Mentor Text Wednesday: Creating Writers not Writing Automatons

MentorTextWednesdayCan we agree that we hate the five paragraph essay?

Every time I confer with a student who says, “Well, I have two body paragraphs, but I need one more”, I shudder. FIVE IS NOT A MAGIC NUMBER has become my mantra. I’m thinking about making a poster to hang in the front of my classroom.

A few months ago, Allison and I sat in a meeting in which a teacher bristled at the idea that “teaching the five paragraph essay” might not be the most productive way to substantially improve a student’s writing. In the moment, I wondered, “Why is he so upset?” When I thought about it, I knew why — he wanted a formula into which he could fit his students’ writing. A formula that he felt guaranteed success — or at least sufficiency.

It’s the same reason our students love the five paragraph essay and glom on to any template we offer them. They want a formula into which they can fit their writing with the guarantee that they will be successful — or at least sufficient. Unfortunately, this creates writing automatons not writers.

But this is the exact problem with formulas and templates, right? In offering the easy way out, we are not actually moving writers toward growth and discovery. We are teaching them how to fill in elaborate blanks, not teaching them how to truly write.

Sometimes, in spite of our best intentions, even after we have eschewed the five-paragraph essay, our use of mentor texts becomes one more formula in writing workshop.  When writing an editorial, we give our student one editorial. A brilliant one, mind you. The perfect editorial. We ask them to mark the structures, identify key features, note the tone. Now, go and do, we say.

And we do teach mini-lessons. And we do confer on those editorials. And we organize students to work in writing groups to give and solicit feedback. But, ultimately, we have offered one more template, one more formula. If we have done our job well, we will go home with a class set of editorials that have the exact same structure, the exact same tone. More than likely, we will go home with a class set of editorials that have very similar ideas. Continue reading


A Lesson for Tomorrow: Writing Like Crime Scene Investigators

I cringed as I listened to a former student explain how her teacher grades discussion.

“You have to talk three times to even be graded,” she said, swirling the last inch of iced coffee in her plastic cup. “And you can’t ask questions. Questions show that you haven’t thought something through enough to talk about it.”

I’ve been in that kind of discussion before. It moves a mile a minute, but somehow it doesn’t feel like it moves at all. Students talk in circles, offering half-formed ideas that still need to percolate.

In my head, I played devil’s advocate with her teacher:

  • What if we didn’t “force” analysis right away?
  • What if we gave students more time to collect evidence and let it percolate?
  • What if we spent more time on the brink of discovery?

Donald Murray says, “The writing act begins with the collection of the raw material of writing, information that will be arranged into meaning by the act of writing.” Continue reading

MTW: Weaving Argument and Description Together


Mentor Texts:

I used excerpts from the following reviews:

Note: Read Rebekah’s post about how she uses this mentor text to teach figurative language


In my search for resources that might help humanize the writers behind the writing we study, I discovered an interview with former New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus about what he looks for in a great piece of criticism.

In the interview, Tanenhaus lists four qualities of effective reviews: engagement, narrative drive, the weaving together of description and argument, and attention to the prose.

I love when I land upon an instructional nugget like this one–especially from the writers themselves!

Continue reading

“Writing Workshop Made Me a Writer”: A Student Spotlight

Writing workshop aims to foster independence and growth in the writing process. We teach and  draft and revise and confer in the hopes that our students will end up in a different writing space by the end of the school year.

To be honest, we can typically measure that growth in coffeespoons.

That isn’t to say that our students’ incremental progress isn’t significant — it is! — but I rarely encounter a student who has truly become a writer by June, the hesitant-in-August writer who absolutely cannot put down their pen by the end of school. This year, I have one, and I want to share her with you as a testament to the power of writing workshop.

Ari is a ninth grade standard-level English 9 student. She is enthusiastic and conscientious — a textbook “joy to teach”. She started the year as a competent writer, as you can see in the narrative scene she wrote in September, but her most recent paper, composed during our workshop on the technique of evidence, absolutely blew me away.

I asked Ari to sit down with me to talk about her growth as a writer this year and the factors that have contributed to her transformation. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Moving Past Summary in Film Analysis


Mentor Text:  “Captain America on the Potomac” by Linda Holmes for NPR. April 1, 2014.

Skill Taught: Moving past summary in film analysis


My English 9s are working on an essay  on the theme of a Pixar short film of their choosing as an entry point into the world of analytical, academic writing. The films are brief, easily accessible, and yet full of moments to pull apart and scrutinize. Plus, it’s a nice fun break in our spring countdown to the end of the year.

