Scores – A Sounding Board for Inspiration

In the madness of prepping to present at our provincial PD day, I almost forgot to write something this week.

Luckily, one of my presentations is about using the things you really like in the classroom, specifically pop culture. Reading my contributions to Moving Writers, that’s not a surprise at all.

This summer, like many people, I got pulled deep into Stranger Things on Netflix. I could go on about so many aspects of that show, and am getting ready for a second viewing. An element that popped out for me, as well as many others was the score.

As a movie buff, and former teacher of a media studies course, the use of music in filmed entertainment fascinates me. I mean, John Williams’ Star Wars score resonated with me early on, and the notes of the Imperial March never fail to raise the hairs on my neck.


Promo art via Netflix

A lot of my writing this fall has actually been accompanied by Netflix scores, Stranger Things, and more recently, the Luke Cage score. Each contributes such atmosphere to its respective show. The duo Survive created such gorgeously ominous music for Stranger Things, recalling the creepy sci-fi of my 80’s boyhood. The 70’s inspired, hip-hop infused tracks on Adrian Y0unge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s Luke Cage score vibrate with funk and energy. I’ve noticed an interesting impact on my writing while listening. I’ve been thinking about seeing if this impact replicates itself in my classroom. Continue reading

Beginning AP Argument Writing – Letter to the Editor

Today’s guest post is from our friend, Betsy Reid. Betsy is a colleague of Moving Writers founders Rebekah and Allison at Trinity Episcopal School, where she teaches AP Language and Composition
and serves as the head of the department. For the past 20 years, she has taught all grades and levels in both public and private settings in Virginia and North Carolina. Betsy graduated with a B.A. from Meredith College in 1995 and obtained her Masters in Educational Leadership from VCU
in 2008. Most recently, she was a contributor to
Argument in the Real World by Troy Hicks and Kristen Turner (set for November release.) Join her on Twitter @ReadBReid Wednesday nights for #APLangChat and follow her classroom adventures on Instagram @mrsreid_tes.


Photo of Betsy & her writers courtesy of David Ready, Trinity Episcopal School


“What’s the worst that could happen?”

If you are a Moving Writers regular, then you recognize these words. Rebekah has made some of her most important teaching discoveries while repeating this mantra, and just a few weeks ago, I did the same.

Rebekah’s room at school is just like the kitchen at a party: It’s in the middle of everything, and everyone wants to stop in. I learn something new every time I walk in the door, and if it’s not busy-mom life hacks like online grocery ordering or kid dessert ideas, it’s something about writing.

I walked in one day early this year when I was struggling with making a fundamental change in the way I teach writing in AP Language. I had taken a good, long look at The AP Chief Reader report, and it spoke to my heart. I had been teaching with the College Board-provided sample essays and rubrics, and I finally realized that my student’s writing mentors were anonymous student essays from AP Central. They were developing arguable screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-8-37-09-amclaims, but few that they really felt passionately about. They were Integrating conflicting viewpoints, but they sounded inauthentic. The were explaining how rhetorical choices work but they were not making these choices for themselves in their own writing.

Basically, my students were seeing professional writing as something far-off; it was something to analyze, but not something they could ever achieve for themselves. I looked at Rebekah and said I thought it was time for a change, and some serious mentor texting. Of course, she said,

“What’s the worst that could happen?”


Nothing makes my teaching day better than when I think of a lesson that will have students practice several skills in one shot. In my beginning AP writing assignment, I wanted them to show me all that they had learned since the first day of school:

  • To be able to access and read closely from national and local news sites
  • To have an opinion on something that matters to them
  • To defend it using the elements of argument
  • To demonstrate their knowledge of basic rhetorical strategies by employing them in their own writing

I decided to go big by starting small: The Letter to the Editor.

Here was my process: Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Rewriting the Word Wall

Today’s guest post comes from Amy Heusterberg-Richards, a tenth-year ELA teacher at Bay Port High School in the Howard-Suamico School District, located just north of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Amy currently teaches Writing 10 and IB English Literature HL Year Two. Connect with her on Twitter at @LAwithMrsHR.

Mentor Texts:

Writing Techniques:

  • Reflecting on elements of craft
  • Creating voice


My fifth-grade Social Studies teacher had a head of hair that rivaled those of Michael Bolton and Kenny G (musical studs of the time), making him the subject of more than one conversation between my classmates’ mothers. He had an acoustic guitar on which he played historical ballads and an impressive collection of obnoxious ties. An apparent pioneer in flexible seating, he had a reading loft and colorful bean bag chairs, over both of which we students often fought. All these glorious items aside, though, the possessions I most remember from Mr. Weitzel’s school domain were his classroom walls, spaces filled with explorers’ names, vocabulary terms, and worldly locations.

