New Year’s (Writing Workshop) Resolutions (or, Why Didn’t I Do This in August???)

Midterms are over, and we have reached the point of the year where, inevitably, I second guess every decision I have made so far and long for a do-over. And while this year hasn’t been without its victories, I still wonder, What ever happened to that uber-planned-perfectly-balanced class I dreamed of while I sat by the pool in July?

Adding fuel to my restless fire has been my epic fall of phenomenal professional development. In November, I attended (and presented at!) my very first NCTE annual convention. A week later, I attended a whole-day workshop with Penny Kittle, my professional idol and one of the biggest reasons I stayed in the teaching profession. (I cried when I met her. Yep, I’m that person.)

Oh, I have been on a very high teaching high.

Coming off of these incredible experiences, I have synthesized all of my learning into a three-pronged attack plan for improving the thinking and writing in my classroom.  I am writing it down (and telling you) so that I will actually do it!

1) Cozying up to words, words, words

My students need to hear more words than they read or write. Why haven’t I thought of that before? If they are hearing beautiful language — the way words work together, the way words make music, the way words sound out loud — their reading will improve. Their writing will improve.

Penny Kittle and Tom Romano begin class every day with a poem. I’m beginning with a poem two days per week (on “reading workshop” days.) Students will just listen and breathe and soak up words. They will become exposed to poetry in a risk-free setting. They will be exposed to all of the things a poem can do. They might even try a collection of poetry for their independent reading. And, I hope, like Penny Kittle’s students, poetic language will start to slip into their own writing.

But wait, there’s more!

I am also planning to try something a bit experimental for a high school English classroom. I am going to read a novel aloud to my students. Teachers in lower grades do this all the time. There is loads of data that supports this practice as a way of improving student vocabulary, engagement, and passion for reading.  And yet, educators debate whether or not it’s appropriate for high school students.

Good teaching is good teaching, and if it’s beneficial for young readers then it must be beneficial for older readers, too.

Image So, I will be working Charlotte’s Web into our routine.  (Why Charlotte’s Web? Because it was all over NCTE. It felt like every session I attended mentioned my childhood favorite. Must be time to pull it off the shelf!) It should be well over everyone’s reading level.

We will use ol’ E.B. White to hear beautiful language, to reinforce the importance of re-reading at different points in ones life, to practice new skills of close reading, connect to a common text about which to write, and to just have fun with words.

2) Using media as an entry point to push thinking and writing forward

A few notable sessions I attended at NCTE used media as an entry point to close reading and critical thinking. And in a way that is more than showing-the-movie-of-the-book-as-a-day-off-when-we-are-done-reading.  Liz Lutz gave a great presentation on using Pixar films to teach critical reading. Chris Lehman, Kate Roberts, and Maggie Roberts encouraged teachers to use popular music, commercials, and other mass media to reinforce close reading skills.

I tried it as soon as I got home, using Pixar short films to help my students review the “distant reading” strategies Kylene Beers and Bob Probst outline in Notice and Note. (Haven’t read it? Go buy this one!) They loved it, and I desperately wished that I had used the films to teach the skills in the first place.

In the new year, I will use media to lead students into deeper thinking, deeper conversation, and deeper writing — especially as we move into analytical genre studies. In fact, our “light analysis” unit in February will now be working on the analysis of a Pixar short film — a friendly way of entering the realm of serious academic writing.

3) Giving the QuickWrite a facelift

On the midterm, I asked students to share the best and worst parts of writing workshop. Overwhelmingly, students listed the QuickWrite as the part they would get rid of. This isn’t new. My students last year said the same thing.

They hate the QuickWrite because they don’t see it as useful (even when they mine it for ideas in a bigger draft). Maybe this comes from years of free-form journaling in some lower grades? Maybe I’m just not doing a good job crafting interesting prompts.

While at Penny Kittle’s workshop, I was struck by her use of the term “notebook time” to describe the beginning of class rather than “quickwrite”. This is where our first ten minutes of class is headed in 2014. A QuickWrite might be one of many things that can happen during the broader and more productive Notebook Time. I will still use QuickWrites periodically to generate ideas for the writer’s notebook, but we will also:

  • Do sentence study & imitation

  • Respond to the daily poem

  • Practice meaningful revision

  • Make meaning of short bits of media

  • Play with and make interpretations about raw data (something Penny Kittle said is a weakness noted by college professors to whom she has spoken)

I hope students will like this better — that it will feel more purposeful to them and more playful at the same time. Our writing will become more like Play-Doh, and students will see the value of working with their writing even when it doesn’t become a draft.