We covered thesis statements, structuring body paragraphs, finding copious evidence, explaining that evidence, writing introductions and conclusions. And still when I conferenced on their drafts I noticed the age old problem we all encounter when teaching this kind of writing: plot summary.

While I didn’t want to delve into the language of film criticism and camera angles, students needed help knowing what they could talk about in a film beyond the simple plot. Sure, they could identify a theme, but what should their evidence look like?

How I Used It:

I gave a brief mini-lesson on close reading a film. Students took notes on how the close reading they have done this year in printed text (based on the work of Christ Lehman and Kate Roberts in Falling  in Love with Close Reading, which I cannot recommend highly enough!) translates to the close reading that we can do on a screen.



Clearly, this is not an exhaustive list, but it gave my students a few concrete places to go in their interpretation that moved them past plot.

We then looked at Linda Holmes’ analysis of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). I love so much about this article: it’s truly analysis more than it is review, it spends much of its time focused on the film qualities of the story (particularly images), it takes something seemingly silly and reveals its potential for depth.

In short, this is EXACTLY what I want my students to do!

Students took to color-marking — looking for summary of the film’s action/plot versus analysis of film technique. The students made a number of interesting insights they could take right into their own writing:

  • “There is only one paragraph made up of one long sentence that is pure summary of the plot. It must not be that important.”
  • “The writer uses what she sees on screen to think about the theme of the movie.”
  • “This is mostly about what the movie is about, not what happens during the movie.”
  • “The writer helps us understand by making comparisons to other movies.”
  • “If we were writing about a movie with actors in it, we should list their names in parentheses beside the character they play.”

Before students moved back into their drafts, they broke into groups according to the short film about which they were writing and watched again — this time for deeper, close reading of film elements. Armed with new evidence and a better sense of direction, they began revising.


Offering Choice During Mini-Lessons

In April, in Creative Writing, we’ve taken a detour from technique-driven units of study. Students are participating in a National Novel Writing Month-inspired challenge, choosing from one of the following writing projects: 30 poems in 30 days, a novel (10,000 words minimum), a screenplay (45 pages minimum).

As the weather turns from winter to spring, everyone welcomes this opportunity to go where the wind takes them.

This change in routine, however, can present a classroom management challenge. With students writing in three different genres–one of which students are very unfamiliar with (screenwriting)–I wondered:

  • How can I best support these writers while giving them the freedom and time they need to create?
  • How can I tailor this experience to individual writers while disseminating information about genres that many writers need?

Rather than planning a month of whole-group mini-lessons, I created a rich menu of lessons from which students could choose. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Restaurant Review PLUS Interview with Writer


Mentor Text:

Wells, Pete. “Fred and Barney Would Feel Right at Home.” The New York Times. The New York Times Co. 28 Jan. 2014. Web. 7 April 2014.

Author Information:

“At the Critics’ Table.” The New York Times. The New York Times Co. 3 Sept. 2013. Web. 7 April 2014.


Driving to work this week, I had an epiphany.

Mentor text study should not be limited to the study of texts but should include the study of the mentors themselves.

Here’s what Katie Wood Ray has to offer on this topic: “In genre studies, particularly, it’s a good idea to find out as much as you can about the people behind the texts you’re reading and the kind of work they do to support their writing. If possible, you may find interviews with writers and either include them in the stack of texts for students to read, or in whole-class gatherings, you might highlight what you think are the important points from the interviews. Also, ask students to pay attention to any author’s notes or information on book jackets that might provide insight into the writers and the work they do” (128).

I had read this passage in Study Driven before, but it didn’t sink in until this week. And then the guilt hit. I use mentor texts religiously but rarely do I stop to talk about the person behind the words.

What message are we sending to student writers about writers when we talk around  authors but not about them?

In an effort to make good on Ray’s suggestion, I immediately went to work to find author information to support the text we’re currently reading in our review genre study–a review of M. Wells Steakhouse in Long Island City, Queens.

How I Used It

Students are in the “immersion” phase of genre study. We are using these questions from Study Driven to frame our reading:

  • What kinds of topics do writers address with this genre and what kinds of things do they do with these topics?
  • What kinds of work (research, gathering, reflecting, observing, etc.) does it seem like writers of this genre must do in order to produce this kind of writing?
  • How do writers craft this genre so that it is compelling for readers?

We read through the review once together.