At the beginning of the school year, the walls were unimpressive, white blocks spattered with grey smudges and sticky, tape residue. Come June, however, they transformed into an exhibition of all the learning we students had accomplished. I remember sitting at my desk those last days and feeling a proud satisfaction of all the terms I had acquired, all the people and places I could now discuss.  Mr. Weitzel, as primary school teachers perhaps best understand, knew the impact these Word Walls had on the development of his students. He used his walls to physicalize terms, to track concepts, and to serve as reference documents. He skipped posters to motivate and instead posted words to guide.

This school year in our tenth-grade Writing course, my teammates and I decided to re-write the seemingly elementary Word Wall concept at our secondary level. We knew we wanted to begin our class with an exploration of — to borrow language from Stephen King’s On Writing — the “tools” of effective craft. We selected five elements of voice (diction, syntax, imagery, inclusion/exclusion of details, and tone) which we felt we could use in all upcoming writing studies. We also decided, in the spirit of the Word Wall, to post visuals of each tool on our own walls for “Writing Well.”

How We Used The Mentor Texts:

For each writing tool, we asked students to define the device and study a teacher-selected mentor text whose purpose was twofold: The excerpt from King’s On Writing (chapter one of the “Toolbox” section) described how to select vocabulary, but students also discussed how King employed the diction tool himself; Anne Lamott’s “Short Assignments” from Bird by Bird advised how to include/exclude details, but the class analyzed how her writing gave/withheld information with intent, too.

After exploring such mentor texts by writers-on-writing, we asked students to discuss additional examples of each tool’s use in groups and practice writing these devices in pairs. Ultimately, we ended each two-day, tool study with an individual activity that prompted students to intentionally use the element of craft to write well and, at the same time, to produce a visual to adorn our Writing Well Wall.

  • For diction, each student selected words with similar denotative meanings and placed them on a spectrumed paint sample with consideration to connotation.screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-2-55-07-pm
  • For syntax, each student selected an auditory sound and visually wrote syntax that mimicked its quality and color.screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-2-55-12-pm
  • For imagery, each student selected a photograph and wrote the sensory experience of one of its human subjects.screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-2-55-17-pm
  • For details, each student selected a topic about which to write a flip-book riddle that excluded enough details to confuse but not enough to stump.screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-2-55-21-pm
  • For tone, each student pulled a page from a discarded library book, marked evidence that created a tone, and labeled/showed the tone word.screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-2-55-26-pm

The entire study of these five writing tools took the initial two weeks of our course. In that short time, our Writing students studied, practiced, and mimicked the craftsmanship of strong writers at a wonderfully tangible level. They created a wall full of examples showcasing the tools used to produce effective craft. Greater even still, they developed testimonies to themselves that they can control, at this most focused level, the sometimes daunting tasks needed to write effectively. As we move on to more challenging topics, more developed essays, and longer revision periods, I hope my students feel a comforting satisfaction — not unlike the one fifth-grade me experienced — as they sit aside a Writing Well Wall that reminds them with each glance that they can use — and have used — the tools of powerful writers.



Reader Mail: Teaching Writers to Use Copious, Persuasive Evidence

We recently received this email from Angela in South Dakota:

I am writing about a podcast interview that you did with Talks with Teachers. You had mentioned you did a unit on using text evidence, and it hit me at my heart as my students struggle with providing relevant evidence in their writing. I searched your blog tags and did not find any resources. Would you be able to share some advice or do a blog post on ways to help students who struggle with this?

So far I have had them do some self-review and peer review on their own writing. They are just starting to see that they aren’t being effective in their use after the fact. I wish they would be more productive during writing to self-check and self-review their work. I know some of that is age and disability getting in the way.

One of my big goals for my SpEd students is to be able to have an opinion but also be able to give reasons so text evidence is important!

I’m going to make a bold statement: evidence is the biggest weakness in student writing. Copious, persuasive evidence and unique, compelling voice are the two elements of writing that have most distinctly separated my student writers from the pros.

Yes, text evidence. But also so much more.

Evidence is anything a writer uses to support the purpose of her piece of writing.

