Mentor Text Wednesday: Writing About Falling In Love With Literature

Mentor Texts:

How Batman Made Me Fall In Love With Comic Books by Neil Gaiman

Superman and Me by Sherman Alexie

Writing Techniques:

  • Writing About Literature
  • Memoir


It’s the last week of school. Report cards and marks were submitted this morning. I have a couple of days to return my classroom to something I would post pictures of, and to do some preliminary planning for next year.

And I have one more column to write before a bit of a hiatus from this space.

I knew what I wanted to write about to… and I realized that I didn’t really have the mentor texts to back it up. Probably not the best way to approach a column called Mentor Text Wednesday.

See, in my Literary Focus class, I often assign a last essay piece that I call “Lessons Learned From Literature.” I give wonderfully vague directions that essentially involve me restating, or paraphrasing the title of the assignment, and I get some pretty good reflective pieces.

But I’ve never approached it as a mentor text kind of piece. I thought I had a good mentor text for it in my favorited tweets, but when I read that piece, I realized that it had other merits I’d be using in a whole other column.

Twitter didn’t let me down though, because this Neil Gaiman piece popped into my feed. Then, I remembered the Alexie piece, which I used as a mentor text years ago, before officially becoming Mentor Text Wednesday Guy.

I realized, yet again, that the core of another mentor text set had fallen into my lap. I know I could make these fit the Lessons Learned assignment, but I realized that these pieces were about something more important – they were about falling in love with literature. We can’t learn those lesson if we’re not reading, right? Continue reading


Best of 2015-2016: In Search of a More Meaningful, Effective, Enduring Way to Teach Grammar

Each summer we press pause for a few weeks to tackle new writing projects and plan for the upcoming school year. And we reflect on where we’ve been by sharing with you the most-popular posts of the past school year. We will share these with you over the next five weeks, beginning with today’s post — one Allison wrote in the winter as she tried to figure out a better way to attack the teaching of 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!

For years I took Kelly Gallagher’s advice and highlighted three erroneous sentences in every students’ final draft. But this takes forever. And it sometimes takes my attention away from the writing itself––from the ideas and the structure and the heart of the message. I want to be able to glance quickly at the grammar, see the critical errors, and have a quick and painless way of moving forward to help that student.

I’ve tried Sentence of the Week models, and while weekly sentences can expose students to all kinds of syntax and sentence possibilities, it often feels random and disconnected from student writing. Sentence study is better framed as enrichment––as an “I want to try this in my writing” kind of lesson that students can get excited about.

Whole-class grammar lessons are only useful for a handful of students. This year, I am teaching a deleveled workshop, so my students’ grammar skills truly run the gamut. If I teach a lesson on comma splices, I run the risk of losing half the class.

I wanted so badly to make Nancie Atwell’s editing checksheets work for me. Her system was made in the true spirit of workshop––lessons drawn from patterns of error in student work, instruction delivered in conferences. But I struggle to give extemporaneous, bite-sized, simple explanations of grammar in 1:1 conferences. Students never take notes because they’re trying to listen to me, and I’m talking quickly so I can get to the next student… And when they lose their editing checksheets, we have no record of what they have learned and what they should be working on.

So lately, instead of getting down about my past grammar failures, I’ve been playing with ideas for a new system altogether, a system that has these characteristics:

Continue reading here … 

Mentor Text Wednesday: Exploring Memoir via Song

Mentor Texts:

Mama’s Eyes by Justin Townes Earle

Lyrics      Audio (via YouTube)

Chris Carrabba’s cover (via YouTube)

Writing Techniques:

  • Writing Memoir
  • Writing Poetry



This is a mentor text that I’ve been sitting on for a long time.


Played my JTE records while writing

Justin Townes Earle is the son of legendary singer-songwriter Steve Earle, and a fine songwriter himself. This song, from his fine, fine album Midnight at the Movies, is one of my favorites of his. It’s a gorgeous piece in which Earle ruminates on being a product of his parents, talking about the similarities he shares with each of them.

