Discovering a Writing Process that Works

One of my favorites things about the end of the school year—aside from summer vacation, of course—is the opportunity to reflect on another year gone by. And as I look back on this particular year, I see many bumps in the road: lessons gone awry, students I didn’t quite reach, and material I didn’t get a chance to cover. That said, I also see my students, and I think about the relationships I was able to build, the times we’ve learned and laughed together this year—and I feel lucky to be their teacher.

As I look back at this year and the last fifteen years—I think crystal is the traditional gift for a 15 year anniversary, right?—one truth stands out. When we give students choices in their reading and writing lives, our teaching becomes more powerful. Giving students choice, in other words, doesn’t relinquish teacher control so much as it empowers student learning.

When I first started teaching, the only writing that my students ever did was literary analysis. I spent those early years, and too many subsequent ones, teaching with a 4×4 type approach, described by Kelly Gallagher as 4 major works, one each quarter, and each followed by a major (literary analysis) essay. As Gallagher points out, such an approach simply doesn’t allow for the volume of reading and writing that students need to do in order to substantially improve as readers and writers.

I’d say it also doesn’t allow us to get to know our students very well, either.  Continue reading


A Collaborative Writing Study That Will Rock Your Students’ World: Children’s Literature

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A page from ENDLESS HOURS by Jarrett W. and Andrea E.

It’s often said that writing is a solitary act. The word writer calls to mind a wooden desk, a few pens, a notebook, and a lone writer hunched over a trashcan of crumpled paper. While certainly romantic, this imagery doesn’t represent the whole truth of the writing life — writers don’t always work alone.

I think of my favorite writing professors in colleague – most of them were married to other artists with whom they frequently collaborated. Professor Spaar’s husband set her poetry to music. Professor Orr’s wife, a visual artist, depicted his poems on oversized tapestries that hung in the McGuffey Art Center. Collaboration, it seemed, was another part of the writing process – a thing writers and artists did in addition to planning and creating and revising and publishing. A place where art both began and ended.

Planning out my year, I knew I had to give my students a taste of this — an opportunity to work with other artists to create something bigger and more meaningful than anything they could do on their own.

The first thing I did was plan a collaborative study of children’s literature. As a young mom, I had already done a lot of the mentor text reading at night with my son! And lucky for me, I happen to work at a school with a very strong art program and wonderful art teachers. I knew at least one of them would be excited to collaborate.

The Study

As in all good writing studies we began with mentor texts. I selected a handful of children’s books that Katie Wood Ray calls odes, or  “books where it’s clear the author has an interest, fascination, love for a topic and crafts a text to help the reader see whatever it is through that lens.” Here are the special books we worked with:

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Our mentor texts

We studied the craft of these books, dreamed up plans for our own stories, and begin writing. Students wrote on everything from guitars to the beach to hiking and biking to tennis to the imagination!

Along the way I taught lessons on clear, engaging titles; creating voice through surprising or invented words; adding rhythm through sentence length; building “word music” with alliteration and other sounds; and using figurative language to show something familiar in a new way. We wrote, studied the mentors, conferenced like crazy, revised, wrote, and finally polished. This process took about three weeks.

The Collaboration

Once the text was set, I sent the writing to my colleague Meredith in the art department to distribute to her artists. We decided to keep the pieces anonymous so the artists would choose projects based on writing they were drawn to – not people or friends they wanted to collaborate with.


JaNiece & Kippy find out they are working together!

The day we brought our artists and writers together to announce the partnerships that had formed out of true respect for the work was as exciting as I imagine any residency match day to be!

Here’s how the rest of the collaboration went:

  • Meeting 1: Students and artists met for 40 minutes to read through the text together and talk about initial ideas
  • Artists spent the following week drawing up several prototypes, based on initial conversations
  • Meeting 2: A week later, students met again to look at prototypes, make suggestions, and ultimately discuss a plan for the illustrations

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    A page from INFINITE OCEAN by Ella T. & Millie B.