What are your mid-year workshop revisions? What are you substituting, taking out, adding, or re-arranging (to borrow from Kelly Gallagher)?  Leave us a comment, or, better yet, join us on Twitter to chat about our writing resolutions & goals on Thursday, January 2 at 7:30pm EST. Use the hashtag #movingwriters.

– Rebekah


Step-by-Step: The Value of Mini Mentor Texts

A few months before our wedding, my husband and I signed up for private dance lessons at the local dance studio. On the first day, we were brought into a small room with a large rectangular window that looked out into the main ballroom. Professional dancers in street clothes leapt and arabesqued across the wooden floor. There was no instructor to be seen. I remember squealing.

The juxtaposition was thrilling at first. Here we were, novices without a clue, looking out into a room filled with professionals who made the dancing look effortless. It was both inspiring and… immobilizing. Could we do this?

Our instructor Chris didn’t let us linger at the window for too long.

“Ok! Let’s get started. What is it you would like to be able to do?”

That,” I said, pointing to the dancers beyond the window. We laughed.

My fiancé took a more logical route. “We basically want to look good,” he said, smiling.

“I can help with that. Do you have the song?” Chris asked, motioning for a CD.

The song we had. The vision we had. We just needed the moves. And so we began.

The first thing he taught us was box step, a basic building block. When we mastered that, we learned how to stand together, and then how to do different turns. Occasionally Chris would cut in and model for my fiancé how to hoist me into a turn or where to put his feet. We practiced these basic moves over and over again, occasionally glancing across the practice space, through the large window, into the room of professional dancers.

And this is how the lessons went for a few weeks before we started putting it all together.

Step-by-Step Instruction

As a teacher, I can appreciate the effectiveness of Chris’s instructional model. It’s reminiscent of Kelly Gallagher’s “Professional goes, I go, you go” method of using mentor texts and writing in front of students.

But Chris did something else, too.

Like my husband and me at the window, when students are exposed to complete mentor texts, they can become overwhelmed quickly.

Chris didn’t let this happen. He did let us gawk at the professional dancers for a few minutes, but then he calmly lead us back into the room and began showing us, one at a time, the “moves” or skills we would need to master before we could really begin to dance.

There’s no question about the value of using full mentor texts to teach writing. But we should supplement full-length mentor texts with mini mentor texts that target specific skills. When I was learning how to waltz, Chris’s step-by-step, move-based instruction and modeling was critical to my development as a dancer.

Hatching the “Mini”

My colleague and I first came up with the idea of mini mentor texts while planning a literary analysis genre study. We struggled to find real world examples of literary analysis (it doesn’t really exist outside of the English classroom), but there was no shortage of analysis. It was everywhere. On blogs. In The New Yorker. On our favorite pop culture websites like and With a little searching, we found exciting, relevant examples of analysis, like this review of Lucie Brock-Broido’s book of poems Stay Illusion and this analytical comparison of Breaking Bad and Mad Men.

And though we knew that these full-length mentor texts would not be accessible to our ninth grade writers, we believed that pieces of them would be. And so we hatched the idea of the mini mentor text, which has all of the qualities of a brilliant, uncut mentor text without the distraction of a full-length piece.

Below is one “mini” from the article “The New Stephen Curry” that we use to teach the skill of explaining evidence in our literary analysis genre study.

In very simple terms, Golden State has taken Lee’s touches and given them to Curry, unleashing him as something much closer to a full-time off-the-dribble force. And as it turns out, most standard NBA defenses are simply not equipped to deal with an off-the-dribble player who can shoot 45 percent from 3-point range. The change has crystallized against the Spurs, who haven’t been as committed as Denver to trying to take the ball from Curry’s hands with aggressive traps out toward midcourt; Curry dribbled the ball more in both Game 1 and Game 2 of this series than in any of the approximately 60 prior games recorded by SportVU data-tracking cameras installed at Golden State’s home arena and 14 other arenas this season, per data provided exclusively to Grantland. He has held the ball for nearly three more full minutes per game over those two games than he did on average in the regular season, a massive change for a player who controlled the ball, on average, about 5:20 per game this season, according to the data.

