Mentor Text Wednesday: The Feature Article

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 9.55.05 AMMentor Text:

Writing Techniques:

  • Creative presentation of learning and research
  • Combining different kinds of writing
  • Writing extended pieces
  • Discussing layout and presentation



This week’s column is a bit different.

As I was working on this column recently, I was reflecting upon some of the things that I try to do in my classroom, and the things I value. Critical thinking, and a willingness to explore ideas are very important to me. As an English teacher, I feel I have the best curriculum, as it gives me a wide-open field of opportunity, and many ways to meet my outcomes – all of which I can tie back to thinking and learning.

I’ve been working quite hard lately to find ways to handle the notion of research-based writing. Generally, it becomes the role of the traditional academic essay to fulfill this need for us as teachers. Which means I get to teach something which many people bang on the table about, trumpeting about The Right Way To Write This.

I hate that. If one writes well, and with passion, then they can fit whatever standard we throw at them. I guess I’m presupposing here that you also feel that there is no Right Way To Write anything, just a way that is acceptable for each teacher or professor. I do cover academic writing, but I make it clear up front that it is for academic purposes, and that step one of any academic writing task is to learn the taskmaster’s Right Way To Write.

A strategy that I’ve been using instead is the writing of a feature article. This idea is not something I came up with in isolation. In 2014, I was lucky enough to hear Penny Kittle speak at our provincial PD day, and this was one of the ideas that she shared with us. I’ve taken her suggestions, and worked it into a version for my classes.

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 9.15.36 PM

How This Works For Me:

Creative presentation of learning and research — Idea generation is a first stage. I actually like to distance these two tasks, the research and the writing, a bit. The students are aware of the task, but I stress that generating ideas, and discovering what we want to say is it’s own task. The issue, in my opinion with so much of the research writing that we have students do, and subsequently, need to mark, is that students are too often trying to do two key tasks at once — figure out what they’re saying, and trying to say it. I simply tell them we focus on the learning first, and we’ll discuss the nuts and bolts of the writing later. We decide what we’re going to research, and begin that process. Sometimes, I give them parameters for topics, but other times, we can explore what interests us.

Combining different kinds of writing–Much of the research process is the same, and I scaffold it well. In their research, I have them try to keep in mind that they will be looking for information that helps them do three kinds of writing:

  • Informational writing – They need to share information, and help their reader understand their chosen topic. This is as close as they hew to the traditional academic essay.
  • Narrative writing – Humans are a story species. Even as we learn, we like to have a narrative to our learning. Sometimes it gives it a human face, sometimes it makes it interesting.
  • Persuasive writing – There should be a purpose for our writing, and we should be trying to pull people towards our bias.

The beautiful thing is that the students start to see the overlap between these three types of writing, and see that they support each other, as well as help the writer communicate effectively. We build focus questions, and discuss frequently how we want the writing to unfold, and what we want to communicate.

Writing extended pieces

Then, we spend some time with magazines. I keep a bin of Rolling Stone in my room, and I raid the periodicals section of our library. As they’ve been researching, I’ve been dropping articles on them all along anyway, but they need to sit, and study what happens in a feature style article. I present them with a broad range of stuff, and we discuss the key features. They get to see how the narrative, persuasive and informational writing works together, as well as seeing how visual elements are used as well. This gives not only our notes for writing, but gives us an idea of what things should look like when we’re done.

Then, we write. That process looks different for each writer, as it should. Some outline, some simply hammer it down. Some weave the three types of writing I expect to see right from the start, others write it as three separate pieces and edit it together. There’s a lot of discussion and sharing, questions and conferring. Some students need a lot of support, others just need you to unlock the classroom door. I tell them at this time to focus on creating that first draft, to get it on paper and we’ll fix it later.

Discussing layout and presentation — Invariably, there’s a panicked moment when they realize that I’m asking them to write what may be their longest piece of writing. They freak out. I generally ask for a 5-7 page piece. I’ve been working on sneaking the length of our writing pieces up across the board, but building a “do more” culture is challenging. We pull a magazine article and look at it. This chat really becomes about the layout. When we start considering images, titles, pull-quotes and sidebars, we’ve got that 5-7 pages whittled to the 3-5 page range. There are sighs of relief, and we go back into the work, focusing on augmenting the piece for layout.

