Top Ten of ’13-’14: #8

A Lesson For Tomorrow: Sentence Study

Last week Rebekah blogged about teaching students how to find and use mentor textsto increase their independence and cure their writing blues.

She posted a fantastic chart that uses a problem-solution or if-then approach to guiding students to and through mentor texts.

As her chart indicates, sometimes a mentor text is just a sentence. How many times have you watched students struggle to put their idea into a sentence? To get the first words down? Sometimes individual sentences seem to pose a greater challenge to students than the essay itself.

We can help students get started by directing them to mentor sentences and showing them how to fit their own ideas into a sentence’s framework. This is known as thepastiche technique.

Sentence Study: An Example

Last week I happened upon a great sentence from an old New York Times article written by Anna Quindlen:

Every year about this time I get the urge to buy a copybook. And some of those little rectangular pink erasers that look good enough to eat. And a whole lot of those round reinforcements, which were supposed to be pasted around the holes in your loose-leaf paper but were more often made into designs on the inside cover of your loose leaf binder.

I knew it would make for an excellent mentor sentence because 1) it offers a framework (Every year about this time I…And…And…) and 2) it packs in detail.

When studying sentences, the first thing I do is project the found text onto the board. I read it aloud twice and ask students to jot down anything they notice in their notebooks.

Here are some of the features we noticed:

  • She begins her sentences with “and”

  • The second and third sentences give specific examples of supplies she wants to buy

  • Each sentence becomes longer and more descriptive

  • She uses the second person in the third sentence to draw the reader in

  • She uses a triplet (three sentences) to convey her point

Then, I help students find the framework in the sentence and the creative parts. In this case, the framework is the idea of getting an urge to do something at a specific time of year (Every year about this time I…And…And…) The creative parts are: the specific time of year, and the things you get the urge to do. For this sentence, I asked students to brainstorm other moments or times of year that might elicit imagery and examples. Possibilities include:

  • Every Saturday morning

  • Every first day of spring

  • Every Christmas

  • Every Fourth of July

(Found in Peterson)

  • Every time I put on my basketball sneakers

  • Every time my alarm goes off

(Created by students)

Then you write in front of them, modeling the process of using and adding to the framework. Here are two examples that I wrote with different classes. You can see the edits I made in later periods (in red).

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Finally it’s time to let them go. I give students 5-7 minutes to craft their own sentences. If students need more scaffolding, have them choose one moment and brainstorm, alone or in groups, different details that describe that moment. Then they can play around with placement and rhythm within the template.

Students who finish early can revise to make their sentences a little bit better. Later, invite students to share their sentences in writing groups or pairs. Ask a few volunteers to share out.

Here’s a sentence written by my ninth grade student, Benton. I can still hear the collective gasp of awe and admiration that filled the room when he finished reading his gorgeous sentence.



Peterson, Art. The Writer’s Workout Book: 113 Stretches Toward Better Prose. Portsmouth: Heinemann. 1997.

Quindlen, Anna. “Life in the 30’s.” The New York Times. The New York Times Co., 9 Sept. 1987. Web. 10 March 2014.

What sentences have you stumbled on that will make excellent mentor texts? Please contribute to our dropbox project and add your sentences!



Top Ten of ’13-’14: #9


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 hoursskimming 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!

Top Ten of 2013-2014: #10 (with bonus material!)

Allison and I are taking some time away from the blog this summer to work on other writing projects.  We will be popping in and out periodically to share resources and new ideas as we plan for the 2014-2015 school year.

In the meantime, each Monday for the next ten weeks we will share our top 10 posts of the 2013-2014 school year as determined by number of readers! We hope that these little blasts from our blog past will inspire you as you dream about the upcoming school year!

Below is our tenth most popular post, an interview with the incredible Ari. As a bonus, you can now visit her end-of-the-year digital writing portfolio and meet her by watching her video interview!


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The Liebster Award


Thank you Dorothy of for your nomination. We are honored!

Official rules for the Liebster award:

  • List 11 random facts about yourself.
  • Answer the questions designated by the blogger(s) who nominated you.
  • Place YOUR nominations for the Liebster Award! Nominate five (or more) other bloggers who have less than 200 followers. Make sure to notify them via comment/email, etc.
  • Make up a set of questions for those nominated bloggers to answer.
  • Display the Liebster award badge on your blog!

11 Random Facts


1. When I was a few months old, the sound of my mom singing “Danny Boy” would bring me to tears, every time.

2. My husband cooks dinner for me every night during the school year. Bless his heart!

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Reader Mail, Part 2: How Do You Plan for a Year of Writing Workshop?

We love reader mail! On Monday, we began our answer to Cassie’s brilliant query. Here is the second part of our answer:

How do we build our workshops & the lessons that go in them?

