Guest Mentor Text Wednesday: The Book of Awesome by Neil Pasricha

Today’s MTW post is from a guest, Jennifer Isgitt of Empathic Teacher, whose blog we follow and love!  I originally caught this post on her blog and begged to use it for Mentor Text Wednesday.

Workshop Genre: Poetry


I first learned about The Book of Awesome from my friend Amy, who presented about nonfiction mentor texts at the TCTELA conference last year.  I quickly purchased the book, and I have been waiting for the right moment to have my students write about their own “awesome” things.

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When Even Writing Workshop Doesn’t Work

I am almost obnoxious in my whole-hearted evangelism of writing workshop. (Just ask my colleague who has banned the phrase “mini-lesson” from our future conversations.)  And still, in all my crowing about the successes of writing workshop, I have to admit something to you.

Sometimes it doesn’t work.

“Kevin” nods furiously during our writing conferences. And still he turns in papers written in one, giant paragraph.

“Mary” conferences with me during every class period. We read her work aloud. I highlight places she needs to double check for word choice, grammar, and syntax. We work together to tab the mini-lessons she needs to return to in her writer’s notebook. She turns in a paper unchanged since our conference.

Let’s be honest, when these papers finally land on my desk, I take it a little bit personally. I’m disappointed. I wonder where I went wrong. What mini-lesson could I have offered? What could I have said during our conferences to have made a difference?

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Mentor Text Wednesday: Editorial


Mentor Text:  Sumter, Kyler. “Solutions for School Stress: Schedule the Workload Better”.  The Huffington Post.  17 December 2013. Web.

Workshop Genre: Editorial


I love using this editorial with students since it is written by a fellow member of their tribe — a sixteen-year-old high school junior. In addition to showing them a living, breathing example of editorial, this mentor text has the great secondary benefit of providing an example for how student writing can and does have a real audience.

In teaching editorial, possible mentor texts abound. However, finding one that students have adequate context to understand and engage with is challenging. Students can connect with this mentor text on both an intellectual and a personal level.

How I Used It:

I use this mentor text about ⅓ of the way through our editorial genre study. Students have learned the difference between an article and an editorial, they have parsed out the “parts” of an effective editorial, decided on their own claim, and outlined their main reasons.

I introduce this mentor text when we are ready to broach the subject of finding corroborating evidence. I want my students to know that there are lots of different ways to support your claim and this mentor text does a great job of demonstrating multiple types of evidence.

I begin by sharing the mentor text with students. We read it together. As I read, they mark places where they think they see evidence supporting a claim or reason. We go through and mark these examples on a copy of the mentor text projected on the board.

Then, students work in their writing groups to categorize these pieces of evidence. We talk about their categories and combine them when we can.

I move into a mini-lesson on the different types of evidence: anecdotal, analogical, testimonial, and statistical. We talk about what these mean and brainstorm examples of each. Then, we take the categories we already came up with and see how they gel with the four types outlined in the mini-lesson. Typically, they fit together nicely.  When they don’t, we have a discussion about the discrepancy.

Students use this as a launching pad for beginning research for their editorials.

Other Possibilities:

  • Practice revising — particularly rearranging and reorganizing

  • Paragraphing in an editorial/news writing

  • Incorporating evidence

What editorials do you love using with students? How else might this editorial be used as a mentor text? 

Add your comments below, or, better yet, grab our Mentor Text Wednesdays button at the bottom of your screen and link up with us! Share the mentor text love! 

– Rebekah

A Lesson for Tomorrow: Using Art to Teach Repetition in Writing and Reading

Students are great barometers of lesson effectiveness. At the end of each writing workshop genre study, I ask students to reflect on the lessons that had an impact on their thinking and writing. When asked which mini-lesson she found to be the least helpful in our memoir genre study, a student wrote:

The mini-lesson I found least helpful was Narrative Transitions. It didn’t really help to show me how to actually do it. We saw and talked about narrative transitions in a more helpful and understanding way in mentor texts and other mini lessons than the actual Narrative Transitions mini-lesson.

