Mentor Text Wednesday: Mentors for Writing, Mentors for Coping

longform-13874-1400517031-5We use mentors to help students become better writers. We want these mentors to teach them and inspire them and moving their writing forward in ways that our mini-lessons and conferences alone could not accomplish.

But we also want to use mentors to help students develop a thriving and lasting writing life. If writing is how we make sense of and communicate our lives, then mentor texts can — and should — do more than simply provide templates for structure and models for powerful sentences.

Mentor texts should teach students something about how we use writing to cope with our struggles and our grief.

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The “Data” that Writing Workshop Works Part II

I was surprised to see him in the doorway of my classroom, holding a piece of computer paper.

“Steve! It’s so good to see you. How’ve you been?”

It was 3:00 on a Tuesday. I wondered why he wasn’t at practice. A star baseball player, Steve isn’t the kind of student who hangs around after school to check in with his former teachers.

But there he was.

“I wrote something today, and I thought you might like it,” he mumbled, moving gingerly towards my desk.

I pictured Steve in writer’s workshop a year ago, cursor blinking on a blank computer page.

“I’d love to. Can you read it to me?”

He stepped closer to my desk, and took a seat at the edge of a table. And he read.

And read and read and read. His memoir about surfing was full of voice. It poured out of him, and I could instantly tell why he had been excited to share it with me. It gave me goosebumps.

We talked for a bit about how the piece came to be, about his sophomore year. He was in good spirits, this young man who hadn’t always met deadlines or used workshop wisely.

Before he left, he promised to print me a copy, which he did, and delivered the next day.

That night I wondered what had compelled Steve to share his work with me–what had given him the urge after a year?

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Mentor Text Wednesday: Mentor Text Anchor Charts

All year long we have been working backwards. In our genre-driven workshop, we have always begun with a genre, figured out how it works, and searched for an idea to fit it.

But now that my students have a command of several genres and an understanding of the varying purposes and audiences of each, they are ready to work forwards–like real writers.

Rebekah wrote eloquently on this subject a few months ago, explaining how real writers chase their ideas into a genre that best suits their purpose.

So our culminating workshop is not genre-driven but technique-driven. The mini-lessons focus on the technique of evidence–a literary feature indigenous to all genres.

To jumpstart the workshop, I created a mentor text cluster–a group of mentor texts written on the same subject across multiple genres. In honor of Mother and Father’s Day, I found five texts exploring parent-child relationships. I wanted students to see that one idea can bloom across many different genres, depending on the writer’s purpose and audience. You can see this list below: Continue reading

Year-End Digital Writing Portfolio

As our students end the year, they are preparing their final assessment — a portfolio of their work this year. Writing portfolios are nothing new, but as we thought about how we should structure the portfolio and what it should include, we considered,

  • Since our students have submitted all of their work digitally this year, it makes sense for their portfolios to also be digital. It will be easier for us to grade, students will retain access to it forever (unlike notebooks that get thrown away), and we can share these links with their tenth grade English teachers.
  • Portfolios should be more than just a compilation of their finished pieces.
  • We wanted students to show where they had been and what they had learned, but we also wanted them to reflect on how they would take the writing workshop experience forward with them.

Inspired by Catlin Tucker, we decided on digital portfolios that would cover four primary domains:

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An End-of-the-Year Mentor Text Workshop


MentorTextWednesdayYou know those last two weeks of school when you feel like you’re in limbo? It’s not enough time to start another unit, and yet what to do during class while students are prepping for exams and compiling writing portfolios?

I am spending two weeks (nine, 45-minute class periods) on a workshop on mentor texts.

Huh? Haven’t you been using mentor texts all year? you may be wondering. Yes! We have! Oodles of mentor texts. Still, the longer I teach in the writing workshop model, the more convinced I am that while conferencing might be the most important element of the workshop during the school year, mentor texts are the most lasting and impactful element of the workshop overall.

You see, when students leave our classes, they might not be headed to another English class that uses the workshop model. And even if we have a beautifully aligned 9-12 workshop curriculum in our building, they will certainly encounter teachers and professors and bosses down the road who assign a paper  or memo and leave students to their own devices.   Continue reading

Encouraging Revision: Advice for Teachers from a Student Writer

In April, my returning creative writers choose from one of two projects: write a novel, screenplay or book of poems in 30 days, or revise their novel from November. Catie, a senior, was the only student who chose revision.

I wasn’t surprised. It’s hard to motivate students to revise! So I pressed her a bit, wanting to understand the reasons behind her motivation, and she agreed to guest blog for us! I am fascinated by her multimodal approach to revision–using Spotify and Tumblr as extensions of her writer’s notebook–a process she invented herself. But I was most surprised by the thing she claims has had the biggest impact on her drive to revise. Read below to find out.