  • Artists were given a month to create the illustrations, in addition to other class projects they were working on; my writers moved forward in their next writing study
  • Meeting 3: Everyone gathered together to share artwork and discuss book layout. We shared this layout tool with students to help them decide what content would go on each page. Students then completed this template.
  • Various meetings between writers and artists  – some students met more frequently to discuss illustrations, ask for tweaks, etc.
  • Then, once the illustrations were finished, in one week’s time, my students created and published the final books in iBooks with the help of our technology integrator

You can see samples of the amazing books sprinkled throughout this post!

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A page from WINTERGREEN by Bailey H. and Whitney H.

Would I do this study again?

Without a doubt in my mind, I WILL do this study again! Here’s why:

  • This study brought out the adults in my kids

    This was a surprising find. In the first few days of the study, I thought I had made a mistake in doing this study with my 8th graders. They almost seemed too close to the years of children’s literature themselves to fully appreciate this opportunity. They began to act younger, sillier. But once we really dug into the study (about a week) — and especially when we brought in the Honors artists (juniors) — they transformed into wiser, more mature young writers who had a purpose to carry out. They were forced to rise to the maturity and experience of the best artists in our school. They wanted their writing to be just as amazing. Everything we did from that point on was filled with an incredible sense of pride. And pride can do wonders for students’ writing. It was quite beautiful — watching this evolution take place almost over night.

  • Students became published authors overnight

    iBooks is amazing! With some very basic skills, anyone can publish and sell books with iBooks Author. Students can publish hardcover books OR e-books, so cost is not an issue. They can make their books public or make their books only available to friends, family, and other people with whom they want to share it.

  • This study was the perfect precursor to the study that followed

    Following our children’s literature study, we studied children’s book reviews from The New York Times. Students chose one of the children’s book mentor texts we had been studying over the past month to review. I’m certain their reviews would have been far less informed, confident, and smart without an extensive study of the literature itself — so much so that I’m convinced of this: if we ever want students to write powerful analysis of literature, we have to teach them and inspire them to write that kind of literature first.

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A page from MOUNTAIN CLIMBERS by Liza C. and Millie B.

  • Working with visual artists strengthened the visual content of students’ writing

    Conversations with their artists brought to my writers’ attention areas in their writing that weren’t quite clear enough — parts of their book that needed more focus, more detail, better word choice. Students whose writing lacked clarity and specificity weren’t content with the artists’ prototypes. I would hear them say things like, “That’s not what I wanted,” or “That’s not what I had in mind.” My students literally had to go back to the drawing board to clarify in words what they wanted their artists to visually depict. No lesson I could teach in sensory detail and clarity of writing could match this experience.

In my next several posts, I will share another collaborative writing study I did with my 8th graders this year (nature essays), as well as my tips for creating cross-curricular writing studies, and my thoughts about why this kind of work is important in our classrooms. In the meantime, feel free to share your experiences with collaborative writing studies or other collaborative units that involve writing in your classrooms!

Allison (@allisonmarchett)



Mentor Text Wednesday: Explaining the Contents

Mentor Text: An Open Letter to the Person Who Stole My iPod: Please Let Me Explain My Music Collection by Dan Ozzi (Be aware, contains some cussin’!)

Writing Techniques:

  • Reflective Writing
  • Humour
  • Writing about music


In Canada, this past weekend was a long weekend. I did my best to shut off the TeacherBrain and enjoy it. Of course, I still checked my Twitter feed, which gave me some inspiration for this week’s post.

Though this long weekend in May signals that there is a rapidly approaching end of the year, Twitter reminded me that for many of my tweeps, the year was wrapping up. Knowing I had a post to write, and a few weeks left to plan, I got reflective while I mowed the lawn.

As luck would have it, I was listening to my iPod while I mowed, and remembered a piece that I had earmarked for possible use somewhere along the line. Dan Ozzi, who writes for Noisey, the music section of Vice wrote an open letter to the person who stole his iPod. In this open letter, he explains what the thief will find on the device, warts and all. Continue reading

Gamestorming a Setting

“San Francisco will not merely welcome you. San Francisco will give you the longest, hottest bath you have ever had. It will drape a fresh, white cotton shirt over your shoulders, and even though this shirt will be three sizes too big, it will fit you better than any shirt ever has or ever will. And once you are sitting in an overstuffed armchair that has been warmed for you by a cat, San Francisco will muss your hair.”

