Top Ten of ’13-’14: #4

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.

Top Ten of ’13-’14: #5

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?

The truth is that sometimes our best efforts don’t yield a student’s best work. On occasion, students (particularly our older writers) don’t meet us halfway.

The cornerstone of writing workshop is choice. While this typically translates into the choice of topic, it also means that students are given the freedom and respect to make writerly choices. Sometimes, a writer chooses not to take feedback, chooses not to revise. Now, this makes more sense if you are Hemingway than if you are a 9th grader in my English class, but,nevertheless, if we are truly embracing a workshop model, we have to content ourselves with giving our students all of the choices — including the choice not to conference with us or to ignore the suggestions we helpfully make.

And then there are those students who are just not ready for what we are offering. We all know that even in its purest forms, leveling is a joke. There are as many different levels and abilities in our classrooms as there are faces. There are students in each workshop who have mastered our skills early on and are ready for more. I use conferences to push them to deeper levels of thinking and more advanced writerly techniques.

But there are also students who just aren’t there yet. For whatever reason — cognitive, emotional, social — they can’t accept all that I’m offering.  With these students, I chant a mantra: They aren’t there yet. They aren’t there yet. They probably will get there someday.

And even today, they are doing more than they have been able to do before.

I have taught students whose daily victory was just getting words — any words in any order with no punctuation — on paper. Those successes — however small — need celebrating, too. Some writers are ready to move a mile. Others are ready to move an inch. Both are triumphs in their own right.

And there are days that I’m just not a perfect teacher. Lots of those days, in fact. There are lessons that go awry, explanations that don’t help, conferences that are lackluster. There are days when I don’t feel like pushing Kevin’s understanding and times when I am frustrated with Mary.

Sometimes, it really is on me.

I think it’s important for us to share stories like these — stories of what we consider to be our failures in addition to our successes. Too often in these public forums — our Twitter chats, blogs posts, professional development workshops —  we all come across as experts.  More than experts — we often come across as perfect. I have been discouraged  in the past when, upon asking a teaching guru how something works in her classroom, hearing, “Oh, it just works seamlessly.”

These aren’t perspectives that help.

Share your stories.  Being connected educators is a wonderful thing — transformative and invigorating — but we must connect like human educators.  Sharing not just what works, but also what is really hard. Sharing not just when you feel like the Teacher of the Year, but when you feel like you have utterly failed.
We need to share our success stories to build up the profession, to proclaim that education makes a difference in the lives of kids. But we also need to be vulnerable and share our failures to build one another up, to forge a chain of support, to hear colleagues say, “Man, I’ve been there, too. It’s okay.”


Top Ten of ’13-’14: #6

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.

How do we combat this? What do we do to ensure that our mentor texts don’t become one more fill-in-the-blank writing exercise for our students?

One thing Allison has been working on recently is trying to humanize writers by using interviews to guide and inspire students. This takes the focus off of the magical words on the page and reminds all of us that there are people behind these words who have made conscious decisions in the writing that we are reading. After all, we are trying to teach our students to make choices as writers. Real writers. Formulas and one-size-fits-all templates also ignore that real human writers lurk behind each piece. What serves the purpose of one writer doesn’t always work for another; a tone that is authentic to one writer sounds stilted in another.

Another way we can bring our focus back to writerly choices through the use of mentor texts is to give our students multiple mentors to illustrate a genre or technique. In the fall, I did a This I Believe workshop with my ninth graders. I selected six mentor texts that showed variety and were relatable to a teenage audience.

Once we read through (and listened to) all six, we went back and examined all six for the writer’s choice of topic, the writer’s tone (and shifts in tone), the writer’s structure. Students created charts to track these choices in their writer’s notebooks.

Then, since is an easy place to send students to gather their own mentor texts, I asked them to read a few more at home and select another mentor. They shared in small groups and added their insights about topic, tone, and structural choices to their charts.  Through this work, students were able to tangibly see that there are myriad right ways to write this kind of paper.

With lots of inspiration under their belts, most students were able to jump into their own authentic drafts, often combining elements they admired from several mentor texts. Those who needed additional support could still use a model we had studied, but with at least seven available mentor texts in hand, they still had to make a writerly choice of which model to follow.

Mentor texts are a wonderful thing — one of the most powerful tools in our toolbox. But like any good thing, we have to be thoughtful about how we use them. We have to subvert our natural inclinations — and our students’ natural inclinations — to use them as shortcuts and easy, interchangeable models. Emphasizing the authors behind the work and flooding our students with mentors can be a big step toward the development of real writers.