The Narrative Transitions mini-lesson was a direct instruction writing lesson. The “mentor texts” and “other” lessons she refers to were reading mini-lessons. Savannah’s reflection is a powerful testament to the inseparable link between reading and writing instruction. It serves as a reminder that reading instruction can have a more significant impact on student writing than direct writing instruction itself.

Below I outline a “reading lesson” that uses art to sharpen students’ writing skills.

The Inspiration

The other night, I stumbled upon a compelling passage in Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. In this scene, Ari, the main character, presses his father to talk about his brother Bernardo, who has been in jail for several years. In a fit of discomfort, Ari’s dad pulls the car over, and Ari observes:

He nodded. He got out of the car. He stood out in the heat. I knew he was trying to organize himself. Like a messy room that needed to be cleaned up. I left him alone for a while. But then, I decided I wanted to be with him. I decided that maybe we left each other alone too much. Leaving each other alone was killing us.

        “Dad, sometimes I hated you and mom for pretending he was dead.”

        “I know. I’m sorry, Ari. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” (283)

As I read this passage, my eyes backpedaled over the line “I decided I wanted to be with him,” honing in on the word “decided.” It jumped off the page as I noticed another occurrence of it in the next line. Then, I suddenly became aware of the numerous iterations of the word “alone.” And the repetitive syntax of the first few lines: “He nodded. He got out. He stood out.” I paused, happy to slow down and savor the craft.

And in my slowing down, I began to rehearse a lesson on repetition for workshop later that week:

Good writers use repetition to emphasize important ideas. Good readers notice repetition and link these words to larger themes in a text.

The Planning Stage

I spent a few days pondering how to teach repetition. How to reframe it. How to show my students that repetition is more than restating. That purposeful repetition is one of the writer’s best tools for conveying her purpose and the reader’s best tool for discovering it. (As a side note, in Notice and Note, Kylene Beers and Robert Probst teach intentional repetition as “Again and Again,” signpost #5.)

And that’s when I stumbled upon  an EDSIDTEment lesson on repetition in visual art. I strive to “think big” and present lessons in terms of broader, universal ideas, so I was thrilled to stumble upon this lesson, which took repetition to a whole new level:

Visual repetition in some ways acts like an echo. There is frequently one feature (often this is the object that is in the foreground of the painting) that appears as the “original,” with additional recurrences seeming to repeat—to echo—the first. You may ask students to think about what happens when they hear an echo. They hear the first sound, they then turn their attention to the echoed “response,” and soon begin searching with their ears for additional recurrences. Visual repetition can have the same affect [sic]: the recurrences of the visual “echoes” draw a viewer’s attention to that point in the image, and soon they are searching with their eyes for additional references. In this way repetition is often used as a tool by artists for guiding the viewer’s eye around the canvas. (“Repetition in the Visual Arts”)

I decided to use the idea of “guiding the [reader’s] eye around the canvas” as a framework for presenting my lesson.

The Lesson

Following the EDSITEment lesson fairly closely at first, I began by sharing the point of the lesson:

Today we’re going to look at how artists use repetition to echo important ideas. We’re going to start with visual art, and as we look at these paintings together, I’d like to you to think about the following questions: Where do your eyes go first? Where do you see additional recurrences of that color or shape?” Please jot down your observations in your writer’s notebook. I will give you some time to think on your own first and some time to share in your group before we share out.

We looked at Monet’s Palazzo del Mula Venice. (Click here for my PowerPoint with the artwork and line drawings from the EDSITEment lesson plan.)

Students recorded observations in their notebooks; then they shared with their table partners. Volunteers came up to the board and pointed out what they saw:

  • The blue posts flanking each door

  • The windows in this same blue

  • The gold and yellow tones on the building, reflected in the water

  • The boats in the foreground–it took some discussion before a student recognized these as gondolas

  • The horizontal lines segmenting the buildings into stories

Next we studied the line drawings, which, like the outline of a paper, revealed underlying patterns in the artwork, highlighting repeating shapes and colors in the design.

We repeated this activity with three other pieces of art. Students were getting out of their chairs to get a better view. Some with backgrounds in art were leading the discussion. The classroom was abuzz.

Then it was time to make the art-writing connection. First, I shared the repetition-as-echo analogy, explaining how repetition works like an echo in that it draws the reader’s eye and ear across the page, in search of other occurrences of the pattern.