The secret’s out: I’m a writer. For as long as I’ve tried fitting into one of The Breakfast Club stereotypes of the princess, jock, nerd, basket case, and criminal, through my creative writing class I’ve found that my true identifier is “the writer.” This realization occurred in November during National Novel Writing Month. My creative writing teacher, Ms. Marchetti, challenged everyone in the class to write a novel in a month. No big deal, right? Daunting, but doable. In the middle of the night, I woke up with an amazing idea for a story and cranked up the ol’ laptop to start my storytelling journey. Little did I know that this class assignment would turn into a huge chapter of my senior year in high school.

My novel, Slut and the Falcon, has been the best thing to ever happen to me. I’ve been working on it for six months—long past the original deadline. I’m so proud of myself for writing as much as I’ve written. I’ve had a ball dreaming up characters and connecting the strings of their lives together. Lately, I’ve become so engulfed in this world of writing. I feel as if I have written myself a world through this novel writing process and have no intentions of leaving. (I’m sorry, friends and family, if the fictional characters in my head recently have been more important than you to me.) Maybe it’s the optimism and encouragement of my teacher, but for some reason, something inside of me wants to make this book happen, which is why I’ve continued writing it past the deadline. The beauty of the written word is that you get to share your voice and imagination with an array of different people without actually interacting with them. It’s a pretty cool concept for an introvert like me.

When I saw my ideas go from this:





to this:

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…I realized that I simply couldn’t stop writing until my novel was finished.

When I see that I am actually capable of writing this many words, I feel like I can do anything. Once I start bringing my characters to life, I feel like I’d be letting them down if I stopped my book now.

In terms of revision, I’ve found it extremely helpful to make a timeline of each of my characters’ lives, regardless of if that information contributes to the story. Through my study in theatre, I’ve learned that you can’t accurately portray a scene if you don’t know all of the driving forces that bring your character to this exact moment. It’s important to discover their quirks and uncover their past. The more detailed I am with my timelines, the more believeable I am able to write my characters. My novel is told from three different points of view, so it is important for me to develop three distinct writing styles. What has helped me do this is deciding how much education each character has and what their academic strengths are. Although how well my characters do in school has absolutely nothing to do with the plot, the fact that I explore that facet of their lives helps me to create a voice for them that is unique and real.

Some of you may be wondering: How can a high schooler with a short attention span continue working on one project for six months and counting? Well, lovely reader, the internet has helped immensely. Essentially, it’s an extension of my writer’s notebook. I’m a very visual person, using images as my inspiration. I created a folder on my Tumblr (Pinterest would work well too) for each character of my novel. In the folders, I have pictures of clothes I think they might wear, people they look like, places they go, food they eat, anything that might trigger my mind with inspiration. I’ve also done this with Spotify, making playlists for different scenes and situations. It helps to have a song that sets the mood and tone of the scene playing while I write it in order to assure that the scenario I’m painting is not only believable, but real. When my audience is reading my novel, I want them to visualize it as if they are watching a movie, so it’s incredibly important that I write in a way that paints pictures.

My one word of wisdom is that I think what students need from teachers when they’re writing for long periods of time is constant encouragement. If I hadn’t had my creative writing teacher as my own personal writing cheerleader, I probably would have lost faith in my novel a long time ago. What inspired me to continue writing and editing was the fact that she believed in my story as well. When students think they’re good at something and they get praised for the good work that they do, they’re more likely to stick with it. This isn’t to say that teachers shouldn’t offer criticism. What’s most helpful when writing is having someone wiser and more experienced in the writing world to read your work in order to get a different perspective’s point of view. My only advice for helping students stay interested in their work is for you, as the teacher, to be genuinely interested in our work. Believe me, we can tell when you’re faking it. When we have a supporter, we’re going to keep moving forward because we don’t want to let you, or the characters we’ve created, down.

If you’re curious about my novel, here is an excerpt. For questions or for permission to make copies, please contact me at Thank you and happy noveling 🙂

Dabbling in Standards-Based Writing Assessment

Teaching writing is not for the faint-hearted.  Assessing writing is even less so.

For years, I have struggled in vain to find the perfect system — “objective” one-size-fits-all trait-based rubrics, rubrics I have created, rubrics my students have created. None ever seems to accurately measure what I see in a student’s writing. And while I have always offered my students the opportunity to revise for a brand new grade, very few do it. While I offer copious feedback, the number on the rubric is still the bottom-line for most of my kids.

It doesn’t work.

I want assessment to be one more step in moving writers forward in their craft.

After being inspired by many in my Twitter feed, I decided to try a kind of standards-based grading of writing for the last three workshops of the year. In thinking it through, I have realized that what I really want is to feel assured that my students have mastered — not just dabbled in or been introduced to — certain skills before they move to the next grade. I would like to be able to provide that information to their new teacher.

So, this is the new grading policy I developed (and sent home to parents): Continue reading