Like many pieces that strike us, ‘Mama’s Eyes’ came to me in waves. I loved it as soon as I heard it. I loved the confessional tone, the admission of struggle, issues with his dad, and that he got what he feels are his best qualities from his mom.

Then I became a parent, and experienced the bizarreness of seeing yourself, your looks, mannerisms, quirks and whatnot reflected back at you in a smaller package. The song took on a different meaning.

Perhaps that’s why I’ve not brought it into class yet, but I know how to do it. Continue reading

Coaching Writers to Provide Quality Feedback


Image via Angela Stockman, WNY Young Writers’ Studio

When writers trust that they can consistently receive high quality feedback from their peers, everything changes.

Rather than relying on the teacher, kids begin turning to one another for support. They begin knowing and naming their expertise and soon, they grow hungry for cool feedback. Rather than hearing it as criticism, they take it for what it is: a gift. Quality feedback is timely, criteria specific, and of service to the writer.

Criticism isn’t the same as feedback, and neither are compliments.

Continue reading

The Writing Teacher’s Guide to Summer

SummerI closed the laptop, took a deep breath, looked at my husband, and said, “Next year, I want to be a really, really good teacher.”

He just laughed and shook his head, used to such proclamations by now. Because at the end of every single school year, I am consumed with how I am going to do better in a few short months when I get yet another do-over. It’s my favorite part of the job.

Who else gets a fresh start at work every 12 months? And who else gets two months to press pause on that work — rethink, refresh, and get a new running start into a brand new school year?

The problem is that I’m tempted to think too big, bite off more than I can chew, get overwhelmed, and then let the summer pass me by. I need a plan, and maybe you do, too. Here’s my plan to make the most of this summer & come back to school a better, stronger writing teacher!


The summer is the single best time for new learning. Without papers to grade and lessons to plan and clubs to sponsor, summer is when I can breathe and think deeply.  While I  do generally catch up on the professional reading I


My professional summer reading stack

didn’t get to during the school year, I try to pick a focus each summer — to learn how to teach one thing a little bit better than last year.  This summer, I’m focusing on grammar instruction.  Here are some ideas for professional learning this summer:


  • Catch up on professional reading that will help you meet one of your goals for next school year.
  • Find a workshop to attend — either live or online, like the amazing free workshops offered by The Educator Collaborative!
  • Catch up on your blog reading! Find bloggers who write about the topics you are interested in learning more about. Find bloggers with perspectives and contexts that are very different from your own and see how their experiences might inform your own. This is the perfect time to get sucked into Internet wormholes!


I know I said that we need a plan to help us avoid taking on too much over the summer, so I’m not actually suggesting that you throw everything out that you have ever done before. But I do think that the summer is a wonderful time to entertain that idea and see how your curriculum shakes out. Whether you work in a notebook or a legal pad or a Google doc, spend a few minutes making this thinking tangible. You might be surprised what you find. Here are some ways you might do that:

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    The beginning of my mapping for next year’s Reading Writing Workshop 9.

    Get your notebook, turn to a blank page, and map out the next school year in broad strokes — by months and weeks. Where will you begin? Then what? How will you wrap up? What might those units of study look like on a calendar and in a sequence?

  • You know the One Little Word movement? You choose a

    One Little Word for Reading Writing Workshop 9 (“Talk”) and English 12 IB (“Balance”) for 2016-2017.

    single word each January to focus on and make the theme of your upcoming year. (The Two Writing Teachers blog has done a whole series on this!) Choose “one little word” as a goal for each of your classes next year — what one word will be your focus as you meet your students in the fall?

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    To do list for both of my preps.

    Make your next-year to-do list! What are those big ideas, those lessons that you have tucked away for “next time” that you want to make sure you do in this upcoming school year? Make a list of those elements that have been on the back burner of your mind that you want to make sure that you tackle in this upcoming year!


Summer is the time to tackle that TBR pile.  For a writing teacher, it’s also the time to enjoy all of that reading doubly — as a reader and as a teacher of writers. Of course you’re going to do professional reading. But you need to read for yourself as well.