Students then did a second draft reading in which they paid special attention to the focus questions and made notes in their margins.

Afterwards, we plotted our noticings on the board. Here is the working list that we will continue to add to and refine as we immerse ourselves in several more mentor texts:

Review (Restaurant) – Initial “Noticings”

  • Includes slideshow with images from restaurant
  • Hyperlinks to other reviews of restaurants owned by same couple
  • Introduces the concept of “the steakhouse” and sets essay up to “set apart” the new steakhouse
  • Balances unbiased information about the type of restaurant with opinionated review
  • Compares this restaurant to other restaurants
  • Talks more about the substance/food than the chefs themselves (though he does give a bit of background information)
  • Discusses about 11 dishes
  • Uses the language of food
  • Uses figurative language & comparisons
  • Covers apps, main entrees, and desserts—you feel like he’s tried everything
  • No forecasting statement—he takes us on the journey he experienced
  • Has a 3-sentence conclusion
  • Delivers a rating system at the end: atmosphere through wheelchair access
  • Runs about 3 pages
  • Includes prices
  • Has a creative, captivating title that alludes to a television show
  • Includes LOTS of detailed imagery about each dish
  • Has a star system–how do they assign stars? Are the restaurants being compared to ALL restaurants? or restaurants of their kind?

After we charted the noticings, I shared the following clips to enhance students’ understanding of the work of a restaurant critic, as well as introduce them to Pete Wells, The New York Times restaurant critic.

Video: The restaurant critics’ guide to using disguises and fake names

Video: What actually happens at the critic’s table

If you look back at the list of noticings, you’ll see that my students wondered about the rating system. I was able to show them this clip to help explain how critics assign stars.

Video: NYT restaurant critics demystify the star-rating system

Ray, Katie Wood. Study Driven: A Framework for Planning Units of Study in the Writing Workshop. Heinemann: Portsmouth, 2006.

We’ve added a new section to our dropbox project–a folder called About the Writers–where we’ll post author interviews, author notes, etc.–anything to supplement the study of mentor texts and pay homage to the writers themselves.

The Power of Flash Drafting: Less Thinking, More Writing

I am very late to the flash draft party.

It’s not a new concept. Ralph Fletcher mentions it in What a Writer Needs, and he attributes the concept to another teacher entirely. But I hadn’t heard about it until a Twitter chat last month when a group of elementary writing teachers raved about its power to jumpstart the writing process.

This isn’t something I hear a lot about in conversations centered on the secondary classroom, though. Many high school teachers may be flash-drafting; still, in my classroom, and in the classrooms of my colleagues, drafts have typically come to fruition by way of assignment (“Go home and write a draft of this paper. Bring it to class.”), by way of deadline (“I want to see at least a completed draft by Friday”), or by way of finished product (the organic flow of the workshop ultimately leading from some kind of draft to some kind of final product).

I have tried all three methods in the past, and, to some extent, all three have worked.

But in my most recent English 9 workshop, focused on the technique of evidence, I decided to take the leap and try a flash draft instead. After some initial idea generation, students spent one class period (for us, about 45 minutes) writing as much as they could and as quickly as they could. For a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with the propensity for distraction, I asked students to handwrite rather than type. If they felt like they got stuck on one idea or  needed to research something, they should simply put brackets in their paper to indicate that something is missing and keep moving forward. I assured them that our traditional mini-lessons would follow and that this would only be the junk draft — getting ideas from brain to paper. No pressure. No over-thinking. Just writing.

It’s hard to say that this alone is the thing that made the difference in our workshop. However, students spent far less time dilly-dallying, conferences were vastly more productive, and the students unanimously — unanimously — reported that writing a flash draft made their process more efficient and productive.

Here’s what some of them had to say:

Writing a flash draft at the beginning of this unit changed my process by allowing me to get my words out on paper. It didn’t matter how good the draft was, and it allowed me to see what worked well and what didn’t work well.  

After I had written my flash draft, it helped me to realize that I hadn’t had very good evidence, and I needed to switch things up a little bit. My genre and topic ended up being used in a different way, but if I hadn’t written a flash draft, I probably wouldn’t have realized it until later on.

Writing a flash draft helped me because it gave me a starting point that I wouldn’t have been able to produce by just sitting there thinking about where to start.

My writing completely changed from the flash draft to my final. I got rid of all the writing and kept the ideas.  

My flash draft and my final draft are VERY different. My flash draft was work that I didn’t like very much, so I changed my direction. My flash draft narrative began where my final narrative ends.