Resource Roundup: Using Evernote for Conferring

Over my years teaching in a writing workshop, I have developed scads of forms and charts in an attempt to track my conversations with students during reading and writing conferences. Binders. Whole-class charts. Individual student charts. You name it, I have spent hours in Excel creating it.

And, every year, by the spring, I have ditched it, relying on my memory and my students’ memory of what we discussed last time.

That sounds irresponsible, I know. And it probably is. While I appreciate putting the onus on my students for remembering where we left off, I should probably be 100% sure of that, too. So, I am spending some time this summer re-thinking the way I gather data on student reading and writing performance.

I’ve toyed with the idea of tracking conferences in Google Docs. Last year, Allison used Confer, which has some strengths and weaknesses. Right now, I am thinking of jumping on the Evernote bandwagon.

Here are some of the interesting things I am reading:

Using Evernote to Confer with Students from Two Writing Teachers

Student Conferences with Evernote and KustomNote from Miss Spink on Tech

Organize your @evernote account with @kustomnote from Purely Paperless

Conferring Tool #2: Evernote from The Together Group (This post talks about importing rubrics into Evernote for conferring and tagging individual students’ strengths and weaknesses!)

Conferring with Kustom Note from Ms. Pana Says


Do you have a favorite digital tool for managing conferences?  Brilliant tips for using Evernote that I should hear about? Leave a comment below or find us on Twitter @RebekahODell1 and @Allisonmarchett. 


Top Ten of ’13-’14: #7


Mentor Text:  “Better With Age” by Chris B. Brown. 30 January 2014.

Writing Technique: Supporting an argument with evidence


Truth be told, I am not a sporty girl. Athletic metaphors in the writing classroom do not come naturally to me. Thus, whenever I see one of my favorite cultural institutions write about sports, I jump on it. Because while I am not athletically-inclined, this is the native tongue of many of my students. Examples of smart sports writing can often be a persuasive mentor for these students — an entry point through which they can connect more deeply with their own writing.

Students need to be able to support an argument with evidence in many different writing genres.  In a traditional literary analysis essay, in an editorial, in a persuasive appeal, even in a memoir, students’ ideas require support. However, they often have trouble understanding what evidence looks like on the page.

So often, our students engage in what I call one-two-skip-a-few writing. Since all of the pieces add up in their heads, they assume their brilliance will automatically convey to the reader. As a result, we see a point here and a point there without the evidence necessary to connect all the dots for the reader.

The thing I adore about this mentor text is that it makes evidence visual by showing moving GIFs of football plays to support its point.


Brown’s argument centers on the factors that he believes contribute to Peyton Manning’s stunning success in his late career. Sure, Brown uses words to describe Manning’s skills on the field, but then he does something even better — he shows us what it looks like by embedding the actual play into his article.

How I Would Use It:

Rather than using this article as a top-to-bottom mentor text, I would instead lift a couple of body paragraphs to use as mini-mentor texts.

I would first provide students with a pared-down, edited version of the article — just the “introductory paragraph” (to give them context) and two of the body paragraphs. We would read it aloud together.

I would ask the students, “Based on these two paragraphs, why is Peyton Manning a great quarterback?” Now, with the exception of a few students who are very attuned to football, the body paragraphs won’t make a lot of sense by themselves. The natural follow-up question would be, “What other information do you need for this to really make sense to you?”

The answer? They need to see it. They need to see the play happen in the game to understand the writer’s argument.

This is exactly what all readers need when we read an argument — we need to actually see the play happen in order to understand it. We bring this back into their writing: when we present an argument in our writing, we have to support it with evidence. Evidence is “showing the play” to help the reader understand.

I would then project Brown’s original article — full of images, charts, and video clips of football games. We would reread the body paragraphs and talk about what the evidence — what showing the play — adds to our understanding.

In an essay of literary analysis, students need to show the play in the text that supports their interpretation. In an editorial, students need to show the plays of expert testimonials, facts, and statistics that boost their opinion. In a persuasive appeal, students need to show the play of why their issue should become important to a reader, too. In a memoir, students need to show the play of a moment’s significance in their broader story. This skill is everywhere.

While this example is striking for our athletes, it’s also a  concrete visual that every student will remember. And this can become a refrain in our classrooms, among our writing groups, in our writing conferences: “Show me the play in your writing.”

Other Possibilities:

  • This is an awesome example of multi-media writing — combining words, images, and videos!

  • Many of my student athletes like to write about games. However, as you know, the “story of the big game” gets tiresome after three, four nearly identical essays. This can be a great mentor for another place to go in sports writing — the profile of a particular player and his or her important contributions to the game.

How would you use this text in your class? What other sports mentor texts have you had success with? 

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