Augusten Burroughs, Lust and Wonder: A Memoir, pg. 12

Sue Strasser was the first to push my thinking about setting. A retired nurse who lost her husband after a long battle with Alzheimer’s, she wandered into the WNY Young Writers’ Studio one rainy April afternoon to ask a question that changed my life.

“Do you have any writing groups for adults?”

Continue reading

Newsletters – My New One-Stop Mentor Text Shop

Finding mentor texts can be hard. And time consuming.  This, we know.

Even after years of making mentor texts the fulcrum on which the rest of my writing instruction pivots, finding the right set of texts for the students in front of me can be a challenge. In Writing With Mentors, Allison and I share a list of our go-to sources for mentor texts of all kinds — a list that continues to grow and evolve as we read and teach.

But recently, I’ve discovered a whole new kind of mentor text repository. And one that comes straight to my inbox. Email newsletters.

Email newsletters — the “modern day version of the ‘newspaper on your front porch’” —  are on the rise, and there are thousands of them, appealing to every topic and audience imaginable. In this over-saturated age of digital content, the email newsletter feels almost old-fashioned, quaint, friendly. Instead of sifting through all of the Internet, newsletter editors carefully pick, choose, and sort through the noise for you, giving you the best-of-the-best as quickly as possible. It’s like a juicy email from your best friend sharing a bunch of articles she just knew you’d love. 

How’s that for “current, engaging mentor texts”?  

While you can quickly and easily get your news digested for you in popular newsletters like the Daily Pnut and The Skimm, English teachers can strategically subscribe to an array of newsletters that make our job easier by sending a quick-and-dirty round up of standout articles and essays. This has been a true innovation in my planning life. Why?

  • Email newsletters are already curated. While I still fish for mentor texts on my favorite haunts, it’s a treat to have a list of articles & essays come to me already vetted. It’s like having a part-time mentor text assistant.
  • Newsletters get me outside of my favorite haunts.  The Internet is so deep and so wide that no matter how wonderful my favorite sites are, I am bound to miss things. Newsletters have a tendency to push my own reading boundaries, introducing me to new sites and new writers that I might not otherwise encounter. Some of these make it to my favorites list and become a regular stream of mentor texts.
  • Newsletters can provide a launching pad for building a cluster of texts. On occasion, a newsletter will give you a cluster of mentor texts in an single issue. But, more often, the Internet wormholes I get pulled into — a new site full of amazing content, a prolific new writer, similar articles Tweeted by a particular writer — help me build new mentor text clusters of exciting material for students.  
  • No pressure. If I am having a particularly frantic day when one of my newsletters rolls in, I can easily press delete, clear my inbox, and move forward. But if I’m looking for a five-minute break or waiting for an appointment, I have available food for thought.  Newsletters give me the flexibility to read (or not read!) when I am ready.

So which newsletters? What kind of mentor texts? Here are a few of my favorites along with a mentor text or two I picked up from them just this week!

Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 10.28.44 AMFiveThirtyEight’s Significant Digits

From the data journalism hub of, comes this daily newsletter. I use this source for raw data mentor texts fit for Notebook Time. One I’m sharing with my students this week:

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I’m predicting stories about the world’s oldest people, poems about aging, and musings on the reliability of birth certificates!

What We’re Reading

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Excerpt from the May 17, 2016 What We’re Reading Newsletter

Allison and I often say that if were stranded on an island and could only use one source for mentor texts for the rest of our lives, we’d save The New York Times. This newsletter is compiled by writers for the Times!

Twice a week (usually on Tuesday/Wednesday and Friday), the Times staff pulls together a list of five favorite articles they are reading from other writers in other outlets. These texts run the gamut of journalism on the web, and there is constantly something surprising to be found.

The What We’re Reading newsletter just directed me to this article (that I wouldn’t have otherwise found) on the BBC: “India’s Dying Mother”, a moving article about pollution in the Ganges river.  You have to click that link and look at this article if for no other reason than the stunning way  images, graphics, shifting maps, and online scrolling are used as evidence to support and push the story forward. Using images as evidence, not just decoration, is a lesson I revisit often with my students. I’m filing this away for next year!

Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 10.34.08 AMThe Ringer

The Ringer is a newsletter that soon promises to become a full-fledged website, edited by Grantland (RIP) guru Bill Simmons.  Touting the same smart, incisive commentary as its predecessor, The Ringer sends a handful of full-length original articles your way a few times a week — primarily stellar sports and pop culture writing of all kinds.

Just this week, The Ringer sent me three original articles that could each be used in a study of analytical writing in my classroom: “Steph Curry vs. Kevin Durant Is the Western Conference Finals Duel We Deserve”, “Game of Thrones’ Baptisms by Fire” and “Meghan Trainor and the Limits of #Flawlessness”.  The Ringer is a must-read for the mentor text savvy teacher.

LitHub Daily

Touted as the “best of the literary Internet”, LitHub Daily may well be the only newsletter you need.  Through this newsletter, my eyes have been opened about how much authentic, real world writing about literature exists — Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 10.35.42 AMand the many ways this can speak to students’ experiences writing analysis of literature.  LitHub Daily pulls from all of the Internet as well as its own site, full of delicious and unusual ponderings about books.

Next year, I’ll use this piece from The New Yorker on “What Makes an Essay American” with my seniors when we study Annie Dillard and craft our own ruminating essays.  I’ll use “Searching For Salvation in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette as a mentor text for showing my students how deep, analytical writing can meld personal experience and literature.

Brain Pickings

This newsletter offers “the week’s most unmissable articles across creativity, psychology, art, science, design, philosophy, and other facets of our search for meaning.” Brain Pickings highlights more long-form articles and boasts beautiful design –Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 10.36.06 AM– incorporating images and illustrations into its weekly newsletter.  This is a source through which I often become lost for hours, clicking here and there as one discovery leads to the next.

In last week’s newsletter,  I was introduced to W.H. Auden’s Commonplace Book, which I promptly purchased as a mentor text for potential commonplace-book-making next year with my students! Creating a similar piece would be a wonderful synthesis activity for them across a single text or multiple texts! Or, perhaps, we could add elements of a commonplace book to our writer’s notebooks. See? My brain is already churning.


Email newsletters have the potential to totally change your mentor text game — giving you  wider scope and greater variety without ever leaving your email!  Do you subscribe to email newsletters? What are your favorites! Let’s swap! Leave a comment below, or Tweet me @RebekahOdell1, or continue the conversation with us on Facebook!

Genre Hopping: Using Mentor Texts to Cross Boundaries Between History and Hip Hop

Detroit teachers have been on my mind a lot lately. They’ve been in the news quite a bit recently as they fight for safer conditions and learning environments for their students and as they expose financial mismanagement through controversial sickouts. Their headlines aren’t the only reason I’ve been thinking about Detroit teachers, though. I used to be one of them. I got my start as a middle school teacher in Detroit Public Schools, and now, as I finish up my tenth year of teaching, I find myself looking back and reflecting on my first year in the classroom.

I had a lot of qualities of any good first-year teacher. I was dedicated, I was energetic, and I was wildly optimistic. Looking back, though, there are very few lessons I’d even consider using again. I was new. I was passionate, but I was unpracticed. I tried a lot of creative ideas, and I worked to engage my students, but I certainly didn’t know much about the research behind learning and literacy.

My first year, I was assigned four sections of eighth grade Language Arts, one homeroom, and one elective. Every teacher was assigned one elective in their subject area, and when I was asked what I’d be interested in teaching, I said I’d take on anything: journalism, creative writing, Shakespeare, mythology – just NOT drama. So what did they give me? Drama. Of course.

Aside from being in the pit orchestra of my own high school musicals, I knew squat about drama. But, like I said, I was dedicated and wildly optimistic, so I dove in. I decided I should start small with speeches and monologues to give me time to work up the courage to tackle something like a play. I bought books of monologues for the students to try out, but something just wasn’t connecting for me. I knew I had to teach them how to do it well, but I had no idea what it meant to “do it well.” Now, I’m positive that as a new teacher, I had not yet crossed paths with the term “mentor texts,” so what I did next was not intentional, but I dug into mentor texts to figure out what made a good speech.

Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: The OUPA

Mentor Text: Various Poems

Writing Techniques:

  • Writing poetry
  • Writing around a theme or topic
  • Building a writing community


Though it’s no longer something that I do, I have taught Art. It’s pretty clear in my classroom, as I do a lot of work that incorporates visual elements. I love having students express their learning in different ways, and it’s been very engaging for many young people as they’ve come through my room. As an artist, I know that this kind of creation taps into things in our brains that bring out the best in us.

Out of habit, I still haunt a number of my favorite websites I surfed for inspiration as an Art teacher. I keep a file on every device to drop inspiring visuals and project ideas into. As second semester finished, I stumbled upon one of Johan Deckmann’s Imaginary Books. The title, “Smart Ways to use Poetry in a Street Fight” made me laugh, and I tucked it away, digitally, as well as mentally, knowing that I would most definitely be coming back to it. Continue reading

“The Right Words at the Right Time”: Commencement Speeches and Essays for End-of-the-Year Reflection

It is six o’clock on a Saturday night, and I am sitting at my desk in my classroom. The end of the semester is definitely near! While many of you might still have weeks of instruction left on the calendar, I am down to my last week before finals and commencement. My desk is a fort made out of paper stacks, my grading bag sags with the weight of leftover assignments, and my head swims with end-of-the-year to-do lists for my classes, the yearbook club, the English club, and my professional development plans.

Across the room, Friday’s  “Commencement Speech Wisdom” quote of the day is still written on a small white board: Larry Lucchino, former CEO of the Boston Red Sox, tells the Boston University Class of 2008 that “Life is not about warming yourself by the fire; life is about building the fire.” Lucchino’s advice  is great for seniors at commencement or teachers at the beginning of a school year, but right now, I’m sure many of us would like to be stretching out in a lawn chair next to the bonfire rather than building it!  Others’ posts on this blog have often comforted and inspired me like a quiet moment around a fire, so today I invite you to put up your feet–if only for five minutes–and join me for a little reflection and inspiration. Continue reading

A Revision Plan for You + Your Students

KISS. Keep it simple, stupid. A mantra I usually don’t heed until the end of the year. When I don’t have a choice.

Our end-of-the year to-do lists are sometimes so lengthy and complicated, the only way to keep up with them is to simplify. To pare the lists down to their essentials. To prioritize.

Sometimes student drafts feel a lot like the end of the year: fraught with chaos and  accompanied by a miles-long to do list. Fix your commas. Bring out your voice here. Can you say more about that? Add detail in the fourth paragraph. Have you thought about a title? Consider zooming out more in your conclusion. Don’t forget to italicize the title of the book and refer to the author by her last name! Paragraphing needs work. Let’s have a conference!

Just as our heads swim at the end of the year, students’ heads swim when they receive a paper — or have a conference — with copious amounts of motley feedback. Continue reading

Writing Conference Realities

I spent all last week immersing myself in writing conferences with my students. We talked one on one about their writing, reflected on what was going well and what wasn’t, and made some plans for steps going forward.  I was modeling good writing behaviors for them, providing specific and useful feedback, and encouraging young writers to experiment and grow.  Birds were chirping. I think a butterfly landed on my shoulder at one point.

Ha. In my dreams.                                            

 HELLO (2)

What was really going on? By Wednesday I was driving into school wracking my brain for something–anything!–I could do in place of writing conferences. My eyes were swimming when I looked at students’ papers, I felt like I was saying the same thing over and over, and  I was concerned about the level of engagement of my non-conferencing students.  I was exhausted from the constant mental challenge of giving just the right feedback to my writers.

Writing conferences are certainly important, but they can be so very difficult and so very exhausting.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m a huge believer in writing conferences, and I know they are often the key to helping students grow.  Don Murray, one of the original proponents of teaching writing as a process, claims in his book Learning by Teaching “at least 85% of the teaching–and learning–takes place in the writing conference, not in the writing workshop or classroom.”  Continue reading