to help students begin to be more independent and ask better questions during conferences. But that final step–the pushing them out of the nest step–that’s always just been the last day of school for me.  Until this class, I’d never considered what it might look like to step back completely and let them take charge. 

This year, I introduced reflective blogging with my students to slowly release control. They write, everyone reads, and everyone comments. Here’s how it’s made them more independent:

Continue reading

The First Seven Days of a First-Time Workshopper

Screen Shot 2018-03-10 at 4.29.24 PMThere are lots of teachers who implement writing workshop in baby steps — maybe first some mini-lessons, and then some conferring down the road, and later expanded choice for students, and next year some mentor texts. And that works!

For me, it didn’t, though. I dabbled in workshop for a year before I realized that I needed to be all in or all out; there was no workable middle ground. Today’s guest writer, Elontra Hall (@cloudscholar) was the same way. At the beginning of this semester, he found himself with a brand new class and ultimate freedom to teach whatever he wanted to teach. He knew this was the time to jump into workshop with both feet. 

We are so lucky today to feature a post where he walks us through those tentative and miraculous first days of one teacher’s leap into the workshop life! We hope to hear more from him as the semester progresses! 


explore thedeepestwaters

“Are we doing drama today?”

“Are you American?”

“What’s  a writer’s workshop?”

These questions ambushed me as I stepped out into uncharted waters.  Let’s rewind for a moment though before I give my account of the first week of writer’s workshop.


When I interviewed at my current school, I was asked what I would do with seven hours of drama (seven one-hour lessons per week with seven different groups of students) if I were allowed to do whatever I wished. My response was immediate and made my heart feel as if were fluttering:

Writer’s workshop!

Collaboration with teachers of other subjects, team teaching opportunities, group work and research, chances for students to go out of the academy on trips and guest speakers to come in and support. A dream.

Then, I got the job.

After celebrating my new appointment and the freedom that I was to be given, I stared out into the abyss and worry began to boil in a cloud above me.  How was this going to work?

In the States, as a young teacher (two or three years in) I had tried to run a writer’s workshop with varying results. Since moving to England, I had used various writer’s workshop elements in English lessons: freewrites, mentor texts, peer feedback and revision, but in my experience of teaching in the U.K. there was never time to run a proper writer’s workshop because of the amount of content to cover. The GCSEs* loom menacingly over everything; they weigh heavily on students’ future prospects as well as the rating* of the school. Having never “properly” run a writer’s workshop in the UK or heard of anyone else  here running one, I had no idea how it would work.

But, my teacher intuition grumbled, and I remembered what I saw in my mind’s eye during the interview: Teams of students working together to tighten up pieces, Writer’s Marathon in London, pockets of reading and engaged discussion spread out around the room, a board of pieces published by students, a revision and feedback board. Freedom and focus.

It was a risk worth taking.

New job, new class, new content. Luckily, the Christmas holidays had come, so there was time, hypothetically, to thrash some order out of the chaos. One of the best ideas that I had was to take to twitter -as one does- to ask for help and suggestions. And boy did they come!

Next, I took a look back through some of my Writer’s workshop texts: Why Workshop, Bullock; Teaching Writing that Matters, Gallagher, Lee; Living and Teaching the Writer’s Workshop, Painter. I also made sure to get a writer’s notebook for myself and a good pen (Parker IM, ball point, gel ink refills). Finally, I made sure to try to plot out a kind of rough course for my students and I to chart. I wanted to start with freedom and gradually build in a loose structure. These students had never done authentic writing that wasn’t an assessment of some kind. So I worked out that the students would always have a ten minute writing session, a ten minute mini-lesson followed by self-directed writing and one to one/group conferencing.

Well, the festive vittles consumed, the initial anxiety having given way to the choppy waters of starting a new school mid year, I have begun the grand experiment.

Here’s what’s happened so far.  

