Happy New Year from Moving Writers!

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2015 was a momentous year for us at Moving Writers: we published a book with Heinemann, and collected over 52,000 views on our blog!

This is all thanks to you, dear readers, for your support, your questions, and your continued interest and enthusiasm in our work. As a thank you, we are reposting our top five posts of 2015!

#1 So I quit grading… | October 2015

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In this post, Rebekah shares the story of her brave experimentation with doing away with grades altogether in her upper-level IB English class. She shares what she does in lieu of a traditional grading system, some student feedback, and the results so far. She promises another post in 2016 once she has gone gradeless for a full school year!

#2 Thinking about Mentor Texts for Literary Analysis | April 2015

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This post explores the problem of needing to teach literary analysis in a world in which literary analysis doesn’t really exist (outside academia). The solution: authentic mentor texts! In this post, we share our approach to culling mentor texts for teaching literary analysis. We cover mini mentor texts and whole mentor texts pulled from sources like The New Yorker and A.V. Club that highlight the skills our students need to write literary analysis in smart pop culture reviews.

#3 Mentor Texts for the First Week of School | July 2015


This summer we compiled posts that explored the use of mentor texts during the first few days of school. In this post you’ll find simple one-day activities for kicking off the year as well as a more in-depth project called The American Teenager Project that will move you into the first writing workshop study while teaching all of the procedures and habits your students will need for a successful year of writing.

#4 Writing Workshop Workflow: A System for Tracking Student Progress | October 2015

Submission Form

Submission Form

In this post we share a way of tracking student progress and collecting work during a unit of study using both digital and paper media.  This post contains lots of goodies — a code for tracking student progress, conference summary sheets, writing study cover sheets, and more templates to make your life easier and your workshop smoother!

#5 A Different Way to Teach Literary Analysis: A Literature-Based Analysis Study | May 2015

In this post we share a literature-based analysis study built on the poems of Seamus Heaney. This project offers a rich and exciting way of incorporating analysis into your classroom: analysis of a text, analysis of a writer’s choices, analysis of one’s own writing. The best part? No boring literary analysis essays in sight!

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Two years ago, when Rebekah and I decided to form our own two-person PLC, we had no idea it would lead us HERE. But every day we shared resources, brainstormed together, and wrote about our work.

If we could give you, our readers, anything it would be the gift of a PLC. Kick off 2016 by forming your own microPLC. Share this post with a colleague or two and commit to trying new idea in January. Then write about it!

As always, please let us know if there are topics or questions you would like us to explore at Moving Writers in the new year — leave us a comment below, find us on Facebook, or connect with us on Twitter (@rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett). We have been working on some exciting changes and additions to the blog for 2016 and are anxious to share them with you. Stay tuned for some amazing guest posts, a blog series, and more!


Allison & Rebekah

Screen Shot 2015-11-23 at 2.56.21 PMLike what you’ve read here? Check out our new book, just published by Heinemann, Writing With Mentors: How to Reach Every Writer in the Room Using Current, Engaging Mentors Texts. (Available here and here and here — wherever your holiday gift card takes you.)


Writing Explorers: 4 Ideas for Approaching Writing as Discovery in Your Class Tomorrow

Have you read Donald Murray?

In my career, I had read a lot about Donald Murray. Tons that was inspired by Donald Murray. Oodles that has flowed out of the legacy of Donald Murray, but I’m ashamed to say that until the last month, I had never read the man himself. Until Penny Kittle told me to. And, as you all know by now, I will do anything Penny Kittle says.

Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I’ve read three books in about four weeks. My mind is blown. I am bathing in his words — words that are as fresh and startling today as they were 45 years ago when he first advocated for a better way to teach writing.  Make yourself a New Year’s teaching resolution — go to the source. Read Donald Murray.

Beyond his trailblazing as a teacher of writing, Donald Murray consistently amazes me with the direct simplicity of his message. He articulates truths that I haven’t articulated for myself and much less for my students. But truths that unlock the mystery of the puzzle that is writing. Among many treasures, Murray reminded me that a writer rarely know what she wants to say and then sits down to write. Rather, the process of writing teaches the writer what he wants to say:

“For most writers the act of putting words on paper is not the recording of a discovery but the very act of exploration itself.”

-“The Explorers of Inner Space”, 1969

While this is something I have known and felt as a writer, it isn’t something I have ever offered to my students. At least not in so many words. And what encouragement this might be for them! How many of my students would be able to dive into the deep end of their thinking if they believed that they didn’t need to know what they wanted to say first? If they felt free to “explore the constellations and galaxies which lie unseen within [them] waiting to be mapped with [their] own words”?

It’s a beautiful idea.

So how do we bring this down to the ground of our classrooms? How can we help our students understand that writing is discovery in a way that changes their writing? Here are four possibilities.
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What Do You Do in the Last Days of a Writing Study?

As a writing study dwindles to an end, it can be hard to know what to do in those last few days — what minilessons your students want, whether to plan for more conferring time, how to address the range of needs at the end. Students are working toward a common deadline, but this can look like a lot of different things in one classroom: some students may be polishing their work with editing lessons while other students are furiously drafting because they changed their idea halfway through the study. Maybe a few students are done even and are looking for something new to work on. Needless to say, structuring time in the last few days of a study poses a specific set of challenges.

Last study I decided to try something new with my eighth graders to refocus the last few days and ensure they were using the minilessons inside their notebooks as they worked towards a final copy: student-made minilesson posters.

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The project is simple: put students in groups, and assign each group to one or more minilessons taught during the unit of study. Then have students give brief presentations (2-3 minutes tops) to share their poster with the class.

