Building Writing through Independent Reading Projects – a Follow-Up

In January, I reviewed Dan Feigelson’s Reading Projects Reimagined, and I was on fire! I couldn’t wait to take the brilliant-yet-simple idea of inviting students to track an idea of personal interest throughout a book. No more prescribed annotations! No more end-of-chapter questions! No more herding students into tightly-constructed pens of thought built on what I think is significant!

Especially with a book like The Catcher in the Rye, the whole-class novel my ninth graders were about to tackle.

I’ll tell you the end of this story upfront: independent reading projects were a huge success. I’m never going back to what I was doing before.

Here’s the rest of the story and how we walked through the first independent reading project together (chock full of goodies from my classroom for yours!):

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Books that Move Us: The Revision Toolbox (Georgia Heard)

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When was the last time you read a book that made you want to change your whole approach to teaching writing?

For me it was November, on a plane ride to Minneapolis, with Georgia Heard’s The Revision Toolbox (Heinemann, 2014) cracked open in my lap. I devoured it in a single plane ride and have been obsessing over it for months now. I’m finally getting a chance to sit down and tell you why.Screen Shot 2016-02-25 at 9.23.20 PM

60- Second Book Review

The Revision Toolbox is predicated on a simple but transformative approach to thinking about about writing: all writing is revision. Heard writes, “Revision means to have a vision of what we want our writing to be like. Real revision is inner work: clarifying what we really think and believe about an idea; getting at the heart of a story; distilling our sentences and words to best express how we feel and what we think. Revision is how writers write” (1). Even a FIRST draft represents an act of revision because the writer has rehearsed an idea in her head, turning it over and over like a small stone in the palm, until it’s a bit more polished and ready to hit the page.

With a title like The Revision Toolbox, the book promises to be chock full of strategies for helping students revise. It more than delivers on this promise. From revision checklists to quick exercises like “Refresh Your Eyes,” to suggested talking points for strategic conferences and an appendix replete with graphic organizers, the book is brimful with  use-in-your-classroom-tomorrow ideas.

But it also vibrates with big ideas and inspirational quotes. Although fitting, the utilitarian title belies Heard’s signature poetic voice that runs throughout the book. Quotes like “We are not reading to check for spelling or punctuation…but to compare the accuracy of our words with what’s in our hearts and minds” inspire with soulful wisdom.

While most of the student writing samples are from elementary school-aged writers, Heard sprinkles in some lessons and mentor texts suitable for high school writers. But this is besides the point. The philosophy that undergirds this book is timeless. I have used copious lessons from this book with my high schoolers. The lessons Heard presents naturally adjust themselves for the age group you’re working with; you’ll have to try them to see what I mean.

My Big Writing Takeaways

The whole book is special, but my single biggest takeaway is the concept of revising with different lenses. The idea is simple: introduce one lens at a time, and have the students “resee” their writing with that very specific purpose in mind. For example, on the first day, they might reread with the lens of focus and clarity, looking for ways to hone their main idea or elaborate their heart. On a different day, students might revise with the lens of language, going in search of dead words or cliche writing.

Revision lenses have changed the way my students view writing and view themselves as writers. Revision lenses turn the big, insurmountable challenge of revising into a series of possibilities that help the writer get closer and closer to the idea she is supposed to write. One at a time. Over a period of time. Revision lenses make revision concrete. Manageable. Meaningful…

I so appreciate that Heard gives us a language for talking about revision that is both utilitarian and passionate. She talks about “finding the heart” of your narrative and “cracking open words.” She encourages us to write narratives to “someone who is really there” and likens the writing of conclusions to “leaving the house.” She inspires me to use the language of love and life to teach writing.