This big writing task has served me well the last couple of years. Our school decided to fold a Global Issues course into English. I’ve used the Global Issues material as the source for our feature articles, having students pick something from that material as the basis of their articles. This year, it was a semester long project, and we used our Thursdays to research and write. I love this task, and have found a place for it in my Grade 11 classroom. It builds upon many things that I’ve pulled together over the years, and, in my opinion, is one of my most important projects students do in the time they spend with me.

What are other creative ways that we can have students present their research and writing? How else can magazine articles be used as mentor texts in our classrooms?

— Jay

Find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy


Teaching Shakespeare (and Literary Analysis!) with Prompt Books


Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 10.50.30 AM

Page of a Prompt Book from Drury Lane Theater production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, circa 1763, Source: Folger Digital Image Collection


This April, English teachers, Anglophiles, all buddies of the Bard will commemorate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. Museums, libraries, schools, and theater companies are marking the occasion with special events like the homecoming of the Globe to Globe tour of Hamlet, which will have performed in around 200 countries by the time the company’s journey ends; Chicago Shakespeare’s Shakespeare 400 Chicago; and the Folger Shakespeare Library of Washington, DC’s First Folio Tour, which will bring a First Folio from the library’s incredible collection to every state in the union and Puerto Rico (I’m counting the days until it reaches Wisconsin in November!).

The First Folio Tour is just one of many resources that the Folger has to share with teachers. The library also hosts some incredible professional development workshops and institutes on its campus and around the country. In the spirit of celebrating Shakespeare and writing with mentors, I’d like to share my adaptation of the prompt book, a mentor text-based approach to teaching Shakespeare, close reading, and literary analysis that I learned while attending the Folger’s 2014 Teaching Shakespeare Institute. My seniors recently completed prompt books as a final assessment for our study of Hamlet, and the results were phenomenal.

What is a prompt book?

A prompt book is a copy of a play’s script that has been cut and/or annotated by the director. You and your students can explore historical prompt books in Luna, the Folger Library’s digital image collection. Here is a link to one of the Luna images I shared with my students, and here is a link to a prompt book with directions for Hamlet and Laertes’s swordfight. You’ll notice in these examples that directors have indicated where actors should move on stage, what gestures should be made, how a line should be delivered, or which lines will be cut.  

The Assignment:

After sharing prompt book mentor texts with my seniors, I instructed them to choose a passage from Hamlet that we had not already performed in class and create a director’s prompt book for the passage. Then, I added another “layer” to the prompt book: after making their directorial decisions, students had to explain why they were making those choices (in other words, they had to articulate their analysis of the text).  I asked students to craft the prompt book electronically using tools in Google Docs; students could italicize or recolor stage directions, and they could use the comments feature or a series of paragraphs following the prompt book to explain their directorial choices. Continue reading

See You Next Saturday at #theEdCollabGathering

Screen Shot 2016-03-24 at 2.07.32 PM.png

We are over-the-moon to be joining  some amazing educators across the country at #theEdCollabGathering on Saturday, April 2nd!  It’s online! And it’s free!

Join us here at 11am EST as we share about how notebook time helps our students play, experiment, and take risks in their writing! 


Join us on Monday 3/28 for #engchat

Even though many of us experience the Sunday night blues, we always have #engchat on Monday nights to help kick off our week!

Rebekah and I hope you will join us THIS Monday, March 28 at 7PM for an #engchat discussion on teaching analytical writing. Here’s a post we wrote for the #engchat page, along with the guiding questions for Monday night’s discussion! As always, please let us know if there is something specific you would like to explore together.

Screen Shot 2016-03-25 at 12.02.53 PM

Analytical writing  is all around us — in political commentary, in TV/film criticism, in sports writing — and yet the only kind of analytical writing we teach in school is literary analysis. We all know how limiting and unsuccessful this can be. We believe there can be a better way — a way that builds students’ analytical writing skills but also builds on their passions. How can we help students use their interests and the places in which they truly are content experts to learn the universal skills of analysis?