“Whoa, Rebekah”, you’re thinking. “That’s pretty broad.”

You’re right. It is. Intentionally so. Students are traditionally taught that evidence can be 1) quotes from a text and/or 2) research. Consequently, we get to teach finding-and-using evidence twice: when we teach literary analysis and when we teach research writing. And students practice this skill only a few times per school year, depending on how many literary analysis or research papers they write.

No writer gets better at using a technique without constant practice.

But, when we broaden the definition of evidence, when we teach that evidence is critical in every genre of writing, students suddenly have an opportunity to practice thoroughly incorporating evidence into every single thing they write.

When you think about it, evidence is really at the heart of so many of the problems we see in student writing:

  • When we feel a student hasn’t actually proven her claim, it’s because she doesn’t have sufficient evidence.
  • When we ask a student to elaborate in his memoir, we are really asking him to add evidence in the form of concrete details and figurative language that will allow the reader the experience this memory alongside the writer.
  • When a critic lacks evidence, she might be missing the connections and comparisons a reader needs to understand the writer’s stance.

How do we teach this broad understanding of evidence?

These days, I teach about the evidence writers use in each genre study of our year. When we study poetry, we look for poets’ evidence. When we study memoir, we search for memoirists’ evidence. Ditto commentary, review, analytical writing.

But a few years ago, when I first noticed this big gap in all student writing, I taught a technique study solely on evidence.In March of that year, I realized that in every writing genre of the year, students had lacked in the ability to support the purpose of their writing. In this study, students could write in any genre they wanted, and using oodles of compelling evidence was the only requirement.Here’s how the unit went:
Continue reading

The Fearless Writers

This fall, I’m teaching two classes. One starts with fiction and narrative writing, and the other launches with informational and persuasive texts. I committed to teaching each with a mentor text approach to analyzing our reading and crafting our own choice text. Within the first weeks, our narrative work was on a roll, but our informational work seemed stuck in the mud. We were reading lots of nonfiction texts, and they were getting the hang of noticing how they were written and organized. Meanwhile, students were drafting about topics of their choice in their notebooks. The two weren’t connecting, though. They were seeing reading of texts as one skill completely separate from their notebook work – and it showed. Their drafts lacked organizational complexity and voice, and they struggled to identify areas for revision. It was clear I was doing something wrong.

I puzzled over what could be going so horribly. After all, I was using the same mentor text approach with narrative text in my other class. As I looked back over my lesson planning from the first month, though, the difference was plain as day. In our narrative class, we started the process of reading like writers with short, manageable texts that had very clear, unique styles. We read, analyzed, and then wrote about ourselves first in the style of Sandra Cisneros’ “Salvador Late or Early” and then in a polar opposite style of the popular website Humans of New York. Students learned to connect reading and writing in manageable, bite-sized chunks that they could instantly play with in their notebooks. By contrast, my other class started annotating full-length articles from The Atlantic to pull apart the text features and structures. And I wondered why they didn’t see how these annotations connected to their own drafts!

I knew I needed to back it up and practice with some smaller chunks of text, but I didn’t know how I’d do this until inspiration hit one morning while I had my coffee. I mindlessly leafed through the mail on the counter and paused at the Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer. For those of you who’ve never shopped at a Trader Joes, their Fearless Flyer is their advertising mailing. Rather than just list the great bargains that can be had, their writers clearly have a lot of fun. Each featured item gets at least two paragraph of rich description. “Man,” I thought as I sipped my coffee, “these writers really have too much fun.” And that was when the inspiration lightning bolt hit. I wanted my writers to have that kind of fun – and this was a short text! Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: The First Line

Mentor Texts:

Collections of great first lines from literature from Gawker , The American Book Review, A YA list from The Huffington Post, funny ones via ShortList, and can one list lists with out including a BuzzFeed list these days?

Writing Techniques

  • Writing Exposition
  • Establishing Tone
  • Reflecting Upon Writing



Another list, in gorgeous infographic form via

My Grade 11 class and I just finished reading Fahrenheit 451, which begins, simply, “It was a pleasure to burn.”

Outside of work, I read the second Discworld novel by Terry Pratchett, The Light Fantastic. It begins, “The sun rose slowly, as if it wasn’t sure it was worth all the effort.”

Both of these books begin with amazing first lines. They set the tone for the novel to follow, and, once we get into that book, reveal themselves to be quite deep.