How I Hope To Use It

After finishing the book, my first thought was, “I wish I could start the year over…” but soon this thought vanished when I realized I could start the next day and make a difference. So I did. I taught my first writing-as-revision lesson on cracking open words the Monday after NCTE. Since then, I have reframed most of my writing lessons as revision lessons. Here’s what a typical study in my workshop looked like before and after reading her book:

Typical Study Before Reading The Revision Toolbox Typical Study After Reading The Revision Toolbox
Days 1-2: Study Mentor Texts

Day 3: Generative lesson on ideas/possible topics

Day 4: Lesson on possible structure; students start to brainstorm ideas for their writing

Days 5-9 Lessons on word choice, sentence structure, and style; students begin drafting

Day 10: Students turn in rough draft; I return the next day with comments

Days 11-14 Revision/editing lessons

Day 15: Students submit final draft

Days 1-2: Study Mentor Texts

Day 3: Writing off the page/brainstorming ideas/rehearsal in the mind

Day 4: Flash draft––get a  draft down as quickly as possible

Days 5-9: Revision lessons: a different lens each day!

Day 10: Students turn in rough draft; I return the next day with praise, a possible revision focus (one lens), and an editing focus

Days 11-12: Students return to lessons/lenses as needed

Day 13: Student submit final draft

You’ll notice that our study takes less time because it’s more focused. Students produce writing on the third day of the study–but they are mentally rehearsing and revising from the start–and work throughout the remainder of the study to clarify, sharpen, and deepen those initial thoughts. Confidence improves because the flash draft is makes it messy. The writing shines because revision makes it better.

Should You Buy the Book?

If I’ve done my job here, you’ve already clicked over to Amazon or Heinemann to purchase The Revision Toolbox. But if you’re still on the fence, let me just say this:

Like Georgia Heard’s poetry, this book delivers a message that speaks to the core of our being. On the surface, if offers an approach to teaching revision. Look deeper, and it resonates on a much more personal level, reminding us that revision is not just how we write, but how we live. To borrow from the first page of Heard’s book, it’s about clarifying what we really want for ourselves and believe about ourselves. It’s about having a vision about what we want our life to be like––and living into that vision.

Find me on Twitter @allisonmarchett.



Mentor Text Wednesday: The Berlanti Opening Monologue


MentorTextWednesdayMentor Texts: Arrow Opening Monologue (Season 1)

Arrow Opening Monologue (Season 2)

The Flash Opening Monologue (Season 1)

The Flash Opening Monologue (Season 2)

Supergirl Opening Monologue

DC’s Legends of Tomorrow Opening Monologue

Writing Techniques:

  •         Creating character
  •         Writing exposition
  •         Establishing setting, mood, and tone
  •         Preparing to write in media res
  •         Brevity


Somehow, as a teacher and a parent, I find a way to watch TV sometimes. I realized recently, that almost every show that I watch has a superhero in it.

And, I realized that four of them come from the same creator. Greg Berlanti is an acclaimed writer and producer, most notable to current audiences for his work on the DC Comics shows Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow. Personally, I feel that in these shows, particularly The Flash and Supergirl, he has created some of the finest superhero storytelling on the small screen. The characters are rich, and you care about them. The action is great, and the stories are pretty strong. Things are inclusive, and though it may feel bogged down, at times, in the love lives of the spandex set, the writing doesn’t fall prey to the alpha male tropes of comic books past.

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As I was playing some catch-up on these shows after work, I realized that each of these shows had an amazingly similar opening, which I’ve taken to calling the Berlanti Opening Monologue. I had a moment, I’ll be honest, when binge-watching, when I found this annoying, but when I had the whole week’s worth of these shows to catch up on, right after the winter break in programming, I came to appreciate that introduction, reminding of the tone and spirit of the show I was watching.

Taking these into the classroom, I would show the videos of each monologue, asking the students to note the similarities and differences. The Berlanti Opening Monologue generally includes the same basic material. The hero:

  • Identifies him or herself, distinguishing between his/her secret identity and superhero name.
  • Briefly, and somewhat vaguely, references his/her powers.
  • Gives the tiniest bit of exposition, including backstory and motivation.
  • Mentions, where applicable, his/her “team.”
  • Mention, if needed, what his/her non-hero life is like.
  • In later seasons, the heroes may mention key plot arcs that impact the present day of the show.