Then I gave them a pretty standard definition of repetition–a device in which words, sounds, and ideas are used more than once to enhance rhythm and to create emphasis–which they copied into their writer’s notebooks.

Next, I projected the excerpt from Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, and I did a think-aloud to show students how my eyes, brain, and ears had moved across the page as Sánez drew my attention to something important and then emphasized his point through repetition. My script went something like this:

When I’m reading a really good book, I get lost in the story like you do. But sometimes my eyes catch something, and I want to slow down…like when I read this passage the other night. Suddenly I noticed the word “decided,” and then I saw that it was repeated in the next sentence. I became curious.  I know that writers don’t repeat the same word in such close proximity unless they are trying to get us to pay attention to something important. Suddenly I knew this car scene with his dad was going to be more than just a car ride, and I became eager to slow my reading down and look for other clues.


My talk-aloud continued as I pointed out additional instances of repetition, being sure to connect the concrete technique to the abstract ideas of the text:

  • syntactical repetition in first few sentences: “He nodded” “He got out” “He stood” — underlines the narrator’s close reading of his father, moments before his “aha”

  • “sorry” appears four times, underscoring the dad’s guilt

  • “alone” appears three times, representing the disconnect between father and son

Next, I showed them the “line drawing” of this passage (which I made simply by “whiting out” all non-repetitive text and leaving the repetition in black font), so they could get the full effect of the intentional repetition. A communal “ohhhh” echoed throughout the room as I revealed the underlying structure of the passage.

Not only did it “look cool” on the screen, but it made my close reading of the text visible for students, and opened up lots of possibilities for them as writers.

“Ok, so now we’re going to…”

They finished my sentence with their actions, plunging eager hands into backpacks. Soon everyone had a book on their desk, ready to locate meaningful repetition in their own books.

A few days later, I used this lesson as a springboard for talking about logical transitions. Reading an editorial together, students noticed how writers use key words and repetition to create logical transitions between paragraphs. And so they set to work on their own pieces, using repetition to bolster their arguments and move their readers from point to point.

The Reading Writing Connection

This year I teach Writer’s Workshop on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and Reader’s Workshop on Tuesdays and Thursdays. But my student’s thoughtful evaluation, and the success of this lesson, reminded me that good instruction doesn’t fit neatly into “writing lesson” and “reading lesson” boxes. Thinking like writers informs our reading. Reading like artists informs our writing. And making the connection between reading and writing more obvious makes a difference.

How have you used reading instruction to bolster student writing? Please leave a comment to share an idea!

~ Allison

Mentor Text Wednesday: Carol Sherman-Jones’ “A Lesson Not Learned”


Mentor Text: Sherman-Jones, Carol. “A Lesson Not Learned.” I Thought My Father Was God. Ed. Paul Auster. New York: Picador, 2001. 52-53. Print.

Writing Workshop Genre: Memoir

Background: When asked which mentor text had the biggest impact on their thinking and writing in our memoir genre study, most students credited “A Lesson Not Learned” by Carol Sherman-Jones. In the words of one student, “It taught me to always pay attention and to be unpredictable as a writer.”

We studied this mentor text late in the unit, after students had been exposed to the basic traits of a memoir–vivid description, scene, summary, remembered feelings, and present perspective–through several other mentor texts.

My students were well into drafting but struggling to communicate the autobiographical significance or “so what” of their stories.  They struggled to dig deeper, to look past the obvious, to connect the dots of their experiences. And the students who had discovered the meaning were tacking it on the end of their essay rather than weaving it into the story.

How I Used It: So I pulled out Sherman-Jones’s startling memoir, which can be used to teach students about many different aspects of memoir writing (and good writing in general).

First, I shared this brilliant quote by Patricia Hampl with students: The first commandment of fiction–Show Don’t Tell–is not part of the memoirist’s faith. Memoirists must show and tell.

This quote provided a lens through which to analyze how SJ presented the autobiographical significance of her story.

We read it twice: once, to get a sense of what it was about. Twice to look for places where S-J foreshadows her message through show and tell.