I knew there was something here that I want to present to writers. We need to have a rich dialogue, and study of the first line. Whenever we study Fahrenheit as a class, I refer constantly to that opening line to demonstrate the change in Montag’s character. In 6 words, Bradbury establishes the core of Montag’s character as the novel begins. Pratchett begins his novel wryly, giving us an indication of the sardonic wit that follows.

As I pulled lists of first lines from websites, I scanned through them. Some I remembered fondly from my own reading, which speaks to their impact. Some, I realized, were insanely good at capturing the spirit of the entire text in but a sentence. Others, I put in a separate mental file for their value as creative writing prompts.

See, the first line of a novel is important, not only as a hook for the reader, but because it has such depth and possibility for the writer, and we should explore that with our writers. Continue reading

Vulture’s “Close Reads” and Key Passage Analysis: Perfecting On-Demand Literary Analysis with Mentor Text Study

“I just don’t have enough time to say what I want to say!”

“If I had more time, I would be better.”

“I had all of these ideas planned, but I could only write about one of them.”

“I just don’t think I work well under timed conditions.”

Eleventh-graders’  laments fill my IB English classroom at the end of every in-class commentary*, a timed literary analysis that mimics one of the two official exams students will take at the end of the course next year. I have a lot of careful, contemplative writers in my junior classes, and the disappointed looks that cloud their faces after every commentary seem to beg, “Please don’t think this paper represents who I am as a writer! I know I can do better than this!” They look like they want to cry, and looking at them makes me want to cry, so I have decided, in the spirit of Rebekah’s “What’s the worst that could happen?” and Allison’s post about seeing on-demand writing in a new light , to back up and try a new experiment, one inspired by a mentor text about a moment that made me cry a lot. Continue reading

Infusing Writing Lessons with Mentor Texts

We spend a lot of time touting the benefits of mentor texts for students for obvious reasons! Mentor texts — professional pieces of writing that are current and relevant to this year’s students — can guide and inspire their writing in ways that we alone can’t. Additionally mentor texts:

  • connect our writers to their passions
  • connect our writers to other writers — in our classrooms and in the real world of writing
  • equip our student writers with writing tools they’ll need throughout their schooling and after
  • provide our students with rich reading experiences
  • invite our students to read closely, many times over
  • offer interesting, authentic ways for our students to meet the standards they will be tested on at the end of the year
  • remind our students they are writers in a very real world brimming with very real writers
  • connect our writers to current events and hot topics

In short, mentor texts do everything for our students.

But perhaps one of the best kept secrets of mentor texts is that they help teachers. They can make our teaching lives easier and richer in myriad ways. One of the main reasons I am so grateful to have discovered the power of mentor texts in my teaching is because they  streamline my writing lessons and provide a natural rhythm my students and I can follow in every class period. 


The graphic shows that mentor texts help guide the flow of every writing lesson in class and make the format of the class predictable. We know from Katie Wood Ray that predictability in a writing classroom frees our students up to do the most important thing — to write — rather than worry about what’s happening in class and if they’re going to think it’s fun. That same predictability also helps the teacher. No more late nights figuring out what activities to do with students tomorrow. I know what my lesson is going to look like before I even write it, and I have mentor texts to thank for that.

The framework is simple. You begin by introducing the big idea of the lesson in very simple terms. For example, last week I taught a lesson about endings in poetry. At the beginning of the lesson, I said, “Today you will learn how end your poems strongly — to end them with a click.” (The click part comes from poet Maxine Kumin who argues that the end of a poem should mimic the sound of a closing door: “if not the slam..then at least the click of the bolt in the jamb”.)

Then I projected five techniques writers use to bring their poems to a close (see below). Many teachers enjoy creating posters on giant-sized post it notes to display the writing lesson. Google Presentations is my preferred method, as you’ll see below, because I am not confident in my poster-making skills😉


This lesson fell at the end of a three-week study of poetry, so my writers were very familiar with rhyme, line breaks, and repetition. The techniques I revealed in this lesson weren’t new to them — but the way in which the techniques could be leveraged to bring their poems to a close were.

Then I said, “Please take out your mentor texts if they’re not already on your desk, so we can take a look at how some of our mentors use these techniques.”

It’s important to mention that, even though my students didn’t pull out their mentor texts until we were a few minutes into the lesson, mentor texts had entirely guided us to that point. The big idea — that writers use repetition, images, and line breaks to end their poems strongly — came from the mentor texts. Because the mentor texts always tell us what to teach. Always. (Click here for Rebekah’s post on where writing lessons come from and how we plan writing studies.)