First, we read this passage out loud for comprehension. (I let the sports enthusiasts explain the basketball jargon!) Then, we read it again with the purpose of noting where the writer supplies evidence and follows it with explanation.

Then it was my turn. In my classroom, when students wrote analysis essays on a poem of choice, I worked with Stanley Kunitz’s “The Portrait.” I typed a little, projecting my thinking and writing onto the screen. Write. Pause. Write. Pause. Struggle. Write some more:

In the first line, the speaker acknowledges that his mother “never forgave [his] father,” a statement that immediately suggests betrayal or infidelity, until the actual reason for the mother’s stubbornness is revealed in the second line: “for killing himself” (1-2). Kunitz enjambs the next four lines, slowly revealing one shocking detail after another: “especially at such an awkward time/and in a public park,/that spring/when I was waiting to be born” (3-6). These deliberate line breaks increase the intensity of the news while shocking the reader in a way that mimics the emotional shock of a suicide…

Then it was their turn. Below is an example from one ninth grader, Garrett, who was studying Robert Wallace’s “The Double Play”:

This analogy of life to a double play is well-defined in Wallace’s continuous use of well-chosen line breaks that do this throughout the poem. By using these line breaks, the poem is slowed down at various times, effectively capturing specific moments in the double play. “Drawing it disappearing into his long brown glove / stretches” (18-19) is a perfect example of this. This particular moment portrays the very end of the play, when the first baseman catches the ball to record the second out. Line 18 is extremely crowded and hurried, but it is slowed down massively with only one word in line 19; this break most certainly slows down the moment and perfectly captures the small things that make this double play a success. With line breaks such as these and “to the leaning- / out first baseman ends the dance” (16-17), Wallace demonstrates the importance of completing work and following through, because in baseball as in life, finishing strong is just as important as starting strong.

Can you see the footwork of the “mini” in his body paragraph?

Moving the Writer

One of the greatest benefits of using mini mentor texts is the teaching and learning of skills that cut across genres. For example, when I teach an editorial genre study, and I want to show my students how to support their claims with evidence and explanation, I can refer to this same mini mentor text. With minis, our lessons get more mileage. We teach skills that move the writer, not just the one piece of writing.


If you’re wondering whether those dance lessons paid off–they did. They were a great investment. Because the box step is a skill that cuts across multiple genres of dancing. So we can dance our wedding dance.

But we can also do the rumba.

Image– Allison

The “Data” that Writing Workshop Works

photoI hear twitters and giggles behind me as I hurriedly move from student to student for writing conferences.  I don’t have time to turn around, I think, working my way between desks. They – and I – always get anxious as we wrap up a genre study.  Last-minute questions need answering. Mini-lessons need pointing to. Move, listen, jot,  I urge myself.

The vague beat of bass line pulses through Taylor’s headphones next to me. Reed is daydreaming again.  “Where are you stuck?” I press Damian. But Damian isn’t listening. He isn’t even looking.

His eyes are twinkling, focused above me and behind. I turn slowly to hear Q, a sophomore whom I taught last year, leaning over Nico’s desk. “Where are you going from here?” he asks.

Stupefied, I turn. I watch. It’s not unusual for Q to pop in to visit during his study hall. It is unusual for him to confer with my ninth grade students.

“Tell me more about what you liked about this documentary,” Q whispers. He has moved on to Malik — his fourth writing conference since he walked in the door.

Let’s be honest: I want to cry.


In ten years, this is the closest I’ve come to the teacher-movie-o-captain-my-captain moment that made me want to be an English teacher in the first place. And it didn’t happen because I am Michelle Pfeiffer. It happened because writing workshop means something to Q.

Writing workshop means something to Q. Q, one of last year’s most reticent writers. Q, who started and restarted and crumpled and began again. Q, who would work diligently through the genre study and sometimes still not turn in a paper.

One of the challenges of writing workshop — one Donald Graves encountered in his initial research in the 1970s — is that its impact is not quantifiable. It’s hard to produce a scatter plot that demonstrates how writing workshop improves student writing. It’s even more difficult to produce a chart that shows how writing workshop impacts the writer himself.

