#teachwriting Chat, Tuesday, 11/3 @ 9pm EST — Teaching Analytical Writing

On Tuesday night (11/3, 9pm EST), Allison and I will be hosting #teachwriting chat. We’ll be thinking about the challenges, the necessary skills, the authentic products, and (of course) the mentor texts in teaching analytical writing.

Here are the questions:

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We hope you’ll join us for a thought-provoking conversation that impacts every writing classroom!

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Teaching Grammar a Few Craft Moves at a Time

As teachers, we’re always thinking of ways to make grammar less scary for students. Most students would say that grammar is a set of rules, so we have to work hard to undo this restrictive thinking and help them see grammar as a series of possibilities rather than limitations.

Recently I have said to my students that grammar is “a way to add detail.” It’s this and much more, of course.

In ninth grade English, we just finished a study of poetry writing. I taught minilessons on line breaks, creating music with vowels and consonants, using details, “beginning inside” (a lesson from Nancie Atwell), powerful endings, and so forth.

In the lesson on adding detail, we studied the details in the mentor poems and identified the different types of details we saw:

Details can show:

  • Size of something
  • How many
  • How something appears/Texture and color
  • The parts of something
  • Where something is located
  • How two things are related
  • What type
  • Actions

For example, in the poem “The Dugout” by Jill Bialosky, we noted in the first few lines the following details:

  • The players are shaded (appearance)
  • They are drinking Gatorade (action)
  • They are in the dugout (location)
  • They are in the dugout (where something is located)
  • They are sitting in a group (how many)
  • They are brothers, or young men (what kind/type)

We talked about how the writer gives just enough detail to introduce us to the characters of the poem, but not too much. For instance, he doesn’t tell us what color shoes they are wearing, or how their hair is styled, or what color the inside of the dugout is painted because those details are not important to the poem.

Students set out to write that day with an invitation to add details to bring color and texture and life to their poetry. But during conferences that day and later that week, some students struggled to show evidence of this minilesson when asked. Many said they wanted to add detail — they had even brainstormed some details off the page — but they were having trouble physically adding them in.

If your students have ever had this problem – great ideas but lacking the grammatical tools to articulate them – consider teaching a second lesson that gives them a few concrete techniques for incorporating their ideas.

The next day I taught a minilesson called Craft Moves for Adding Detail. I chose two craft moves that were exemplified in the mentor texts students had been working with for a few weeks. I chose craft moves I thought my students would be able to pick out and apply to their own writing, while offering a tiered approach to satisfy the various skill levels of writers in my class.

Here were the craft moves I taught:

Level 1: Prepositional Phrase: phrase that shows location

  • I was four in this photograph fishing with my grandparents at a lake in Michigan. “Fifth Grade Autobiography” by Rita Dove
  • I have heard the ocean in the city: cars against the beach of our street. “Places I Have Heard the Ocean” by Faith Shearin
  • On a sidewalk near the park a young man sat, face in hands, a friend standing helpless above him. “Last Night I Drove My Son Home” by Jim Daniels

Level 2: Participial Phrase: a phrase with an -ing or -ed verb, that describes what something is doing or how it looks

  • They like it here, shaded from the sun, drinking Gatorade in the dugout among the solitude of brothers. “The Dugout” by Jill Bialosky
  • The shining silver pierced one side and emerged, glistening, on the other. “Guilt” by Jed Chambers
  • In my bed: place of high and low tide or in my daughter’s skates, rolling over the sidewalk. “Places I Have Heard the Ocean” by Faith Shearin
  • Full moon–I could see him looking up at it, following it as I turned and we lost it to the trees. “Last Night I Drove My Son Home” by Jim Daniels

I encouraged every student to try the level 1 craft move; I challenged them to use the level 2 craft move. Before I knew it I could hear students saying, “Look, I did the level 2 move here – did you?” The word grammar never came up. Students weren’t sweating over the rules. They were playing. They were watching their writing expand and contract as they added and subtracted details in order to find the right balance.

Because I want my students to have language to describe what they see in writing and want to try in their own work, I named the two craft moves: participial phrase and prepositional phrase. But I didn’t make a big deal of the terms. I didn’t make them diagram the sentences. I simply pointed out examples, told them what they were called, and moved them into the practice of adding detail, using these tools in their own work.