 This was the first time that I have tried a flash draft, and it was a complete success. I normally think too much about my first draft, but the flash draft let me just get my initial thoughts down quickly.  

I didn’t collect and read the drafts. Rather, when we returned to class, we started revising according to mini-lessons, conferencing, and meeting in writing groups for feedback. Since students were writing in myriad genres  and I hadn’t provided any mentor texts or prior guidance (and we would be focusing our workshop on a technique rather than a genre study), I didn’t really even use the flash drafts to plan instruction.

These flash drafts were just for the students.

 Giving students the freedom to get their bad ideas out, providing an immediate deadline, and making students do the writing in front of me made all the difference. We were ready to really workshop their writing during the very next class. While students still moved at their own paces, everyone had a foundation from which to grow.

Coming to Terms with the P-Word

My friends don’t understand why I love bikram yoga–the heat (105 degrees), the humidity (40%), the predictability (26 postures repeated twice).

“Don’t you get bored?” they persist.

No. In fact, the predictability of the class is one of the aspects that makes the yoga so enjoyable. Most people learn the 26 postures quickly–it just takes a few classes. Because the class has a predictable sequence, we know what to do and can enjoy a more deliberate practice because the series is so familiar. It never gets boring because our bodies are different every day, so we never know what kind of class we’re going to have. The predictability is a gift.

So when a student wrote on a course reflection a few weeks back that my English 9 class was “predictable,” you would have thought it was music to my ears.

But it wasn’t. “No one wants to be predictable,” I wailed to my husband.

I wrestled with this student’s “critique” all week. He had used the P-word.

I didn’t want to be predictable, but I couldn’t ignore the fact that I had sought comfort in our writing workshop routines day after day–and I honestly believed the students did, too. I picked up Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them, searching for wisdom in my dog-eared copy. “Surely her classroom isn’t predictable,” I thought to myself, but as I turned in for bed that night, page 33 of her book seared into my head, I couldn’t help but think that her classes, too, seemed a bit…predictable.


And I knew for a fact that Penny Kittle’s classes were far from boring. What did her classes have that mine didn’t? I was determined to find out.

In typical fashion, I fixated on this for a while–until Rebekah came to my rescue a few days later and sent me this text message:

Screen Shot 2014-03-30 at 7.37.18 PM.png

With a renewed sense of hope, I began to explore this idea of predictability in the writer’s workshop, and days later, I stumbled upon this quote in Katie Wood Ray’s Study Driven:

When teaching has a predictable rhythm to it, students recognize what’s happening and can engage with the whole process of teaching and learning much more intentionally because it is so familiar. Now, the fact that it is predictable doesn’t mean in any way that it is redundant or boring. The way you go about a study is predictable, but the content that comes from the study is anything but predictable. The teaching is “structured for surprise” (Graves 2001, 51) and it’s the promise of what you might discover together that gives both students and teachers energy for the study.

There it was on page 110 of her book. The rationale I had been searching for. Still, I felt that perhaps my classroom was missing a special ingredient. I wasn’t convinced I was structuring my classes for surprise, so I decided to compare my methods to hers.

  • At the start of a new unit of study, she immerses students in the texts she wants them to write. Check.

  • Then, once students have a sense of where they’re headed, students move into a close study of these texts. Check.

  • Students generate a whole-class list of “noticings” across texts. Here is an example of a list made during a study of feature articles in a fourth grade classroom:

(The list goes on–what an inspiring list!)

Often I generate lists of noticings with students, but sometimes I dive right in to my own pre-determined series of mini-lessons. So here’s where our methods begin to diverge.

I have a fixed set of lessons I plan on teaching. Katie Wood Ray chooses what to study from students’ noticings:

You really have two choices about how to decide what to talk about during the next days of inquiry-driven lessons: you can choose something or you can let your students choose something. I would probably recommend that you do some of both over the course of close study. You’ll want to have some say in determining what seems to have the most potential on the list of possibilities, but you want to be sure that students’ interests are honored, too. Of course, since the list is comprised mostly of their noticings, you really ensure that you are following their interests no matter who does the choosing. (132)

After reading this passage, I panicked a bit. I thought of my color-coded Google Calendar, the mini-lessons planned out for weeks. I thought of my visually pleasing rubrics–the ones I often gave to students at the beginning of a new unit of study so they had a “roadmap.”

I thought about Penny’s classroom. In her book, she talks about the qualities of genres but never presents a set of plans–a prefixed curriculum.