As you read those novels by the pools and those articles in the The New Yorker, have your students in the very back of your mind and consider how you can get double duty out of your reading. Relaxation and rejuvenations for you and mentor text inspiration for your future students!


For me, this is one of the biggest gifts of the summer — time to write. Penny Kittle quotes Donald Murray as saying, “the writing teacher prepares for the writing class by using his or her own language to examine and share experience. The teacher understands the writing process because the teacher experiences it.”

This is daunting, right? It intimidates me. But Nancie Atwell reminds us that we only have to write just a little bit better than our students. That I can do.

Use this summer to continue a piece of writing that you have been slowly hacking away at  (that’s what Allison & I will be doing!) or start something you’ve been thinking about but have been nervous to try. Write those poems, start that novel. Start a blog. Write about your own classroom for English Journal or the newly-edited Voices from the Middle (check out its awesome new podcast!).

Your own writing — however big or small, public or private — will instantly make you a better writing teacher.


As excited as we all are about the 2016-2017 school year, we need to each take the time to truly rest. To play and nap and swim and clean and shop and breathe and all the things that summer entails. Renew relationships. Enjoy the sun. You will be a better teacher in the fall because you have taken the time to reconnect with yourself and those things that are important in your life outside of school.

What are your must-dos for this summer — professionally and personally? What are your tips for making the most of this hiatus to become a better teacher in the fall? Leave me a comment! Find me on Twitter @RebekahOdell1! Or, find Moving Writers on Facebook

Mentor Text Wednesday – Sunday Edition: Writing About Tragedy

Mentor Texts:

Sometimes, The Earth is Cruel by Leonard Pitts Jr.

Patton Oswalt’s Facebook response to the Boston Marathon Bombing

Take Time To Heal – A Gay Educator Looks At Orlando by Jess Lifshitz

Finding Love In Our Anger – A Straight Educator Looks at Orlando by Doug Robertson

I Still Love America by Devin Faraci

Writing Techniques:

  • Writing About Tragic Events


As teachers know, sometimes, in the moment, you break the routine, and you do what you feel needs doing. That’s why there’s a Mentor Text Wednesday column posted on a Sunday. This wasn’t a column I planned to write. It’s not one I wanted to write. I really felt that I needed to.

Doug Robertson, known as The Weird Teacher, hosts a weekly Twitter chat, #WeirdEd. I participate when I can. On June 15th, the chat focused on how we, as educators, deal with LGBTQ issues, particularly in the wake of the tragic loss of life on June 12th in Orlando.

He, and another educator, Jess Lifshitz, wrote introductory blog posts, discussing their feelings. Jess frequently blogs about her experiences as a gay educator and parent. Her posts are always powerful and personal, the one for #WeirdEd being no exception.


Image via shutterstock

Over the course of the chat, we discussed how we move forward, and how we can teach in such a way to make things better, to lessen hate, to foster understanding and to help people heal. I answered, highlighting my own classroom practice as an English teacher, and the power of literature to build empathy.

I forgot about writing. I often refer to writing as thinking out loud on paper. It’s often part of my personal process for working through ideas, not just for writing, but for speaking or teaching. Sometimes, my notebook or computer screen bears thoughts that will not see the light of day, but that need to come out of me. When I deal with tough stuff, that helps me process. Students need this too.

In the wake of tragedy, those that write for a living do just that. They respond and react. They create and share. I realized that I had been collecting these kinds of pieces for awhile. This is sometimes how a mentor text set is built, over time. Penny Kittle shared Leonard Pitts Jr.’s piece about Haiti with us a few years ago. Patton Oswalt’s emotional response to the Boston Marathon bombing stuck with me. Jess and Doug’s pieces prefacing #WeirdEd about Orlando, as well as Devin Faraci’s response to Orlando resonated as well.

A terrible truth is that this is a mentor text cluster I will continue to add to. Continue reading

When Purpose Drives a Project

The Internet has the power to connect people across the globe. I think we can all agree that’s already been well-established. The realization that I’ve recently had, though, is what a powerful impact this can have on my own professional learning. The first time I participated in a Twitter chat, I felt like a superfan who had just received a backstage pass to a Broadway show. There were so many “stars” of ELA, and we were all part of the same conversation!