If you teach one or two craft moves lessons each study, students will know as much grammar as their grandparents would like them to, but it will stick, and they will have a host of techniques to use in future writing rather than a bunch of rules to forget over time.

Craft moves lessons are good reminders for both teachers and students that grammar doesn’t have to be intimidating, threatening, limiting. Grammar doesn’t have to be something that was done to us by teachers past, but something we can bring to our writing to make it stronger. Grammar doesn’t have to happen through rote memorization of rules and labels, but instead it can happen through the simple will to make writing clearer, visual, and more memorable to our readers.

How do you keep grammar instruction simple and meaningful to writers? Please tweet us @allisonmarchett and @rebekahodell1.

Write a review, WIN a CUSTOM mentor text cluster!

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Now that Writing with Mentors is in your hands, we’d love to hear from you!

Between now and November 15, write a review of the book and post it to our book page on Amazon for a chance to WIN a CUSTOM cluster of mentor texts for you and your students!

Your review will enter you into a drawing for the mentor texts. If you win, we’ll work with you to curate a cluster that meets the interests and writing needs of your students, as well as rewards YOU with hot-off-the-press, relevant mentor texts and resources to use in your next writing unit of study!

We look forward to reading your review!

Questions? Comment in the space below or find us on Twitter @allisonmarchett @rebekahodell1.

Flipping Mentor Text Instruction Using Genius

I have a hard time narrowing down the list of mentor texts I want to use in each writing study. There always seems to be just one more amazing text that I think can instruct and inspire my students. In Writing With Mentors, Allison and I recommend 3-6 mentor texts as the ideal cluster for each study: enough to give students an array of writerly choices but not so many that they become bogged down and overwhelmed.


So what do I do with the extras? The mentor texts I’m dying to share but can’t justify
including in my cluster? I flip them!Screen Shot 2015-10-16 at 8.43.26 PM

Flipped instruction is an educational buzzword. For a long time, I simply wrote it off as Not For Me. However, as I began learning the rhythms of a new school schedule this year (one that reduces classroom face time), I started to rethink my position. I needed – and wanted – more time with my kids.  And then I read this post on flipping writing workshop. I leapt in.

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Writing Workshop Workflow: A System for Tracking Student Progress in Workshop

In the last three years I have moved from a paper system to an almost exclusively digital system in writing workshop. Finding a good rhythm in a digital environment requires just as much thought as in a paper environment. After a lot of experimentation, I think I’ve landed on a workflow that satisfies my student writers and me. This system has features that

  • allow students to receive feedback in a timely manner
  • help me keep a clear record of student submissions
  • show when I have put feedback on a student’s draft
  • give me immediate access to student writing, without having to shuffle through lots of folders and subfolders
  • put feedback on student work in the order in which it was received

Read on to find out more about this system! Continue reading

So, I quit grading …

Grades — good or bad — tend to make us do unproductive things.

Each September, when I assess my students’ first piece of writing, processed and polished, leave feedback, and return it to them, one of two things happens: students who did well give a great sigh of relief and check English class off of their Things to Worry About List; the students who did not do well become utterly defeated right from the get-go.

And neither of these mindsets is valuable to our students’ growth and learning.

The students who feel secure in their performance continue to perform, filling in the formula they have so often practiced to get the only things they care about — the grade. They already know it all — their thinking and creativity is stunted, they take no risks, as they repeat the steps that they know work.

The students who feel defeated throw in the towel — after all, even when they improve, even when they learn the skills they needed to learn, that low score will forever be in the gradebook, weighing their grade down. They are stressed — their thinking and creativity is stunted, they take no risks, as they try to figure out how to keep their head above water.

I teach both unleveled 9th grade Reading Writing Workshops and 12th grade IB English. My seniors are high achievers, and to them grades matter more than anything. And those grades tend to lure them into unproductive habits of practice and habits of mind.

As I was planning for our course this summer, I kept returning to one big goal — to make LEARNING the self-directed focus of the course rather than jumping through hoops to earn grades and get scores. How to do that? Get rid of the grades.

Now, my students do require quarterly grades — these grades need to factor into their semester grades and final grades. They need an English grade for their transcripts which will be sent to colleges.

Knowing that, at the very least, we need to arrive at a final grade for each quarter, here is what I have done:

Continue reading

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