What I love about this project is that it costs minimal time (one and a half class periods) but has great results. While students worked on their posters, the language of all the minilessons was alive, floating around in the classroom. I heard students saying things like, “My notes say something different than yours. How should we put that down?” Or “I have a gap in my notes here — what do yours say,” or “I think we should find a better example from the mentor text.”

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As I waltzed around the classroom answering questions, I realized that I do not give my students enough opportunities to discuss minilessons after I teach them. We share notebook time, we share writing, but rarely do we share our ideas, concerns, and questions about the actual lessons. Instead, we dive right into writing and conferring, and while I am able to check for individuals’ understanding in conferences, students don’t have the chance to work through questions or seek clarification with their peers. I had no idea how valuable that experience could be until I did this activity!

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Aside from giving students a chance to talk to one another and helping each other fill in their notes while reviewing key concepts, this activity had some other benefits:

  • It helped me identify misconceptions about certain minilessons. For example, the group covering “choose your words carefully” was having trouble picking out strong words in the mentor text “Litany” by Greg Orr. They were working with the line “In the bowl, among the vegetable chunks / pale shapes of the alphabet bobbed at random / or lay in the shallow spoon.” They were confused because they didn’t see any “big” words. I was able to remind them that carefully chosen words may be “small” but sharp: concrete nouns and vivid verbs that pack a real punch. It only took a few seconds to remind them that adjectives only go so far and bigger words for the sake of using bigger words were not examples of well chosen diction.Screen Shot 2015-12-20 at 9.28.55 PM
  • Students had fun. The poster for “cut to the bone” (a Nancie Atwell lesson) was created by three boys who had a lot of fun coming up with a fake version (on the right, in red) of the mentor text “First Love” by Carl Linder to demonstrate the pitfalls of clunky writing that has not been edited for unnecessary repetition  and adjectives.Screen Shot 2015-12-20 at 9.30.36 PM
  • We gained a collection of posters to keep around the room to reference in later studies.
  • Students were closely and carefully reviewing the minilessons that would help them revise and polish their writing  — something I can’t guarantee was happening prior to this activity.

After this poster activity and mini presentations, I concluded with an activity Rebekah shared in a post last year — a simple way to check in with students and help you plan your last few lessons of a study: give each student a sticky note, and pose this question:

What do you need to meet your next deadline? What do you need more of? What are you having trouble with that I might be able to address in a minilesson?

Then have them stick their note on the board on their way out. (Responses to these questions were so much richer and more thoughtful after the mini poster project!) Study their answers and compare them with your observations during the poster project to determine what’s essential to teach to the whole group, and what can most likely be addressed in individual conferences.

What do you do in the last days of a study? How do you structure your time together? Do you “review” your minilessons or teach new ones? Leave us a comment below, find us on Facebook, or Tweet us at @rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett.

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September 2015

Available on Amazon or Heinemann!


Using Mentor Texts to Teach About the Passive Voice

Today’s post is from a guest, Kelly Pace. Kelly teaches 9th, 11th, and 12th grade English and Theory of Knowledge to students at my former school home in Hanover County, Virginia. And aren’t they lucky to have her? 

Kelly has been regularly emailing me the mentor texts she is using with her students, and this one was so interesting and answers such a common problem in student writing that I thought she should just share it directly with you! Use this as we approach the Winter Break as a little mini mentor study and rid your students’ writing of the passive voice!  Enjoy and leave Kelly some love in the comments below!

Mentor Text: “The Christmas Tree Allergy Phenomenon…”

Writing Technique:  When using the passive voice is effective (and when it’s not)

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Many people find it odd that as a teacher, I don’t own a red pen. I have a rule never to grade a student’s writing in red ink because the sea of red can be very disheartening for young writers learning the craft. I picked this up somewhere in a pedagogy of teaching writing class in grad school and since then, I have been faithful in upholding this rule. Yet, I recently realized the statements I write on my students’ drafts are a bit disheartening, focusing mainly on what not to do or what they shouldn’t’ do in their writing. Don’t put a comma here. Don’t just reiterate your thesis statement in your conclusion. Don’t use passive voice.

I have found myself recently writing this last comment regarding passive voice over and over again on my eleventh grade IB students’ drafts. When I initially addressed it, they said they had no idea they were even slipping into passive voice. I showed them what they were doing, but the next paper, an analytical essay and then subsequent in-class writing assignments, I couldn’t get past reading the passive voice. It stood out in their papers and made their writing stale, forced, and extremely lazy.

I continued my crusade against their use of passive voice, yet my students didn’t seem to be listening. Perhaps I have told them what not to do so much that I have begun to sound like the teacher in every Peanuts comic strip. I had lost my own voice in my classroom and needed to gain it back.

It was then that I realized I needed a new marketing strategy to get my students to listen. Instead of showing them when not to use passive voice, I presented reasons when it was acceptable to use passive voice.

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5 Ideas for Using “Dear Basketball” in Your Writing Class Tomorrow

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 11.39.42 AMWhen do English teachers get so lucky as to have a major NBA star validate what we do by announcing his retirement in the form of a poem?
This week, Kobe Bryant did just that — he wrote a poem entitled “Dear Basketball” and released it to the media as an announcement of his retirement. And poets and English teachers and lovers of words everywhere cheered.

We can capitalize on this, strike while the iron is hot, and help our students connect with poetry (and poetry analysis) in the real world! Here are five ideas for ways to use “Dear Basketball” in your writing curriculum tomorrow.  Continue reading

Don’t Miss a Beat: Writing Workshop with a Substitute

As flu season progresses, it’s likely you’ll be out at least once over the next few months. Leaving plans for a substitute can be stressful and time-consuming. I used to feel like I had to abandon workshop for that day because it was too complicated to explain to a sub. But with a little advance prep, and some knowledge about screencasting tools and Google forms, leaving plans for a sub is now easier and faster, and workshop can continue running smoothly. Continue reading