I feel that same electric excitement whenever I stumble across a blog in which another teacher writes about something I’ve also been working on. Such was the case when I read Allison’s post about children’s literature. In the post, there were a few main points that I felt immediately connected to:

Her kids worked with children’s literature as a genre. This was exciting because this year, I tackled the project of a children’s book with my literacy lab, an elective intervention class comprised of students who struggle with reading and writing. Using children’s literature as a genre was non-threatening while still allowing for in-depth analysis, and it opened the door to other, more challenging texts.

She wrote about the power of having students collaborate on their writing. Collaboration was crucial to our project – mostly because it was such a heady project to tackle. Instead of a bunch of individual stories each paired with artists, though, we all worked together on the same book and then partnered with an artist who was willing to illustrate their work. We found that we needed each other to succeed in this endeavor. Each student had different strengths ranging from generating ideas to rhyming, and they lifted each other up to make an enormous project seem a lot more “doable.”

She used mentor texts to drive the instruction. I share a classroom, and many times I wondered if my teacher-roommate thought I was crazy when she’d arrive before we’d finished cleaning up. The desks were stacked high with every sort of children’s literature imaginable from board books on up. The students even gathered a collection of anti-mentor texts, or books they deemed to be so awful they wanted to make sure to avoid pitfalls that could potentially put our book in that category.

As I reflect on my own experience with our children’s literature project, I know that these were three key factors to its success. What really was the game-changer for me and my students, though, was the authentic audience. Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: The Video Essay

Mentor Texts:

Batman: Evolving the Legend by Kristian Williams (@kaptainkristian)

(Any of the videos on his YouTube channel are awesome!)

Writing Techniques:

  • Presentation
  • Analytical or Critical Writing
  • Pop Culture Writing
  • Curation of material to augment presentation



You’ve already reacted with a sigh or a fist pump. Another geeky one.


Image via YouTube

This is another one that fell right onto my screen through my customary surfing. I was taking a brain break, getting ready to work on the post I originally had planned, when this came onto my screen.

Brain break over, new mentor text found. Continue reading

Who Is Writing With Mentors For?

Screen Shot 2015-11-23 at 2.56.21 PMWriting With Mentors has a 9-12 label in the top right corner, but it isn’t only for workshop-centered high school teachers. There is something in this book for every writing teacher who wants to engage students, connect them with the real world of writing, draw direct links between reading and writing instruction, and ratchet up the rigor of the writing curriculum. Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 9.05.16 PM

We chatted with Heinemann about the audience for Writing With Mentors. I bet our audience could be YOU!

Watch our interview here.

How Mentor Text Study Makes “Big Magic”


It’s Tony Awards season and I’m writing about magic–of course I have Pippin on the brain!

It was 9:45 on a Thursday night with two weeks left in the school year and I was crying. My eyes welled up as I read a mash-up of Death of a Salesman and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Years after the death of their father, Biff Loman was inviting Happy to join him on a quest for gold. It should not have worked. It should have been ridiculous. But in the hands of one of my quieter students, a writer whose work had slowly but surely improved and grown, month by month, semester by semester, it worked so, so well. Of course the Loman brothers would band together on a treasure hunt! The scene unfolded so beautifully, and the late hour made me feel like I’d stumbled upon one of those once-in-a-lifetime nighttime blooms. It was magical. And so I cried.

Like Rebekah, I found it extra difficult to say goodbye to the Class of 2016. One of the elements of the International Baccalaureate learner profile (and, let’s be honest, any good learner profile) is risk-taking, and these seniors were my risk-takers. Whatever detour or or alternate route I wanted to take, they went along for the ride. I’ve never had a class as game for challenges as this one, so my heart, too, was heavy when they threw their graduation caps into the air a few weeks ago.

This class proved over and over again that teaching with mentor texts WORKS, and nowhere was the truth of mentor text magic more evident than in the seniors’ final projects, creative pieces that didn’t start in a revolutionary place but are inspiring a revolution in my classroom.  Continue reading