Students were really moved by the ending, which they felt came as a bit of a surprise. But after a second and third draft reading, they noticed how hard some of the lines and structures of the memoir were working to help S-J convey her message from the very beginning–lines like “I lost everything,” the title, and the progression of scenes, each loss becoming more significant, her trust in her father the ultimate loss.

Afterwards, students returned to their own writing, eager to discover and communicate a “so what” as powerful as Sherman-Jones’.

As I mentioned before, S-J’s memoir offers numerous additional possibilities for writing instruction:

  • Using one word and short sentences effectively
  • Well-placed, sparse, meaningful dialogue
  • Balancing show and tell
  • Evoking surprise in the reader
  • Powerful leads
  • Effective narrative transitions

What else could you teach with this text? Leave a comment with your ideas, contribute a favorite mentor text to our Mentor Text Dropbox Project, or join Mentor Text Wednesday by grabbing our MTW button below & contributing an idea on your blog!


A Lesson for Tomorrow: Writing a Persuasive Conclusion

“What do you need more of?” I queried.  Within minutes, more than a dozen post-its on my board read:

“A mini-lesson on conclusions!”

“Conclusions! Please!”

“Conclusions — I don’t know what to do! Help!”

And these were my IB seniors, still convinced at the end of their K-12 careers that they couldn’t successfully wrap up their essays.

But they aren’t alone. Writing the conclusion causes anxiety in all of the young writers I have met. They innately know that simply regurgitating their big ideas isn’t enough (and, even if it were enough, it wouldn’t be interesting, and as Allison reminds us, all writers want their words to matter.)  However, they are devoid of better tools to deploy.

I started to think about how I wanted to articulate the qualities of a good conclusion. A conclusion should do some reminding and recapping. It should link those ideas together, creating a drumroll beneath the text, culminating in a trumpeted ta da! The grand conclusion. The bigger point. The ultimate moment of persuasion. The zoomed-out larger significance.

Now, where to find the mentor text to show this in concrete terms? I immediately thought of the source of consistently epic conclusions that cause jaws to drop: Law and Order.

I often reference courtrooms when teaching analytical and persuasive writing. Mentally playing the part of attorney helps students (most of whom are very familiar with TV  courtroom crime procedurals) make claims and present and explain evidence. The attorney’s opening and closing argument parallel a writer’s introduction and conclusion. And who better to persuade in that closing argument than Jack McCoy?

For this lesson, you could use just about any closing argument from Law and Order (just search YouTube!), but this is my favorite. Its plot features high school students and a particularly entertaining guest-starring role by Kathleen Turner as the misguided defense attorney.

I tell students to watch the clip carefully, follow our hero, Prosecuter Jack McCoy, and to notice what he includes in his conclusion. There will be a recap of his major claims and evidence … but then what? We watch the clip, sometimes twice for a closer read, and then students share their findings. In his closing argument, McCoy

  • Connects his pieces of evidence together, showing how they build on one another

  • Uses a tone of authority

  • Broadens his argument past this single defendant and pushes toward more global significance — not why this one trial matters, but why the outcome of this trial matters to society, too.

After we talk about it, students try to mimic the ta-da. Some reach for the closest tool and literally mimic the mentor text by connecting the ideas of their paper to their implications in society. And often this doesn’t work seamlessly. Not every text is meant for this treatment, making for another great teachable moment when we share. Other students make the leap to greater relevant significance immediately. We share the ones that work and troubleshoot the ones that aren’t quite there yet.

Here is one student’s “closing argument” for her essay on Naguib Mahfouz’s The Thief and the Dogs:

Screen Shot 2014-01-07 at 5.55.09 PM

She did it! She synthesized her major arguments, zoomed out toward something broader, and then came to an even deeper understanding of the text.

After this mini-lesson, the hard work of critical thinking and connection-making still lies before the students. But, finding a way to point to the qualities of a strong and persuasive conclusion has allowed my students to articulate what their conclusions need and a way to begin — a drumroll and trumpet call for which to strive in their writing.

 – Rebekah

Mentor Text Wednesday: “Scary New World” by John Green for The New York Times


An Introduction to Mentor Text Wednesday

Welcome to our very first Mentor Text Wednesday!

Mentor texts are powerful in the hands of writers  — they engage our students, they motivate our students, they guide our students, they inspire our students. We know they work.