In the absence of numerical data, I look today at Q. He is the walking, conferring testimony that writing workshop works. And while I don’t know the reason that catalyzed Q’s visit today (and I’m pretty sure that it was, at least initially, for a laugh), I can guess at some of the reasons writing workshop matters to Q:

  • Writing workshop creates independent learners.

After a year of sitting in writing workshop, Q learned how to get ideas on paper and how to make them better. He learned to “question-flood” a text (to borrow Kelly Gallagher’s phrase). After seeing it modeled for him, he can do it for himself. Better yet, he has gained the independence that tells him that he can also do it for others.

  • Writing workshop encourages confidence.

Q came in to “help” me with writing conferences because he felt he had something to offer. Writing workshop built that in him. Workshop drew out of Q what I had seen in him from the beginning but what took months and months of writing, conferring, sharing, repeating for him to see it in himself. Now he can pass it on.

  • Most of all, writing workshop is personal.

At it’s core, perhaps the most important aspect of the workshop classroom is that it’s intensely personal. It’s rooted in students’ thoughts and experiences. It validates them. It makes them valuable. It literally brings the teacher to the student. And when we ask, “How’s it going?”, we are often talking about more than just the paper at hand.

Writing workshop builds human connections — it connects students to a topic, it connects teachers to students, it connects students to one another. Today, it connected Q to the freshmen with whom he was conferring. We often talk about building a community of writers, and when I saw Q conferring with Malik today I realized that, for him, that community is broader than last year’s sixth period class. Q is now in a community with all writers.


The first time I met Q in August of last year, he sat slouched low in his desk, arms crossed. He wouldn’t make eye contact with me, and he didn’t speak except to offer an occasional “pssh”. Today, my students watch me, crouched beside Damian’s desk, watching Q. Mesmerized. Reaching for my phone in an attempt to capture this. Bottle it. Put it in my writer’s notebook.

Writing workshop is a writer-changer. Writing workshop is a kid-changer. This is the only data I need to know that writing workshop works.

– Rebekah

Moving Writers … an Invitation

Eight hours before your presentation at NCTE isn’t the time for second guessing.

Huddled on a hotel bed, surrounded by a sea of papers, laptops, and California Pizza Kitchen take-out, we debated. Something was missing. After months of polishing the fundamentals, something wasn’t right. Something we couldn’t put our finger on.  Some meaning for which we were still grasping.

The past 48 hours had been filled with more inspiration than we could process. And now it was our turn.  What could we say about writing instruction the next morning that would say it all? That would really matter?

We thumbed through our stenographer’s pads and found our notes from a session earlier in the day, led by some of our teacher heroes: Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, and Chris Tovani. In her talk, Chris Tovani quoted Penny Kittle as she wondered about the criterion often used to measure good writing:  “Who will actually read this and be moved by it?”

That was it! Our own guiding question!  The idea we had been searching for but hadn’t yet found. This was what we wanted to achieve—not just in our presentation, but in our classrooms.

We want to move the text, nudging students forward in their craft.

We want our writers to move their reading—to change the way they think about or experience the world.

But above all, we want to move the writer—intellectually, emotionally. Significantly.

And so the mission of moving writers—previously unnamed but always at the heart of our instruction—went into our NCTE presentation. And now it is filling this blog.

Here are some of the questions we want to explore with you in this blog:

  • What does writer’s workshop look like in the secondary – particularly the traditional high school –  classroom?

  • What conditions, tools, structures, and norms help guide writers towards independence?

  • What works in our writer’s workshop classrooms? What doesn’t work? How can we improve our craft as educators?

  • How can we help students maintain control of their own ideas while guiding them as writers? (Penny Kittle)

  • What are the short and long term benefits of writer’s workshop?

  • What makes a good mentor text? Where do we find them? How do we use them? Can we enlist students to find them?

  • Besides editorials, commentaries, and narratives, what other genres could and should be taught to secondary students?

  • What would a writer’s workshop scope & sequence look like?

  • How do writer’s workshop and reader’s workshop speak to one another? Build off of one another?

  • What would it take to change the way our students see themselves as writers?

  • How can we develop these characteristics in our students: curiosity, clarity, self- confidence, autonomy, and mastery? (Penny Kittle)

  • How do we bring joy and meaning into the writer’s workshop?

What questions do YOU have? Leave us a comment, and join our conversation.

– Allison & Rebekah