The First Seven Days

  1. The first seven days have been extremely interesting. I have one hour per week of writer’s workshop with seven groups. My writer’s workshop lessons have taken the place of drama lessons- to the great dismay of a few (Sorry.) From anecdotal accounts, the kids love it. They are excited about being able to choose what they want to write about. They like that they don’t have to be overly focused on SPaG (Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation), and they- so far- are genuinely invested in what they are writing. The UK secondary school system is in dire need of programmes like writer’s workshop – programmes that are focused on the student’s interests.
  2. The moment the students realised that they held majority control in their learning they were in. It was remarkable, all of the annoyance disappeared, and pens began that strange yet familiar dance across the page.
  3. Allowing the students to decorate their writer’s notebooks was a quick and definite win.

On the first day, I told them about writer’s workshop and some of the things that are possible. In order to get as much writing done as possible, and to create a positive atmosphere about the new class, I forewent the majority of my teaching time, and we worked through three exercises:

  1. A ten minute free-write
  2. I wonder
  3. Fruit bowl


I think this is pretty standard. Write for ten minutes without stopping and when you get stuck write, ‘I don’t know what to write,’ until you think of something more interesting. The students got to choose the format and content of their writing and as they wrote I wrote. It was a  great experience, sharing time writing with young writers. After time was up, I let the students move around to share their work, with the condition that they could only say thank you in response. (Thank you Ms. Cox from NWP – Meadowbrook Writing Project – Oakland University – Michigan.)

The buzz around the room after the share was palpable and  the apprehension that had lined their faces earlier was gone, replaced by something else – excitement.

I Wonder:

This, too, is a common activity; I have to thank Twitter again for the inspiration. To begin with, I modeled and shared some things that I am genuinely curious about- from scientific and distant to more personal. The students all took a moment (Twenty seconds) to think about things that they were genuinely curious about and then wrote them down. When that moment was over, they wrote down as many ideas as they could in about a minute and a half. Once the time was up, I gave them the option to share with each other:

I wonder if human beings will still exist in a thousand years.

I wonder if faster than light travel is possible.

I wonder what it would be like to live forever.

I wonder how big sharks can get.

I explained to them that as we moved forward these topics might provide topics or act as springboards for them to begin writing. Later on this half term, I plan to compile a number of these from a range of notebooks and put them on sticky notes. The sticky notes will then go to a ‘station’ in the room where students can look at them and perhaps draw inspiration.

Next, I took a bit of time to reinforce some of the basic pillars of our writer’s workshop:

  1. Everybody writes – including me
  2. Traditional teaching only lasts ten to fifteen minutes (max)
  3. Writing here is a process with focus on development and growth – not grades or levels
  4. Collaboration and trust are key for the workshop to be successful
  5. Writing is as much about discovery as it is about creation.

In the time that we had left, I explained ‘Fruit Bowl’.

Fruit Bowl:

The idea is that they were to describe an object without letting (the reader) know explicitly what is being described through naming or other obvious signposting.

After all of the activities I did an informal survey and asked that if they had enjoyed the lesson, that they raise their hands.  A forest of hands shot up and I noticed a number of wide smiles.

The last thing I did was assign homework: Three ten minutes writes on whatever moved them. No sighs, no groans, no muttered whispering about how pointless the homework was. I was pleasantly stunned.


At the end of the seven days, I have to say that I’m pleased with how each classes’ first session went. Now though, I have a different set of issues.

I have to pin down an enthusiastic and reliable team for my PLC to make the workshop truly interdisciplinary. I have to figure out how to make sure that at least one piece of homework gets looked at for each student in each lesson: which calls for conferencing, but is borderline impossible to do in the time frame that I have as each of my groups are over twenty students.

And, finally – most worryingly for me – I’ve given a target of two to three publishable pieces for this five week period. How can I monitor that and coordinate mini-lessons that are meaningful and helpful to all of the students with their disparate ideas and writing ideas?

The answers to this and many more questions I’m sure I’ll come up with soon. I have had quite a bit of help and advice from a number of sources that I regularly refer to; I’m certain that I’ll unearth an answer or, if I’m lucky, a clutch of them.