At this point in a writing lesson — after you’ve introduced the big idea and various techniques for achieving the effect in your writing — there are several ways to directly infuse the lesson with mentor texts:

  • Have students annotate the writing directly in their mentor text packets

This is my go-to method of inviting students to examine the techniques being used by our beloved mentors. Students simply take out their packets, and as you explain each technique in more depth, students  underline, highlight, or use colored pencils to mark the examples in their texts.


Jillian A’s annotated mentor text

I know we’ve had a great writing study if, at the end, my students’ mentor text packets are worn and dog-eared — maybe even falling apart and in need of a new staple. That’s because we’re digging into these packets on a daily basis, reading each mentor text closely dozens and dozens of time, sucking every last drop of inspiration and guidance out of them.

  • Have students create a visual in their writer’s notebooks

Sometimes having the students directly annotate their packet can feel stale or rote — like you need something to shake up the routine. Invite students to create a visual of the lesson, including excerpts of the mentor texts. To assist them in doing this, consider printing out and cutting up a few excerpts from the mentor texts — excerpts that highlight that lesson’s techniques — so students don’t have to spend any time printing and cutting — they can simply read and think and find a good home for their mini mentor texts in their writer’s notebook.

  • Have students add lesson notes to their touchstone text

At the beginning of a study, as a way to get the beautiful language of their mentors into their heads and hearts, I invite my students to copy a full-length mentor or a favorite excerpt from a mentor text into their notebooks for safekeeping. A third option for infusing your lesson with mentor texts is to ask your students to return to this mentor text (or excerpt) and annotate it with the lesson’s techniques. Anything done in the writer’s notebook tends to feel more personalized and lasts longer because students are far less likely to lose their notebooks than their packets. Below you’ll see a four page spread of the poem Shelter that Dylan D. diligently copied into his notebook and annotated over the course of a few class lessons:

Once students have had an opportunity to think about the new skill or technique introduced and see their mentors using it, it’s time to invite them to consider their own writing and how this technique might amplify what they are currently working on them.

It’s my favorite part of the lesson — asking, “Can you find a strategic place in your writing for this technique?”

As my students boot up their laptops and turn the pages of their notebook, as they gather highlighters and colored pencils to mark their writing, as they discuss amongst themselves what they’re working on and what they think of the lesson and how it might help their writing, I always take a mindful minute to soak it in — to stand there thankful for the mentors that gave me a good lesson and the writers who will grow because of it.

How do you infuse your lessons with mentor texts? What is the flow of your writing lessons? I would love to hear from you on Twitter @allisonmarchett — or feel free to comment below!



Title Talk

In June, I had an epiphany of sorts. I started really thinking about titles. title-talk

Some background first. In the province I teach in, Manitoba, our Grade 12s write a provincial assessment. It’s the closest thing we have to high stakes testing, and although I do have some concerns about it, I actually quite like the format. The students spend three hours the first day reading various pieces and answering questions in response to them. The following three days are dedicated to a writing task, along with some reflection questions. (They have an hour each of those three days, because I know some of you were wondering.)

The assessment is written near the end of each semester, in January and June. There are marker training sessions that, although I am familiar with most aspects of the exam, I enjoy, because we discuss the quirks of the current assessment, and, well, as teachers are wont to do, we talk shop.

It was in the marker training session that I had my epiphany. See, a recurring reflection question asks students to give their written piece a title, and then reflect upon why the title is suitable. As we discussed the responses that were appropriate for the question, I realized it was actually kind of a bad question. Continue reading

Moving –like really moving– Writers

When I have a rough day at school for whatever reason–a challenging meeting, a botched lesson, a tricky planning problem–the one thing that helps me think and focus is running. I know lots of people say they only run when chased, so maybe that makes me a weirdo, but running is the one thing that is guaranteed to give me some clarity.

I need to move in order to think.

This past month, I’ve been thinking a lot about my students and their need to move, too. I spent the early years of my  career teaching Spanish, so I know all about the research that movement helps students learn better. We danced the alphabet, acted out the weather, and clapped and shimmied our way through verb conjugations. But somehow, as I moved away from the world of foreign language,  my classes became more and more sedentary. Writing and reading became this calm, seated activity.  There’s certainly a need for that. You can’t exactly think and compose while you’re dancing. Or can you? I think maybe there are places for it.

Continue reading