But finding mentor texts is a time-consuming task for teachers. I have spent hours skimming and dodging between texts trying to find just the right mentor text for my students — occasionally just to end up picking something simply sufficient rather than stirring.

We believe that by joining forces we can do better. We can find superior mentor texts for ours students that we can guarantee will move their writing forward, and we can save agonizing hours of searching.

To this end, we are doing a few things:

  • Launching the Mentor Text Dropbox Project – You will see a link for our Google dropbox at the top of our site! This is an ever-growing database of mentor texts that have been proven to work, organized by genre. Please feel free to search, borrow, use, share, and add your own! Let’s help one another!
  • Mentor Text Wednesdays — This will be a weekly feature in which we highlight a mentor text, tell you how we used it, provide ideas for additional skills to teach using the text, and invite you to do the same!
  • Participate in Mentor Text Wednesday on your blog! Scroll to the bottom of our page, and you will see a Mentor Text Wednesdays badge that you can post on your own blog and share along with us! Comment on our weekly post with your URL, and we can link to an even broader network of mentor text resources!

(The Inaugural) Mentor Text Wednesday

“Scary New World” by John Green, November 7, 2008, New York Times

Writing Workshop Genre: Critical Book Review

This mentor text doesn’t need much front loading from me because students can immediately access its voice and its topic.

This mentor text first succeeds because it instantly sucks my students into its web of persuasion — first, it is authored by John Green, by far their favorite young adult author. It’s as though their famous buddy, John, wrote a book review, and they are eager to hear what he has to say.

It also immediately engages students because of its subject — The Hunger Games, which they have nearly all read or seen, and, more broadly, dystopian young adult literature, which they are all reading. Another wonderful benefit of using this mentor text has been the interest it generates to read the other text reviewed, Susan Beth Pfeffer’s The Dead and the Gone! It’s a mentor text and book talk in one!

How I Use It: 

I use this as my first mentor text of the unit, paired with a book report of The Hunger Games. Students read the book report and then read Green’s review.  In groups, students make a list of the differences they notice, which we then share out and compile into one class chart: Book Report vs. Book Review.

They pretty much figure out that book reviews have a lot more than just summary. 🙂

Then, we go back in with highlighters. With their groups, students highlight plot summary in one color and everything else in another color. I want them to be able to easily see proportions in the text — the balance between the amount of summary and the amount of analysis, connection, and opinion.

Some Other Possibilities: 

  • How to write concise plot summary
  • How to write about theme
  • Giving a balanced opinion
  • Comparing and contrasting similar texts

What else would you teach with this text? Leave a comment with your ideas!


The Fifth Pillar of Writing Workshop

Lucy Calkins says that kids “need to see their work reach other readers.”

This explains why I spent much of winter break planning and writing posts for the new blog, checking blog stats, and refreshing my Twitter feed. Have my words reached anyone? Have they made a difference?

A blogging neophyte, I had almost forgotten how good it feels to know that someone is listening.

Human beings crave attention, hunger for an audience, yearn for feedback… and even though we may bring excitement and passion and craft to writing instruction, when we fail to provide students with opportunities for publication, we are doing them a major disservice. Let’s face it, when your primary audience is your English teacher (and possibly your dad who was kind enough to proofread your paper before post-dinner tv), the experience of writing is going to lack a certain kind of joy and meaning. Real writers need real readers.

As I participated in a tweet chat earlier in the week, watching the notifications column on Tweetdeck flitter with every new connection made, I thought to myself: I want my students to have this experience, to feel this excited about writing. To know the effects of their words on others.

In order for this to happen in our classrooms, we have to give equal weight to all five pillars of writing workshop: choice, active revision, author craft, broader visions of assessment, and publication (The Digital Writing Workshop, Hicks).

Choice lies at the center of our workshop: students discover topics in their notebooks and develop them into fuller pieces. I consistently model active revision and give students two minutes after every quick write to make their writing “a little bit better.” I could survive on a diet of teaching and talking about author craft. I let my students revise all papers until the last day of the school year, demonstrating broader visions of assessment…

But where is the sharing of writing beyond classroom walls? The hope that their words matter to someone? The proverbial retweeting of one another’s work?