Click here to read more on the #engchat website!

Books That Move Us: Independent Writing by Colleen Cruz

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 2.34.34 PM

This past fall at NCTE, I think startled Colleen Cruz when I gasped and, like a true fangirl, exclaimed, “Ohmygosh! Independent Writing! I read it on the plane! That book is major. REALLY major.”

She was completely lovely to me but probably surprised to hear me raving about one of her older titles. I picked up Independent Reading after reading Colleen’s new title, Unstoppable Writing Teacher, which is a gem. In it, she references the independent writing projects she undertakes with elementary school students.

“Yessss,” I thought. “That’s exactly it. The thing I want my students to be able to do. Truly independent writing.” So, I ordered a copy and took it with me to NCTE.

By the time we landed in Minneapolis, I had five pages of notes in my notebook — written edge-to-edge and up the sides. And as Allison unpacked in our hotel room, I sat on the bed and read her every one.

Independent Writing fired me up, made me want to run back to Virginia to try new projects with my students, and turned me into an independent writing project evangelist.

60-Second Book Review

Screen Shot 2016-03-24 at 9.00.44 PM.png

Colleen Cruz looked around her fourth-grade-classroom and realized that while her students were creating strong writing in their workshop studies, they were never writing entirely for pleasure. Sure, her students were becoming good writers, but they didn’t see writing as a part of their daily, personal, outside-of-school lives. They didn’t yet see themselves as writers.

So, while still teaching whole-class genre studies, Cruz began loosening the reigns and opening the possibilities, allowing students to “make or write anything they wish[ed].”

In Independent Writing, Cruz walks readers through a year in her classroom, from introducing independent writing projects, to setting up the physical classroom space to support this work, to helping students use their notebooks and study mentor authors as inspiration for their own writing. This book is FULL of charts, calendars, sample student handouts and worksheets. Like the very best professional books, Independent Writing is practical in the extreme, ready for you to pick up and implement in your classroom tomorrow.

My Big Writing Takeaways

Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Difficult Conversations

Mentor Text: from King of Plagues by Jonathan Maberry

Writing Techniques:

  • Dealing with controversial viewpoints
  • Using fiction to explore and express opinion (writing as the Devil’s Advocate)
  • Developing character
  • Creative presentation of learning and research


One of my favorite authors is Jonathan Maberry. I’ve referenced him as editor of a pair of great X-Files anthologies. If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I suggest his Rot & Ruin series for young adults at every opportunity. (Trust me, it’s genius! If your kids love zombies, turn them on to this series.) He also writes one of my favorite series for bigger kids, like me, the Joe Ledger series. The new entry in that series, Kill Switch, comes out next month. Essentially the series is about Ledger, a Jack Bauer-esque character who leads field operations for the Department of Military Sciences, an organization that deals with all kinds of crazy science fiction terrorist stuff. Great action, great writing, great fun.

Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 2.14.19 PM

Image via

The last book in the series, Predator One, featured a plot in which the bad guys managed to use drone technology, and autonomous vehicle software against us. It struck me then, that Maberry may have been using his great little action novel as a bit of a soapbox of sorts to comment on our society’s reliance on technology. As I embarked on a re-read of the series this winter, mostly to psych myself up for the new one, I realized that Maberry had peppered many such moments throughout the series. The books are frequently written form Ledger’s viewpoint. He has to rationalize many terrible things he must do, and try to makes sense of the terrible things others do. His voice, if we read it as Ledger’s or Maberry’s, shows the reader how he does that. There are actually many instances of this via Ledger, and other characters, throughout the series.

While re-reading King of Plagues, a passage struck me. In this passage, Toys, top henchman of an evil genius, and Santoro, vicious assassin serving another evil genius, discuss the nature of evil, and the idea of morality in their work. In their chat, they discuss, to compare things, the relative evils of Alexander the Great and Adolf Hitler. In short, they discuss the subjectivity of calling something evil. It is based upon comparisons, as well as the views and values that one holds.