In short, although I may not be doing it the ‘right’ way (if there is such a thing) I feel like what we’ve started is good, has legs  and a bit of room to grow and develop and adapt as we go along.

What was your first week of workshop like? What did you choose to spend time on? What did you skip? What words of wisdom would you give to Elontra? Leave him a comment below, share your thoughts on Twitter @cloudscholar, or find us on Facebook to join the conversation.


*GCSE exam: an end of year exam for sophomore students (year 11) these are national exams that every student in the UK takes on the same day at the same time across the country, The grades that they get from these have a huge impact on what students do next in their educational careers.
*Rating: Schools in the UK are inspected by a central governmental body called OfSTED. Schools are graded in the following areas: Leadership and management, Teaching, learning and assessment.

Recommended Reading: Get Lit Rising

Pretty much every trip my family takes to the city finds us in a bookstore. Not a surprise, I know.

Recently, as I walked past the teen section, dragging my kids out of the children’s section, a book, of course, caught my eye.

IMG_4594I picked up Get Lit Rising, and flipped through it. And headed straight to the cash register.

Here’s why. In that first scan, I saw the structure of the book. A young writer shares their personal story. There’s a classic poem that they studied. There’s a poem that they wrote in response to that classic. Then, there are some prompts to encourage the reader to write, as well as a list of classic poems around the same themes as the classic featured.

I’ll admit, my overworked TeacherBrain shouted at me, “Jay! This book is a series of readymade lesson plans you don’t need to figure out! You must have it so we can take it easy for once!” I teach thematically, so having lists of poems related to various themes made it a worthwhile purchase as well. Continue reading

Getting Ready to Go Beyond Literary Analysis!

Screen Shot 2018-03-08 at 7.12.38 AM

We are joining our friends at Heinemann to present a 3-part webinar series designed to get you ready to help your students move beyond literary analysis! You can read session descriptions and register here.

Here’s an overview:

We are getting ready to go BIG—to a place in students’ writing beyond five-paragraph analyses of themes and formulas that dictate their every sentence; to a place past our fear and their dread; to a place of passion and discovery in analytical writing.

This isn’t an insignificant change, though. To give students the transformational skills of analytical writing that are truly transferable, you will likely be striking out into a brave new world of teaching far different from the way you were taught and far different than the way you’ve been teaching analytical writing in the past. You need to prepare.

That’s what we’re doing in this webinar series: giving you the background, the foundation, the language, and the practice you need to feel ready to jump into this new kind of writing work with your students! In our time together, we will:

  • Talk about why this shift is so necessary;
  • Give you tips for explaining this change to others;
  • Introduce you to the four essential tools of analysis and let you practice with them;
  • Help you build creative energy into all the nooks and crannies of your classroom so that passionate writing can happen;
  • Teach you how to turn students’ passions into texts for analysis;
  • Help you plan how to use activities for discovery and crafting techniques throughout the writing process in whole-class, small-group, and conferring settings.

Join us to get ready to turn analytical writing in your classroom upside down!

Reading Like a Writer in Troubled Times

We’ve been studying up on the idea of journalistic “angles”, in preparation for the writing of our big narrative journalism piece.  It’s an unfortunate and important time to be examining such things with high school students. Where we’d normally examining several models about random topics and attempt to uncover the underlying purpose or persuasive efforts of the author, we found ourselves this year understandably distracted by the terrible news of another school shooting.  

It didn’t at first occur to me to revisit such a tough topic as part of our ongoing study of narrative journalism.

Until I came across a terrifying and powerful article at The Atlantic about what AR-15 bullets do to human bodies.  It was gruesomely written for maximum impact on its readers–a master class in angle if I ever saw one.  While the author is a radiologist not a surgeon, Heather Sher’s intentions as a writer are as sharp as a scalpel.  She describes the results of an AR-15 on the human body thusly: “The organ looked like an overripe melon smashed by a sledgehammer, and was bleeding extensively.”  Having already described wounds from other bullets as nothing but thin gray lines on an X-ray, Sher leaves readers with a jarring realization–and we’re only eight sentences into the piece. Continue reading