While I often end class with a “share out” or golden line activity, or have students “turn and talk” about ideas, or collect favorite pieces for a class anthology at the year’s end, the opportunities my students have for sharing their work with ever-widening audiences are few and far between.

So in an effort to find and create these opportunities for my students, I forge ahead with some resolutions for 2014:

Reaching Readers Within the Classroom

Utilizing writing groups. I want my students to share in groups on a regular basis. The possibilities are limitless: read from a draft, talk about process, brainstorm, troubleshoot, revise collaboratively. As far as a ritual goes, NWP’s bless/press/address provides a good heuristic for helping students talk about their work in meaningful ways. When my students leave me in June, I want them to be able to move forward in their writing without me. So they must begin to do more of the heavy lifting that is conferencing themselves. Additionally, group conferring will build confidence and pave the way for sharing with wider audiences.

Handing over the torch. In the past, I have always found an excuse for why I don’t let students lead workshop: I don’t have a document camera. I don’t want to put students on the spot. I like to know exactly what’s on the menu. I don’t have enough time. Yet I know that I am doing a disservice to my students when I don’t let them take on more of the teaching and coaching of their peers. Conferences provide a perfect opportunity for noticing something a student is doing that is share-worthy (and it’s all share-worthy). These students can then be asked to lead with their process or writing during class the next day.

The future leaders of workshop!

Reaching Readers Beyond the Classroom

Cultivating a digital writing environment (DWE). In his book The Digital Writing Workshop, Troy Hicks notes that the methods teachers have used in the past for helping students share their writing beyond the walls of the classroom are “highly teacher dependent” (80). But with the advent of blogging, Twitter, and other social networking tools, students “now have the ability to publish their work directly to the read/write web” (80). He goes on to remind us that for digital writers “the audience is extended, and students become much more aware, as readers and as writers, of how they both share their work and respond to the work of others” (81). Our DWE will have three parts: blogging, blogfolios, and RSS feed-reading for inspiration. More to come on this experiment in future posts.

Making student processes and experiences available to all. After each genre study, students submit a paper as well as reflection notes. Click here for sample questions. Through these notes, students provide unique insights into the writing process, as well as vivid portraits of themselves as writers. Without a doubt, students would benefit from reading one another’s reflections. I’ve even toyed with the idea of making these reflections available in another medium, in a form that would allow our busy students to listen to one another “on the go” and would showcase the voice of the writer: podcasting! Podcasts could then be linked to finished papers on student blogs.

Until we create and locate opportunities for our writers to reach ever-widening circles of readers, we are only teaching the writing, not the writer. Because a true writer writes to reach.

What opportunities do you provide students to reach authentic audiences? Please respond in the comments section to share your ideas.

~ Allison

Showing-Versus-Telling & The Walking Dead

The first twenty minutes of the pilot episode of The Walking Dead is virtually silent. I hadn’t remembered that when, out of desperation and end-of-October exhaustion, I agreed to show the episode to my ninth graders on Halloween. They begged. I was weak. In a lame effort to sound educational, I grasped wildly for one of our recent mini-lessons.

“As we watch The Walking Dead, think about what we know about the world that we aren’t explicitly told. In other words, think about where the show is showing and not telling.”

The Problem

“Showing versus telling” is my instructional arch-nemesis. I teach it every year. I have some really good mini-lessons — or so I think. And still, every year, this is one of the skills that a chunk of my students have the hardest time mastering. This baffles me. It becomes a story of the writerly haves-and-have-nots, with some students mastering the skill instantly, innately.

If a student comes to my class without being an avid reader or without being a confident writer, the student still has years of story under their belt. On some level, they know that stories have action and dialogue and details. They can pick it out when they see it. They can talk about it. Yet, when it comes to translating this into their own writing, I always have the other 30% students who deeply struggle to show — and not tell — on their own.

I’ve modeled until my hands hurt. We’ve practiced: Tell me about your ride to school this morning. Now, show me your ride to school this morning. We have identified exemplars in our independent reading books. But nothing I have tried has met with more than about 70% success.

Until I gave up trying and showed an episode of a TV show.

Read the rest of this post at Talks with Teachers! 


– Rebekah