That’s a lot in 30 seconds or so. Comparing them side by side like this, though, highlights the commonalities. As well, the differences, for fans especially, will hint at the tone of the show, which could be a neat discussion all its own. I like that they’re almost exactly the same, but different enough to be noticed. This, in my mind, is what makes them a nice mentor set.

How We Might Use Them:

  •        Characterization––My initial plan for these is to use them when we do some work with superheroes in Grade 10. I like the idea of students writing these types of monologues as they develop a superhero of their own. One of the places superhero storytelling gets bogged down is in the origin story. I’ve noticed this especially when having students create their own hero. Either they get really convoluted, and overdo the origin, or they underdo it, and skip to the action stuff they’re excited for, and we’re trying to figure out exactly who the heck Captain Knucklehead is. Given the Berlanti Opening Monologue pattern, they would need to nail down a handful of specific details – enough to establish a base for their hero to go off and have adventures, or hang around for a full origin story.
  •         Exposition––I see a lot of use for the Berlanti Opening Monologue with young writers dealing with exposition. I absolutely love the brevity of it. As a fan of these shows, I love that they condense the important stuff you need to get into a brief introduction that’s pretty much entirely exposition. Having students do this as a writing exercise would be valuable – simply put, they’d need to give you a quick blast of exposition. Who’s the character, what’s our tone, what’s the setup? Having that list of things that need to be included, capping them at a couple of sentences per item… I can see that benefiting our writers who might go mad with their pencils, while still providing a structure and plan to support those that need it to get any amount of writing done.
  •         In media res––Consider the challenge of having students write in media res. If they write their opening monologue on a separate page, then they’ve established a lot of things already. I love the opportunity that this provides to guide writers. How many of us wind up reading pieces in which our students spend a lot of time on exposition that isn’t integral to the action of the piece they’re writing? Let’s give them a frame for that, something that allows them to establish those things quickly, and that can be “edited” out of their core piece.
  •         Voice––Since they’re delivered by the actors playing these heroes, these pieces have voice. That voice does lie in the words. Barry Allen is pretty psyched to be The Flash, and Supergirl is kind of enjoying using her powers. That comes across in their opening monologues. Oliver Queen is a darker, gloomier hero, and his monologue reflects this, as does Rip Hunter’s in Legends of Tomorrow. Our writers could take cues from this, presenting their protagonist as an up, positive person, or a curmudgeon. We could even suggest to them that they try different approaches, seeing what fits for the hero they want to write. Since these monologues are brief, it could be a couple of quick writes accomplished before they get into the middle of their pieces, and discover that they want a different tone.
  •         World Building––In a previous post, I suggested the notion of students writing about the same piece of pop culture. In this case, they could all write about the same superhero. These monologues would be quite beneficial in this activity, as they would establish the world, the tone… the things we’d need to anchor our stories in the same world.
  •         Brevity––As a teacher of writing, it sounds kind of funny to be pitching brevity as something we’d teach. We spend a lot of time getting our writers to expand, don’t we? However, they need to flex both sets of writing muscles, and I think writing something that delivers a whole bunch of exposition in a short amount of time would be a good exercise.
  •         Biopics––If we take our storytelling into a digital realm, wouldn’t it be neat to have students create short biographical videos in which they capture their lives, and realities, accompanied by their own Berlanti Opening Monologue?

Television has become one of our most universal storytelling mediums. I’ve made a point of using it in my classroom when I can, as a text to be studied, and as a source of story. Now that I’ve been using the idea of mentor texts, I guess it was only a matter of time before I figured out a way to use this medium in that way too.

What other applications do you see for these monologues? Are there other shows that employ a device that we could use as a mentor text? Leave a comment below, connect with us on Facebook, or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy.