When we first started writing workshop, we religiously referred to a chart on page 13 of Write Beside Them: “Writing: Increasing Skills and Learning the Habits of a Writer”. This chart gives a continuum of skills and products to move students through different types of writing during one school year.

Over the years, we’ve adapted and modified. In fact, every year we adapt and modify the order of our workshops, the genres we study, and our lessons.

In ninth grade, we generally move students through seven to eight workshops beginning with narrative/memoir and ending in literary analysis. With older students, Rebekah has done a whole year of workshops focused only on different kinds of literary analysis.  While every year is different (because we can never stop ourselves from tinkering), here’s how our 2012-2013 school years went:

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By contrast, here is what 2013-2014 looked like:

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While we’ve only begun planning for 2014-2105, some new plans will include:

  • compressing writing workshop into one semester (due to maternity leave)
  • using a continuous portfolio for assessment rather than end-of-the-year portfolios
  • integrating standards-based assessment of writing
  • adding technique-driven, rather than genre-driven, workshops
  • exploring new genres, such as humor writing, writing as gift, writing as forgiveness, etc.

As we’re planning mini-lessons for each workshop, we start with this recipe:

1 grammar/mechanics/usage skill


1 argument skill


4-5 content/organization/style skills


1 stretch skill (for extra credit)

To figure out what to teach, we study dozens of mentor texts and look for patterns across these texts on our own. While we may refer to the Common Core, school curriculum, etc. we feel that the mentors themselves are the most reliable, authentic sources of curriculum.

We don’t always know the traits of the genres we will teach, and this is what makes workshop exciting and real. We learn along with our students and create lists of noticings as we go. We also add mini-lessons based on the needs we see in student writing as we confer with them.

In terms of writing down actual plans, we like to use Google Calendar to plan units of study. It’s easy to tweak and move things around as plans change. Here is an example of the initial planning of a study of infographics:

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We write a simple phrase/trait like “Smart searching online” to help us remember what we need to plan for. Then we keep our actual mini-lessons in Google Drive folders where students can refer to them throughout the workshop. The rubrics we use to assess student writing come directly from the mini-lessons we teach; they are essentially a list of traits/features of that genre, with levels of achievement next to each trait (Mastered, Approaching, Developing, Not Present).

Finally, when thinking about the sequence for the year, we keep a few questions in mind:

1). Which genres are most accessible? These genres are placed at the beginning of the year. (The answer is almost always memoir, although Nancie Atwell has had a lot of success with poetry. This year we began with critical reviews, building on a summer reading assignment).

2). Which genres complement one another and share skills we can build on and from? These genres are placed next to one another in the year-long plan.

3). Which genres will require more practice and stamina? These genres are placed at the end of the year.

Cassie, we wish you and your colleague the best of luck. We have truly leaned on one another and grown in our teaching together over the past few years. The inspiration and strength we’ve drawn from one another, coupled with our passion for writer’s workshop, actually lead us to launching this blog in December. We know that you and your partner will do great work together! Let us know how we can help!


Allison & Rebekah

Reader Mail: How do you begin the writing workshop year?

Below is a recent email we received:

I am a second year ELA teacher with seniors from Ohio and a huge fan of Moving Writers.

After completing my first year of teaching I realized direct instruction, novel unit comprehension questions and crosswords, and assigning writing was not working in my classroom. I spent last summer totally revamping my reading instruction to incorporate more YA high interest texts to promote self-selected and independent reading and worked toward a writer’s workshop. With year two almost under my belt, I look forward with great anticipation and anxiety for once again revamping my curriculum hoping to incorporate a true workshop method in my classroom that prepares my student writers for college and career ready writing and critical thinking skills. Thinking about planning for this is very overwhelming. I’ve converted a professional acquaintance to adopt the workshop method as well, and we’re so very curious as to how you begin your year. What comes first for you and your students as you begin to set them up for success in the workshop model? How do you build the great lessons I find on Moving Writers one from another?  I’m sure so many teachers who are adopting new methods for teaching writing would also be very curious as to how to start and sustain this style of teaching and I’m wondering if it would be a great blog topic or Twitter chat opportunity.

I look forward to your input! I hope you had a wonderful school year and have a relaxing break!

– Cassie



These are wonderful questions — questions that scared us when we first jumped in to full-time writing workshop, questions we revisit every single year as we seek to improve our workshops and build student buy-in.

First, let us say this: you and your colleague are brave. Writing workshop is incredibly powerful, incredibly effective, and incredibly challenging. After four years of full workshop immersion in our classrooms, we still find that this method of teaching pushes us daily.