And then I looked back at the list of noticings those awesome fourth graders had generated–all those wonderful, creative, possibilities–and I knew what I had to do.


I realize that I have to relinquish some of the control and do a better job of honoring students’ instructional interests. Choice has always been at the heart of my writer’s workshop–but now I know that my interpretation of “choice” has been one-dimensional. My lessons have always been teacher–not inquiry–driven.

So now, with a deepened understanding of the role that possibility plays in writer’s workshop, I’m excited to dive into my next unit of study with students. My mantra!?

Embrace possibility. Possibility. The new P-word.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

~ Allison

Kittle, Penny. Write Beside Them: Risk, Voice, and Clarity in High School Writing. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2008.

Ray, Katie Wood. Study Driven. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2006.

How do you honor students’ instructional interests in your classroom? Feel free to add a comment below or find us on Twitter at @allisonmarchett or @rebekahodell1.



Mentor Text Wednesday: Teaching Students to Write Meaningful Comparisons & Contrasts


Mentor Text:  Bowman, Donna. “On the Eve of Its Finale, It’s Time to Compare How I Met Your Mother to Itself.” The A.V. Club. 30 March 2014.

Skill:  Teaching Students to Write Meaningful Comparions & Contrasts


My IB seniors are barreling toward their Big Exam. Truthfully, they have done so much heavy mental lifting in this course that the Big Exam doesn’t seem quite so daunting. Still, on one of the exam days, they will be asked to write a paper in which they consider two works that they have studied side by side.  This doesn’t scare them at all — after all, isn’t comparing and contrasting something they have done since elementary school?

It scares me, though. Because I know how challenging it can be to not just compare and contrast but to do so gracefully, with meaning and nuance.

I found this mentor text in my daily pop culture reading. I find I get far more mileage out of a mentor text that brings pop culture into the classroom. And, as Allison pointed out, some genres — particularly literary analysis — don’t have a real world corollary. Instead, we must rely on mini-mentor texts, excerpts of real-world writing that demonstrate the same analytical skills we look for in our students’ writing about literature.

How I Used It: 

I shared this article with my students in its entirety. It’s long, but they were interested since it references a show with which many of the are familiar. I asked them to read with a comparison/contrast lens — where does the writer do it? How does this writer do it? How does it confound their expectations?

When we discussed it, students immediately noticed that Bowman compares How I Met Your Mother to a litany of other sitcoms — Friends, SeinfeldThe Office, and Cheers to name a few. She also makes some unexpected comparisons — like to ER — which my students noted makes her argument all the more persuasive because it is not limited to the easiest, most obvious points of comparison.

They also picked out some clever allusions in the article — completely unexplained references to The Good Wife and Friday Night Lights — thrown in for good measure, as a nod to a well-watched and well-read audience.

After noting where we found comparisons, we looked at how Bowman structured them. First, we noticed that rather than writing lengthy summaries of each show she references, she gives clues and brief recaps to get readers on the same page. For example, when comparing the series to Friends, Bowman writes:

At its outset, no one could talk about HIMYM without talking about Friends. The connection is obvious: single young adults hanging out in New York City. Alan Sepinwall, writing about the show a few episodes into the first season, called it “the best Friends knock-off ever made, but it’s still a Friends knock-off.”

It’s simple. It incorporates quotes from experts in a sophisticated way. It doesn’t talk down to its audience.

She also often makes multiple points of comparison in a single paragraph — rather than comparing one whole show and then another, Bowman opts for the more fluid, more sophisticated point-by-point comparison.

When discussing the structure of the piece, we also talks about the unique medium of digital writing. In this piece, it allows Bowman to give her reader the opportunity for additional information if they should want it by linking to other articles.

So, what were our takeaways? How do these rules for successful TV writing translate to successful literary analysis?

  • A point-by-point comparison is far more effective than a whole-by-whole comparison
  • Unexpected (but relevant) comparisons are more effective than predictable comparisons
  • A writer should make effective references to a specific work without wasting the reader’s time explaining with lots of summary.
  • The hyperlink can translate into more traditional writing — give your reader enough information that they can do more research if they wish, but don’t feel the need to give them all of that information in the body of your paper.  This might look like a brief mention of another writer or title of note.


Did you know that you can join in on the Mentor Text Wednesday fun? Comment with a link to your Mentor Text of the week on your blog. Grab the Mentor Text Wednesday badge at the bottom of our site!  Or tag us on Twitter @rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett.