Mentor Text Round-Up: Year-End Lists

As I’ve trolled my Twitter feed in the days after Christmas, it seems that everyone is publishing their year-end lists — bests, worsts, most-shockings, favorites. I started thinking about what a fun mini-study this could be, especially when we return to school at the beginning of a new year and the end of a first semester of school. As Allison reminded us last week, this time of year is ripe for reflection, and we could use this genre as form for our ruminations.

A year-end list seems simple enough, but when I started looking at them with a writer’s eye, I noticed that there are actually many opportunities for craft lessons embedded within this genre. Year-end lists require an incredible amount of synthesis and are useful in helping students draw — and write about — their conclusions on a topic. They require evidence and ask the writer to give a “so what?”

Digital year-end lists also often include interesting multimodal presentation pieces — video clips, images, playlists, and hyperlinking. What an interesting way for students to engage in this kind of thinking — what do these insertions add to the text? When does a video clip work better than a still image? How can hyperlinking extend their ideas through other texts?

Your students don’t have to compose year-end lists. They could work on favorite lists — favorite movies? Favorite sports moments? Favorite mentor texts they have used in their first semester writing?  What about a synthesized, annotated list of books they have read in the first semester? A top-ten of things they have learned during semester 1 — in your class or in all of their classes combined? My students may well work on lists of Most Important Things You Should Know After Maternity Leave. Or, save this mini-study for the end of the year — perhaps for their exam writing? As a way for them to present their own writing portfolio?

Here are seven mentor texts for your year-end list studies and a couple of their most interesting features:

Continue reading


What am I doing now? How might I do it better?

My dominant emotion during the holiday season is gratitude with a lot of reflection mixed in. As I wrap gifts, bake treats for neighbors, stand in line at the the post office, assemble holiday cards, vacuum the fallen needles under the tree, my mind wanders from family to school to the new year. What am I doing now? How might I do it better?

I think it’s safe to say that my students’ dominant emotion during the holiday season (pre-winter break) is stress. As they organize their binders, prepare for upcoming exams, participate in end-of-season sporting events, shop for Christmas presents, wait for college acceptance letters, I want them to be able to pause and reflect on all they have accomplished over the past semester and all they have to look forward to in the spring. I want them to be able to describe their strengths in the middle of the year and develop goals for the new year. I want their reflections to be meaningful and lasting, not a box to check off or a list of goals to forget about. I want the questions we tend to ask ourselves in January and May to become integral to their everyday learning. What am I doing now? How might I do it better?


Image by PublicDomain Pictures used under Creative Commons lic

In an effort to bring these reflective questions to the forefront, I’ve compiled a list of five different reflection tools I have found useful in the past or have recently discovered. Some are geared towards students and others towards teachers, but every tool can be adapted for all. That’s the beauty of reflection. The questions and tools that help us look back so we can look foward are useful for everyone.

Non-traditional Portfolio Midterm Exam

My students breathe a deep sigh of relief when I handout this midterm exam guide. The exam is not much of an exam at all but rather an opportunity to synthesize, reflect, and plan for the second semester. When they read about the project, many of them perk up and emerge from their deep end-of-semester comas of exhaustion. They thank for me not asking them to cram more information into their already-overloaded brains. They are grateful to be able to make something meaningful, something that can be shared with family and friends, rather than pushed to the back corners of the brain after exams are over. Rebekah developed the exam for finals last year, and it worked so well that I decided to make it the midterm exam this year so we could get more mileage out of it and continue building the portfolio into the spring.

Now and Better Chart

Last week I went to an IB workshop in New Orleans. The chart below was offered to us at the end of the three-day workshop as a way to think about how we are currently implementing IB values in our classroom and what we can do in the future to make our IB teaching stronger.

What am I doing now?

How might I do it better?

IB teacher or not, this simple chart might help you refocus and set goals for 2015. If using with students, you can keep the chart open-ended or ask them to focus on their writing or reading lives. Students can add to this chart in different color pens throughout the year.

Top Ten Lists

The Top Ten List is actually a list of goals in disguise! This idea comes from David Letterman’s Top Ten List, a regular segment of the Late Show. You can get dozens of mentor texts from his website here.

I love this tool because it can be done at any point in the year. And it’s quick and fun! Rebekah and I like to make our top ten lists after we go to a conference or workshop (see my top ten list from the Central Virginia Writing Project Conference with Penny Kittle last November — you’ll notice I couldn’t limit it to just 10). These lists are a quick activity that force you to distill everything you’ve learned into a few bullet points. Here are a few ideas for student lists:

  1. Top Ten Things I Want to Remember as I Write
  2. Top Ten Topics I’d Like to Explore in Writing in 2015
  3. Top Ten Mini-Lessons I Want to Refer Back To
  4. Top Ten Mentor Texts To Provide Guidance and Inspiration
  5. Top Ten Words Use In My Writing

Just like Rebekah and I like to write our Top Ten lists at the end of every conference, you might ask students to write their lists at the end of every workshop, quarter, or semester.

Video Interviews

Last year Rebekah wrote a post about how we were using video interviews as an end-of-the-year reflection tool and summative assessment. Video interviews allow students to show their personality in a way they can’t on paper. You can create a list of must-answer questions and a list of optional questions from which students will pick and choose. Here is a model video interview with my personable student Julia.

A second video recorded at the end of the year could invite students to build on their midterm-responses, providing an illuminating duo of videos.

Class Growth Charts

Rebekah alerted me to this incredibly useful and versatile chart for measuring growth:

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Image by @ChristinaNosek and @mrsalew via Twitter

I’m dying to take this chart back to my colleagues and see where our collective strengths and weakness lie. As I was studying the chart, I realized it could easily be adapted for student use as well. With a few adjustments, this chart could provide a way for students to think about their growth as writers. Here’s the student-friendly version I’m imagining to help students chart writing habits:

I rarely do this I do this occasionally I do this consistently I do this in every piece of writing across genres
Use mini-lessons in my writing
Ask for teacher conference when I don’t know next steps
Read my work out loud during different stages of writing
Use peer conferencing for feedback
Write on a daily or nightly basis
Use mentor texts for guidance and inspiration
Keep my writer’s notebook up-to-date
Meet writing deadlines

Here’s another version for helping students look at their writing skills. The skills going down the first column are the skills you want students to demonstrate in all writing throughout the year. Students can use peer, teacher and self feedback to determine where their red sticker should go.

No evidence of this in my writing Some evidence of this in my writing Consistent evidence of this in my writing Copious evidence in writing across genres and pieces of writing
Incorporate vivid description of people and places
Support my claims with sufficient evidence
Give my work strong titles that forecast the message of the piece
Use strong paragraphing to organize my ideas
Vary sentence lengths and patterns in my writing
Consistently punctuate compound and complex sentences correctly
Bring voice into my writing so it sounds like me
Weave my “so what” through my writing

It might be interesting to revisit this chart at the end of each quarter. Students could use different color dots to represent where they fall in quarters 1, 2, 3, and 4.

As you spend some time this winter break planning for your second semester, you might think about using tools for sustainable reflection — the kind that lasts beyond the one activity and can serve as a useful planning and learning tool from day to day.

How do you incorporate reflection into your writing instruction? Please send us your ideas @allisonmarchett @rebekahodell1 or leave a comment below!

Happy Birthday, Moving Writers + Some BIG News!

One year ago today, we started a blog. Inspired at NCTE13, we felt compelled to join the global English teacher conversation. So, we picked a name, paid a graphic designer $5 for a logo, and hung a sign in our little corner of the Internet.

We started writing. And we have loved it. We love the conversations this blog has sparked with you. We love the way the blog has pushed our own writing. We love the way that, on occasion, the self-imposed pressure to post something new has driven us to experiment in our classrooms to exciting results. Moving Writers has made us better at everything we do.

Moving Writers has moved us.

And all this thinking and writing has propelled us into some very exciting new work. We are writing a book! Actually, we are very nearly finished writing a book for Heinemann that will be published in August 2015.  Mentoring Writers (the working title — we hope it sticks!) gives teachers an approach for using a steady flood of mentor texts from the first day of school to the last, from planning a piece of writing through its polishing and publication.  The mentor texts we use are the same as those you see featured regularly on this blog — hot-off-the-presses, just-published-this-week, relevant, and engaging.

With our FABULOUS editor, Katie Wood Ray, at NCTE14.

With our FABULOUS editor, Katie Wood Ray, at NCTE14.

We are humbled and amazed.

One year ago in our inaugural post, we posed a series of questions we hoped to explore through the blog. Below, you will see how we have started to address some of those big ideas. As you can see, there is a lot more to discuss — lots of territory for exploration, new questions to pose.  Grab a cup of coffee and spend some time looking around.

What does writer’s workshop look like in the secondary – particularly the traditional high school –  classroom?

What conditions, tools, structures, and norms help guide writers towards independence?

What works in our writer’s workshop classrooms? What doesn’t work? How can we improve our craft as educators?

How can we help students maintain control of their own ideas while guiding them as writers? (Penny Kittle)


What are the short and long term benefits of writer’s workshop?

What makes a good mentor text? Where do we find them? How do we use them? Can we enlist students to find them?


Besides editorials, commentaries, and narratives, what other genres could and should be taught to secondary students?


What would a writer’s workshop scope & sequence look like?


How do writer’s workshop and reader’s workshop speak to one another? Build off of one another?

What would it take to change the way our students see themselves as writers?


How can we develop these characteristics in our students: curiosity, clarity, self- confidence, autonomy, and mastery? (Penny Kittle)


How do we bring joy and meaning into the writer’s workshop?

Posts sharing lessons:

Posts sharing mentor texts:

From the bottom of our hearts, thank you for going on this journey with us. We can’t wait for another year of thinking, discussing, and teaching alongside you.

What do you want to discuss? What are you itching for us to explore? Leave us a comment below and find us on Twitter — @allisonmarchett and @rebekahodell1.

– Allison & Rebekah


Finding Time for Technology in Writing Workshop

I think my students would tell you that our classroom is a happy, productive place. They would also tell you that it’s predictable. Monday through Thursday, we write during notebook time, read mentor texts and take notes during the lesson, and write and confer during workshop. We do this for 46 minutes four times a week. On Friday, we read. We repeat this schedule the following week.

For a long time, I worried that students were bored. I feared they found my class plodding. I would hear them talking about the simulations they did in history or the fun activities in science and wondered if they compared those activities to workshop. Our simulation was the writing. Our fun activity was the reading. How was this for them?

I wrote on this topic last April after coming across a quote by Katie Wood Ray on the predictability of workshop. In Study Driven, she writes, “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” (2006, 110). These words we so reassuring to me then and now.

Still, I felt a little guilty. I felt guilty at technology workshops. I assumed the apps and programs they were offering wouldn’t plug into workshop without unhinging the essentials: time to write, time to confer. I followed plenty of technology blogs and was so intrigued by what they had to offer; nonetheless, I dismissed the ideas, thinking I would have to sacrifice what mattered the most. I could barely squeeze everything we needed to accomplish into a 46 minute period as it was. How could I possibly add something in?  I wanted badly to leverage technology in my classroom, but didn’t see how it would be possible.

That is until my colleague Maria introduced me to Socrative.

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(Maria rocks.)

It seemed simple enough — after all, she had explained the gist of it in an email. And Maria was doing reading workshop with her writers at the time, too. So I decided to look into it. I played around in the website a little bit, and within 20 minutes, I had a plan. A plan that I hoped would add a new dimension to my workshop without sacrificing valuable writing and conferring time.

What I Did

The next day I projected our notebook time prompt as usual. That day we were studying a sentence written by James Wood from the New York Times article “Why? The Fictions of Life and Death”:

Here he was, jumping off a boat into the Maine waters; here he was, as a child, larkily peeing from a cabin window with two young cousins; here he was, living in Italy and learning Italian by flirting; here he was, telling a great joke; here he was, an ebullient friend, laughing and filling the room with his presence.

As usual, I asked students what they noticed about the craft. Here is their list:

  • He repeats the phrase “here he was” several times
  • Each “here he was” phrase is followed by a comma and an -ing word (participle)
  • The entire thing is one sentence
  • He presents little scenes from this person’s life in chronological order
  • He does all of these things to give a broad picture of this person’s life — like a sweeping brushstroke
  • All the commas and semi-colons create a musical rhythm

Then I gave students four minutes to write their own version of this sentence. I told them to close their eyes and visualize a person they knew well, someone whom they could picture in multiple settings. I provided laminated photographs from Work and Love for students who needed more support.

Then I asked students to take out a device, go to, and choose Student Login.

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They were prompted to enter a Room Name (you have to set this up before the lesson — see here for a very basic tutorial showing how I prepared for this lesson).

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Then they were greeted by this screen:

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I asked them to carefully type the sentence they had written for notebook time. While they worked, I logged in to and pulled up the Live Results page.

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Suddenly, my screen became populated with all of their responses, and since I was projecting it, everyone was able to read the sentences as they were submitted in real time. Fingers flew across keyboards as students raced to get their sentences up on the board for all to see. For the record, I had not framed this activity as a race!

We ended up taking a few extra minutes in notebook time that day to read the submissions out loud and share in our writing reverie. It was FUN and different and meaningful and essential.

Some of the students even had the idea of supporting the writers whose sentences needed some help in the punctuation department. I quickly copied and pasted these sentences into a Word document and invited student volunteers to come to the board and use the noticings they had made during notebook time to add punctuation to the sentences.


Here are two of the sentences they made stronger with semi-colons and commas:

Here we were, playing with our action figures; here we were, going to the neighborhood pool; here we were, gradually falling off during middle school; here we are, not talking anymore.

Here he is, hanging on to his life; here he is, clutching his wound with blistered hands; here he is, watching the light fade from his eyes; here is is, listening to the chorus of war play in the background; here is here, knowing he isn’t coming home.


The Results

The energy going into the lesson that day was palpable. Students who have never volunteered to share after notebook time had shared — though anonymously — and received positive feedback on their work. We had engaged in a mechanics lesson with students up at the board assisting their peers. This small bit of technology hadn’t eaten into our workshop time at all. If anything, it had begun to eat away at the trepidation that many of my ninth graders feel about sharing out loud.

After my short but powerful bout with Socrative, I’m convinced there must be other forms of technology — apps, websites, digital tools — that could compliment the routines and structures of writing workshop without sacrificing what’s important. So now I’m on a mission to find them.

How do you incorporate technology into your workshop without forfeiting the essentials? Do you see other uses for Socrative in workshop? Please tweet us @allisonmarchett and @rebekahodell1 or respond in the comments below.

Questions from NCTE14: “How can writing workshop fit into the curriculum I’m given?”

writing-1At NCTE, Allison and I spoke to two different teachers who both shared that they want to use writing workshop in their secondary classrooms but teach in school systems with very specific curricular demands — “You must teach these novels”, and “You must do this many timed writings in response to prompts”, and “You must use this rubric to score writing six times per year”, and “You must do this many days of test prep.”  So, how can the beauty and freedom of writing workshop exist for secondary teachers in an educational world gone mad?

Our advice is this: take baby steps until the day you can go all the way.

We have been there, and even though we all know that writing workshop transforms writing and writers, it seems to conflict with the curricula designed by school boards and departments of education in so many ways.  And the answer we have heard so many times before from writing workshop advocates — “Oh, it just works” —  isn’t satisfactory.

While you may not be able to overturn the established curriculum overnight, there are ways that you can nudge the curriculum to allow room for writing workshop, too. Below are some ways that you can take baby steps toward bringing a full-fledged writing workshop into your classroom regardless of the constraints of the curriculum.

Incorporate elements of writing workshop into what you already do

It is truly a beautiful thing when all of the elements of writing workshop flow together, when students learn and love these routines, when the patterns become familiar and organic. But even without integrating every piece of workshop life, you can incorporate many of its central tenets.

Choice –  Even if your curriculum doesn’t allow you to give students free reign over what they write, you can give students some choice in nearly any writing assignment. If they have to write in a certain genre (say, persuasive writing or literary analysis), consider giving them choice of topic within that genre. (Not only will it empower and engage your students, but it will be far more interesting for you to read when it’s time to assess each piece.) If students have to practice writing to a prompt, consider giving them a choice of prompts.

QuickWrites or Notebook TimeQuickWrites and Notebook Time both help students gain fluency and playfulness in their writing. This low-stakes (really, no stakes) time for experimentation usually happens at the beginning of a class period and lasts no more than 10 minutes. A quick Google search for QuickWrites will give you lots to choose from. Additionally, check out 100 QuickWrites (Linda Rief) and My Quick Writes (Graves & Kittle).  We have also posted about how we use Notebook Time — an expanded version of Quick Writes. You can find that here.  You can add the routine of a QuickWrite or Notebook Time to the beginning of your class period, giving students a regular chance to build writing muscles.

Mini-LessonsMini-lessons are the heart of teaching (rather than assigning) writing. At a mere 5-15 minutes in length, this is an easy element to slip into your current routine. Give a brief burst of direct instruction in the aspects of good writing that you want to see in your students’ writing. (This is also a great opportunity to walk through the craft of a mentor text!) For loads of ideas for possible mini-lessons, check out Nancie Atwell’s Lessons that Change Writers.

Time for Writing – In many secondary classrooms, one of the biggest paradigm shifts when bringing in a workshop model is giving time in class for writing. This is important for so many reasons — it allows for students to try new things in their writing as soon as they learn them in a mini-lesson, it gives teachers a chance to confer with students and lend support on the spot, it builds a community of writers, it gives routine and habit to the practice of writing, it shows our writers that we value writing. (I could keep going.) It’s important, and so we give our time to it.

It is also the piece of workshop life that is most tempting to give up. After all, it’s  easy for us to say, “Okay, now go home and write for homework.” But this isn’t the same and  doesn’t yield the same quality of student work. Even without a full workshop model in place, you can give your students time during class to write and ask questions and share what they are working on. (More on actually finding the time to do this below.)

Think about what you could send home for homework instead. Reframe your thinking and eschew in-class activities in favor of time for writing — make writing the activity instead.

ConferringTruth be told, conferring was the part of workshop I was most wary of before I tried it on for size. If a student’s writing was just bad, what would I say? What if they asked me a question I couldn’t answer? What if I hurt their feelings? What if they didn’t listen to my advice?


There are whole books written on the topic of conferring with student writers, so I won’t delve too deeply into the how. What I will say is that giving our students the opportunity to touch base with us about their writing while it is in progress is a true gift — to them and to us. Writing is hard and writers need support. And when we meet regularly with our students in the messy midst of their writing, we the teachers begin to learn, too. We learn what they are already good at and where they are struggling. We learn where they need clarification, where they could use reinforcement, what they know, and where we can help.

If you can give your students some time to write during class, make the rounds. Check in on each student. Most conferences start with a very simple, “How’s it going?” or “Tell me what you’re working on.”

Find a way to fit workshop into your routine

So, where does the time for all of this come from — when there is literature that has to be taught? Tests that have to be prepped for?  You may or may not have flexibility in how you organize your classroom time, but here are some ideas that might help you:

Split your class period —  If you teach in a school with block scheduling, consider splitting your block in half. Use half of the period for literature study (including vocabulary or independent reading) and half for writing workshop. When I used to teach in a 90-minute block, I would use the first 45 minutes for literature/reading and the second 45 minutes for writing. It’s not ideal, but it’s workable. It’s also gratifying to be able to see your students meaningfully reading and writing every single day.

Split up your week — Designate two days or three days per week as writing workshop days, with the other days for literature study and reading instruction. This works well because you aren’t splitting your time or your brain. When it’s time to write, it’s time to write.

Split up your year  — This is my new favorite. Focus your energy by quarter or semester. For one stretch of time, do only literature/reading study. In the next stretch, do only writing workshop.

The Writing Workshop Blitz — This is the least ideal in some ways because the routines of workshop don’t become as enmeshed in classroom life. And so students never become as independent in the workshop as we might like them to be. However, this is probably the most realistic for you if you are beginning. Grab hold of all the structures and routines of writing workshop, and use them for one writing unit. Carve out a couple of weeks at a time and really do workshop.

If you are a newbie to workshop, we have also written a couple of posts in response to a reader’s question about how we plan for writing workshop over the course of a school year.

Let’s continue to talk about this — we love these questions. They are real,  and they are hard. Sadly, it so often feels like all of our best intentions are thwarted by the systems within which we teach. Let’s share the ways that we have found to do the very best for our students (and their writing) within these systems — how we can find joy and share joy in spite of the constraints.

Leave a comment below with tips for taking baby steps toward a workshop in your classroom or join the conversation on Twitter by using #movingwriters.