Mini Personal Essays a la The Wall Street Journal’s Soapbox Column: An In-Between Study

Students love freestyling on topics like love, jealousy, and truth, so when I discovered The Wall Street Journal’s The Soapbox column, I knew I had landed upon a great mentor text for personal writing.

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I decided to plan an in between study, a concept I borrowed from Two Writing Teachers. In between studies are great for a few reasons. First, they can break up the repetitiveness of larger studies, providing an often-needed reboot of the workshop. They also allow students to experiment with a new genre––an opportunity for “medium-stakes” writing, writing that asks a little more of students than a rough draft but isn’t as weighty as a summative assessment.

The Mini Personal Essay

Coming out of a memoir writing unit, I knew these mini personal essays would resonate with students. The column is described as a soapbox where “luminaries weigh in on topics.” These little blurbs have a little bit of everything: the first-person voice, anecdotes and personal examples, definition, and the kind of insight that makes them personal essays, not just personal narratives. They’re small — under 200 words — so we called them mini personal essays. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Rock ‘N Roll Satire

MentorTextWednesdayMentor Texts:  

Chuck Ragan to Receive Lifesaving Flannel Transplant by Steven Kowalski

Metallica Sues 8th Grader Over Hand-Drawn Logo on Notebook by JJ Handbag

Writing Technique(s):

  •         Writing satire


Like most of us, my Twitter feed is a lot of education related stuff. My other interests sneak in there too. There’s a bunch of geeky stuff, and there’s a lot of music stuff. A few weeks ago, something dropped into my feed with mentor text potential.

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Chuck Ragan, guitarist and vocalist of Hot Water Music. Image via

I listen to a lot of folk and Americana artists who used to play punk rock. One of my favorites is Chuck Ragan, who still plays with Hot Water Music, but also releases a lot of great music that is a bit more accessible. When not on the road, he’s a fishing enthusiast, and advocates a pretty simple way of life.

Which made him a good target for some satire from punk rock site The Hard Times (Site does feature some vaguely NSFW material… very punk rock.) The piece, about Ragan needing a flannel transfusion, pokes nice fun. His rootsy fashion sense, and down to earth, folksy persona make this piece work.

While chuckling at the Ragan piece, I, as many of us do, wound up clicking through the site further. The piece about Metallica made me chuckle as well. The image of the Metallica logo scrawled on a notebook felt like a flashback to my own experience, and I remember the lawsuit shenanigans of the early download debates, spearheaded by, you guessed it, Metallica.

What I like about these pieces as mentor texts is that, like good satire, they require the reader to have prior knowledge to understand, and really get the joke. The Metallica one is actually a better piece of satire, more Onion-esque in that it actually sort of sounds like something that an overly litigious band might do. Continue reading

Sentence Study to Textual Analysis — an Aha! moment

Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 3.15.13 AMIn 2014, I attended Alison and Rebekah’s presentation at NCTE in Washington, DC, and left buzzing about so much of what they shared, especially sentence studies. For reluctant writers like my freshmen, a sentence study is a great way to ease into creative writing or new sentence styles. The  thought of writing a paragraph sometimes paralyzes them, but a sentence they can handle.

As my freshmen study fiction, I’ve been challenging myself to find interesting sentences from our short stories and novels for sentence studies. Recently, a Notebook Time sentence study of a passage from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 evolved into a class-wide close reading and character analysis.

I use Notebook Time to start my classes, and Allison’s and Rebekah’s early posts at Moving Writers helped me to organize Notebook Time and keep my daily prompts varied. I began class two weeks ago with these two sentences:
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Mentor Text Wednesday: Anthology Inspiration

Mentor Text:  Pop culture anthologies, or anthologies of a thematic nature

Writing Techniques:

  •         Creative writing
  •         Fan fiction
  •         Establishing storytelling guidelines
  •         Pop culture analysis


I grew up with some pretty sweet pop culture. I’ve expressed my love for Star Wars already here, and if you’re creating something with a science fiction or superhero bent, well…you’ve probably got my attention, and will earn some of my dollars.