It’s also a surprisingly tough sell sometimes. Even though we have had writing workshop since the 1970s, and even though all research supports its effectiveness, secondary teachers in particular will still spend a lot of time explaining and justifying to their colleagues, parents, and sometimes even their administration.

It is worth it.

3290869A second thing to mention from the outset: if you have not yet read Write Beside Them by Penny Kittle, go buy this book RIGHT NOW. This is the book that converted us and made our first baby steps into the world of writing workshop seem doable.

Now, there are two big questions in your email:

1.) How do we get started in the fall?

2.) How do we build our workshops & the lessons that go in them?

We’ll tackle question #1 today:

How do we get started in the fall?

Rebekah’s Answer:

On the first day of workshop, I ask students to tell me what comes to mind when I say the word “workshop”. Often, they conjure up images of woodworking in their grandfather’s garage — it’s dusty, it’s messy, there is always at least one project in progress, tools and resources are close at hand, tinkering happens and it happens over the course of time, not all at once.

I explain how this is true in a writing workshop as well. We quickly establish that this will be an English class unlike most they have taken.

After that, in the first week, I:

  • Spend time setting up Google Docs / folders (so that we’re technologically ready to share and give feedback on documents). This post by Catlin Tucker gives a lot of great ideas for how to manage everything through Google Docs.
  • Set up the writer’s (or reader’s/writer’s) notebook and begin notebook routines (like Notebook Time)
  • Introduce reading like a writer (versus reading like a reader) & practice with familiar texts first, then unfamiliar texts. (Here is a chart to get you started!)
  • Start immersing ourselves in mentor texts for the first workshop of the year!

We see our students every day, and it typically takes me at least a week to get routines established and get started on the first workshop.

Allison’s Answer:

I really like Rebekah’s approach of beginning with a discussion about workshop, and I think I will incorporate this into my teaching next year. In the past, I have jumped into writer’s workshop without much of an introduction at all. Sometimes I think less explanation is better. I begin with the keystones of workshop: the writer’s notebook (WN)–a tangible representation of the work they’ll be doing over the course of a year–and mentors, the texts from which all lessons, writing, and discussion flows in our classroom.

To introduce the WN, I show students this homemade video, which was inspired by a video Penny Kittle made for her students. We brainstorm other uses for the notebook, and then spend time setting it up in class. I give them this handout, which details freewriting

guidelines and a way to organize the notebook. I have thought about encouraging them to decorate their notebooks with pictures, quotes, anything that inspires them–but have shied away from this activity because it feels too elementary. In retrospect, I wish I had. I want students to know from the very first class that their writing lives will revolve around this notebook–and that it belongs to them and no one else (we do not collect notebooks from students in our workshop).

The second lesson of the year centers on mentor texts and mentors. We talk about the mentors we’ve had on the field, in the classroom, at home. Then I introduce the concept of writer-as-mentor. We talk about the books we’ve read and loved and envision how we might learn even more from those writers. Finally I piggyback on this conversation and introduce the concept of reading like a reader vs. reading like a writer. Steve Peha’s work has helped me articulate the differences to students. And then we immerse ourselves in mentor texts! Last year we began with book reviews by John Green, Janet Maslin, and David Margolick. I think it’s important to use the first workshop to teach the routines of workshop, rather than introducing the routines as a separate thing. Don’t be afraid to dive in!


Resource Roundup: Mentors for Teaching Satire & Humor Writing

When people ask me if I’m excited for summer, I sound my barbaric yawp over the schoolhouses of the world–but not for the reasons most suspect.

Don’t get me wrong: I love waking up to my own internal clock and sipping on my coffee slowly. I love having time to wade through all the house projects that fell on the back burner during the school year. I love talking extra long walks with my dog and watching him chase butterflies. I love swimming in the chilly lake waters of Maine as my husband fires up the grill.

But at the risk of sounding like a total teacher’s pet, I’m going to tell you one of the reasons I really love summer:

Summer provides ample time to reflect on my teaching practice, curate new resources, develop curriculum, and read all of those books stacked next to my bed.

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2.5 Successes and a Failure

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It’s June. My students will leave my classroom this week. They hope they will be successful on their exams. I hope they will take their writer’s notebooks with them and not leave them in my room, or in a locker or, God forbid, in a nearby trashcan.

As I look back on this school year, I realize that I have never done more experimenting in my own classroom. Nor have I ever engaged in such large-scale, all-consuming, every-day professional development — through NCTE, through my reading, through blogging, through Twitter. Coincidence? I think not.

I have begun to see my class as not just the faces staring back at me during a given class period but also as a fertile ground for constant, stimulating research.

Back in December, I made some goals for the new semester awaiting me. I succeeded better in some areas than others. Here’s how it went:

Goal #1: To fill my classroom with more words Continue reading