Now, I’ve heard students making the same kinds of arguments in discussions about tricky topics. When we were studying society through literature this year, there was a lot of discussion about totalitarian regimes, such as the Nazi party. It takes a lot of confidence for students to share their thoughts. Part of this is because they’re young, and haven’t totally figured those thoughts out. I think that a writing exercise in which two characters discuss a topic is actually a strong way for students to work through these difficult ideas.

How We Might Use Them:

  •        Dealing with controversial viewpoints––In this mentor text, two characters discuss something pretty controversial. Though we, as readers, assume that these thoughts belong to the writer, that isn’t necessarily the case. This is where one of the most promising aspects of this mentor text lies for me. The students get to write in character. They can use a character’s voice and opinions to express the idea. They can ruminate, and remove themselves from it to a certain extent. One of the tricky things about young people is that they’re in flux. Their ideas are evolving, and though some are very confident, many aren’t. An idea I love about young people writing, is that their writing is a process of thinking out loud, on paper. They can try things on, and see how they fit. And ultimately, they can distance themselves from the thoughts, if they see fit, because they have written in the voice of a character.
  •         Using fiction to explore and express opinion (writing as the Devil’s Advocate)––Though Toys and Santoro are both bad dudes, they explore different sides of an issue. This exploratory element is another of this mentor text’s strengths. When we teach debate, one of the hardest things we do is to get the students to see past the opinion that they already hold. However, the act of writing this conversation would necessitate looking at a different viewpoint. Again, because it is fiction, it may be easier to do this. Their hero could write the opinion the student holds, and they could write a villain that feels otherwise. This simple act of disassociation could be key in having a student express a different viewpoint. Using a different voice than their own, that of a Devil’s Advocate, is not only a good exercise in writing, but it is a vital exercise in critical thinking.
  •         Developing character––There’s that old expression about not discussing politics and religion right? If you think of it, part of the reason that expression persists is because it is in our sharing of how we feel about certain controversial topics, we reveal aspects of our character. So, why wouldn’t we use this in our writing?

MINOR SPOILER WARNING! The character Toys struggles a bit with the morality of what is being done, and what he himself has been a part of. In contrasting him with Santoro, Maberry is able to start Toys onto what may be a path toward redemption. At the very least, Toys isn’t the worst bad guy at that table! END SPOILER

I love the notion that our writers could have a character take a stance on an issue to help establish their character. Perhaps I love the notion, because like so many things we do as teachers, this isn’t really about what shows up on the page, but the critical thinking our writers would have to do to make it happen — they need to have done enough critical thinking to know what expression of ideas would create the desired feelings about their character.

  •         Creative presentation of learning and research–– Writing is a fantastic way to express our learning. However, we sometimes do it a disservice when we tie ideas to a single kind of writing. Academic writing is often seen as the place to discuss contentious issues, and to choose and explain the sides. But looking at the mentor text, it’s clear that this piece is based upon knowledge. Maberry knows about Hitler and Alexander the Great. He’s aware of human rights violations in China, and what Confucianism has to say about them. Could our writers not do the same? Choose any hot topic, and have the students write a conversation between two people on opposite sides of it, fueling that conversation with their research. Imagine, a pro-lifer and a pro-choicer get stuck beside each other on a crowded plane, and calmly discuss the issues. Supporters of two idealistically divided political parties get trapped in an elevator at a convention. A pair of people on either side of the gun debate are stuck together at a kid’s birthday party. (Clearly, I’m aware that differing opinions don’t always mix well, since I’m trying really hard to put them into situations where they can’t have a fistfight.) I’ve made a point lately of connecting the research process to other tasks than standard academic essay info-dump.

Obviously, Maberry isn’t the first writer to have his characters have difficult conversations. However, I’m a huge fan, and it was his work that inspired me to use this type of conversation as a mentor text. Critical thinking is at the heart of much of what I do as a teacher, and Maberry’s work often gives me food for thought of my own. It would be selfish not to share it with students, wouldn’t it?

What kinds of difficult conversations do you want your students to write? What issues can they write about that would establish their characters? What other texts can you think of where a character shares their ideas in a similar way?


Find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy

On Teaching a Genre You Know Nothing About (or: an Infographic Study!)

Sometimes, no matter how good our routine, we need to shake it up. This is true in exercise; our muscles and our minds need to be surprised occasionally with a new move in order to achieve maximum results. It’s also true in writing.  And it’s true in teaching. Sometimes the very thing we need to wake up and recharge our teacher brain is to try something new, experimental, and a little bit unknown.

When my seniors recently finished studying the poetry of Wilfred Owen, none of us could face another essay, no matter how authentic or rooted in the real world of writing. They needed something else — something to re-ignite their brains, something to force new synapses to fire, something to nudge them to view literature with fresh eyes.

So, rather than writing a big paper, I assigned a genre I had never taught and knew little about — infographics!

There are so many good reasons to try infographics — they are beautiful, accessible, offer great opportunities for collaborative work, access different parts of our students’ brains. Best of all, infographic are a very authentic product of real world design and writing. As my students said, “Oh, these are everywhere!”  And they are! Open up a new tab, search “Infographics”, and you’ll see oodles.

But this was pretty terrifying to me. I am neither artistic nor extremely visual. I have no graphic design experience, and although I can tell you when an infographic is attractive and clear, I don’t really know how to define those things or tell students how to achieve them. Allison has bravely taught infographics before, so I relied heavily on her wisdom and pep talks to get me through.

Even with Allison’s help and advice, I was still nervous. Nervous like I used to be before every writing study. Nervous like I used to be before I even jumped into writing workshop — what if students asked me questions I couldn’t answer? What if I couldn’t help them? What if the products were disastrous?

Here’s what I decided: to approach the study with honesty and optimism. I confessed to my students that I didn’t know a lot about creating infographics, but we would figure it out together.

The Assignment
Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Roadrunner Rules

Mentor Text: Chuck Jones’ rules for writing Roadrunner cartoons

Writing Techniques:

  • Writing using guidelines
  • Creating guidelines for a piece of writing
  • As an analysis tool


As I’ve stated before, one of the coolest things about the ol’ Internet is the random and amazing things it pops in front of your eyeballs. This winds up being especially helpful if you’re a teacher, doubly so if you’re a teacher writing a weekly column.

A while ago, someone’s tweet brought an image of the rules that Chuck Jones, famed Warner Bros. cartoonist, had for the writing of the Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons.

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 10.49.50 AM

Image via Amos Posner on Twitter

Initially, I thought of this as a really cool thing about something I loved as a kid. Then, TeacherBrain got a hold of it, muttering something about how cool it would be to use in class.

Let’s be honest, TeacherBrain was right. How could I not use this in a classroom?!

How We Might Use Them:

  •        Writing Using Guidelines––In an earlier post, I talked about an idea similar to this, using a set of rules to guide a piece of writing within a certain universe. In this case, the rules are already written for us. I’m positive you’d win Cool Teacher of the Week if you “studied” Roadrunner cartoons, discussed these rules and wrote Roadrunner stories. When we think of our writers, especially those that intend to move on as writers, we need to be cognizant of the fact that they will continue to be faced with this type of task – needing to write a story that fits guidelines. These rules seem silly, but we learn pretty quickly that if we break them, we wind up with a story that isn’t really what it should be.

Rules serve to give structure. As I said already, they’ll hem in our wilder writers, prevent them from crossing lines, and taking their writing to crazy places that may not work. They can, however, be great supports to our struggling writers. They can serve as a checklist. A student writing a Roadrunner story will know that they need to keep the Roadrunner on the road, and that they can’t hurt the coyote too much, unless it’s in the feels! Most TV shows have teams of writers, and they have a “show bible” for this very purpose, to provide a cohesive structure to the writing a group of writers does.