I can track my affinity for anthologies back to one I read a number of times as a teenager, called Shock Rock, a collection of horror stories with a rock and roll element. I’m pretty sure the promise of a Stephen King story was what drew my initial attention, but it was the idea that these were horror stories, which I loved, that were about rock and roll, which I also loved. Perfect!

It was my recent purchase of an X-Files anthology that got me thinking about anthologies as mentor texts. In many ways, they are very much the kind of thing that we do in our classrooms. An editor, in our case, a teacher, puts out a call for, or collects, a whole bunch of stories from writers, or students, that are all about the same thing. I’ve had students write stories from the perspective of another character in To Kill A Mockingbird. How far off is that from these anthologies? Continue reading

Making Time for Vocabulary Instruction that Matters

Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 2.33.31 PM.pngYears and years ago, before I had been bitten by the writing workshop bug, I became obsessed with vocabulary instruction. My school used a series of vocabulary workbooks at each grade level, and I had witnessed how that approach didn’t worked. Not for real. Not for the long term. Some students would dutifully memorize the words, earn a high score on the quiz, and forthrightly forget most of what they had learned. Many of my students would even bother — they would sort of study the words, sort of learn some of them, earn a low quiz grade, and move on with their day.

So, I did lots of reading and research — particularly of Janet Allen — and devised a series of in-depth, meaningful approaches to actually teach vocabulary so that my students learned, retained, and used new and increasingly sophisticated words.

The problem here was time. If I spent an average of 270 minutes per week with any given class, I was using about half of those minutes just on vocabulary instruction.  Reading instruction, whole-class literature, independent reading, and writing were all squeezed into the other half. My vocabulary instruction was amazing — and my students actually loved it and looked forward to it — but it was the core of my class, and that didn’t feel right either.

After diving into writing workshop with my students, I’ll be honest, I ditched explicit vocabulary instruction altogether. I didn’t know how to do it well and do it efficiently. I quoted studies that say, “Students get the best vocabulary instruction by simply reading”, and I left it at that. A third paltry solution.

Today, I am not going to give you a list of vocabulary activities — you can easily find those on your own, and there are lots of good ones out there! (Again, check out Janet Allen’s books! She is brilliant and her work is suitable for any grade level.). What I want to offer you instead is a brief look at what we know works in vocabulary instruction and a handful of  ideas for how you can build this instruction into our current writing instruction, so that students don’t simply understand the words they read but can also use them effectively to improve their writing.
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Mentor Text Wednesday: Anthology Introductions

MentorTextWednesdayMentor Texts:  

Sherman Alexie Speaks Out on The Best American Poetry 2015

Introduction to X-Files: Trust No One by Jonathan Maberry

Launching Rockets,” Introduction to The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015 by Joe Hill

Writing Techniques:

  •         Justifying editorial choices
  •         Expressing opinion
  •         Pop culture analysis
  •         Expressing thematic connections

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In Search of a More Meaningful, Effective, Enduring Way to Teach Grammar

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My whole teaching life I have been in search of a way to teach grammar that is meaningful, effective, and enduring.

I have tried bits and pieces of other people’s curricula for years––Kelly Gallagher’s Sentence of the Week, Nancie Atwell’s editing sheets and proofreading lists––but I’ve never been able to find my groove with these systems. And when I pore over student writing portfolios in June, I can see that my students have grown tremendously, but a lot of the writing is still grammar-rough (I’m using this term loosely––by grammar, I’m referring to all things grammar, mechanics, and usage). Not quite publishable. Still a few too many comma issues. Run-away sentences. And if I see one more misuse of the word their…

I know it could be better. Their writing. My instruction.

But how? I’ve tried almost everything! Continue reading