  •         Creating guidelines for a piece of writing––As much as we may hate to admit it, stories need rules. If we think of our young writers, we know that there is nothing more damaging to their narratives than those random touches they want to throw in there. How many times have you seen a character suddenly have amazing abilities, for no other reason than your writer thought it would be funny? In our classroom story project, I had to remind a group of boys that their characters weren’t assassins who could just up and kill the matriarch of their small town… yet. As I mentioned in that earlier column, a great activity might be to discuss these rules, establishing what can, and can’t happen in the stories we’re about to write. Certainly, it could save us some edits in the process.

In short, if we’re all going to write in the same world, we better figure out what writing in that world means. We need to establish, as a class ideally, what our stories will be about, what can happen, and what can’t.

  •         As an analysis tool––This is a weird part of teaching writing. We need to look at writing, and figure out how it works. By looking at an established set of rules, we get an insight into how the story works.Asking why each rule exists would be a valuable task as well – what is the result in the story of each rule, and how does it contribute to the story?

Writing the rules is an activity in analysis as well. We’d have to look at, and assess the stories being told to decide what the rules are. In doing so, we’d be making some pretty big decisions about how things are done in our stories, influencing plot, setting, characterization, and obviously the action.

Again, as I finish writing this, I’m reflecting upon the potential this has in a classroom. Not only would I like to use this one in my classroom, but I’d also love to get my hands on one or two of the show bibles from some of my favorite shows for mentor text purposes too.

What other uses can you see for the Roadrunner Rules in your classroom? Are there other sets of rules that you’re aware of? Would there be value in studying these rules, and then breaking them on purpose?


Find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy


#TheEdCollabGathering: Unearthing Discovery & Play

Did you know that on April 2, Chris Lehman and the generous geniuses at The Educator Collaborative are giving away a whole day of brilliant, free PD that you can watch from home in your jammies? 

We would love to have you join Allison and me from 11-12pm as we talk about bringing play back to the secondary English classroom through Notebook Time.  Here’s a post we wrote for The Educator Collaborative and a little bit of what you can expect in our session! 

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 8.21.15 PM.pngEvery year, on the first day of school, we end class by handing a Post-It note to each student and inviting them to pose an anonymous question — about our class, about our outside-of-school lives, about us as teachers, about anything they would like.

They are timid at first, wondering if the free and open invitation is real. Then, after a few moments, they begin pouring out their wonderings. And many of these wonderings are fears:

“How much writing will we do this year?”

“Are you a hard grader?”

“Will writing count as a big portion of our grade in this class?”

“How do you want me to write?”

“What kind of writing do you like?”

Somehow, somewhere in their education, they have learned that writing has a formula that is regulated by a series of invisible checklists. They have learned that writing is black or white, right or wrong. And they have learned that those metrics change teacher to teacher.

And have you read the writing by these same students? It’s careful. Strategic. Stilted. Lifeless. Inauthentic.

This isn’t what we want for our student writers. We want them to be daring explorers and brave pioneers of their own experiences and ideas. We want them to take on new territory, experiment with words, even take a risk that doesn’t pan out every once in awhile.  In A Writer Teaches Writing, Donald Murray asserts that “behind each writing purpose is the secret excitement of discovery: the word, the line, the sentence, the page that achieves its own life and its own meaning. The first responsibility of the writing teacher is to [help students] experience this essential surprise” (8).

Read more on The Educator Collaborative Blog! 

No Writer Left Behind: How Night Writing Can Help Your Students

Young writers often wonder about professional writer’s habits––if they use a special pen or sit at a special desk, if they speak their thoughts into a recording device first.

When writers choose to create — morning, afternoon, night, in small bursts or long stretches of time — is another point of interest for young writers who are trying to develop their own habits of work.

These students may enjoying studying an infographic, like this one, that depicts writers’ habits and preferences (one section shown below).

As I study this infographic, I can’t help but wonder: What are the habits of my writers that aren’t visible in my classroom? If each of my writers could design his/her own writing space, what would it look like?

My thoughts turn to students like Ryan, who really struggles during workshop. Every sentence is a chore. Would he be more productive in another kind of room? At another time of day? (Or night?) Continue reading