Have Tos & Mights: Making Mentor Text Noticings Concrete

Last year, I began to notice a curious but recurring pattern — students’ final papers lacked many of the elements we noticed in the mentor texts.

It was as though students had  forgotten that we studied the mentor texts for days and days and made grand lists of noticings. It was as though they had never flipped back in their notebook to consult the techniques we discussed. It was as though we had never done it at all!

Here’s what was happening:

  • We read mentor texts as readers and then writers
  • We made noticings about each mentor text and then compiled them into giant whole-class lists that went in their notebooks.
  • We moved through a series of mini-lessons, inspired by the noticings and by student needs.
  • Students used the mini-lessons to guide their writing, leaving that big chart of noticings in the dust.

You see, my students didn’t realize (and I didn’t communicate!) that the noticings and the mini-lessons are two different but equally-important pieces of the same puzzle. We need both in order to complete a piece of writing. IMG_5951

This phenomenon frustrated me last year, but it wasn’t until moving in to Middle School Land this year that I realized I had to find a solution … or else. I had to find a way to make the noticings in that chart every bit as concrete and action-ready as the mini-lessons I taught.

This didn’t require a shift in pedagogy; rather, it demanded a shift of application. Instead of expecting students to magically transfer learning from the chart to their writing, I needed a very practical, boots-on-the-ground go-between.

In our recent studies of narrative scenes (7th grade) and opinion writing (8th grade), students began by moving through our familiar workshop rhythms. We read a bunch of mentor texts. We discussed them as readers in Harkness seminars. Then, we made noticings — as a whole class, in small groups, with partners, and on our own. We compiled these noticings in big, big charts in our notebooks.

But then students did some sorting. Creating a t-chart in their notebooks, they looked at the items in their big charts and asked themselves:

Is this technique used in the majority of mentor texts in our cluster? Is this technique only used in one or two mentor texts in our cluster?

If the technique was present in a majority (for us it was 3 out of 4 mentor texts), then it went in the ” Writers in this genre have to” column. If it was in only one or two, it went in the “Writers in this genre might” column. After discussing as a class, I made glue-in anchor charts. Since we are working in genre studies, students began to notice that techniques in the Have To column usually had to to with content and form. Techniques in the Might column were more likely to be about structure and style.

Suddenly, we had marching orders.

Mini-lessons come from the Have To column. I choose the skills on which my students will need the most support.

Students’ best drafts must include skills they learned in mini-lessons +the skills in the “Have To” column + 3 skills from the “Might” column they choose to try out!

Here are some other ways we’e put this chart to use:

  • If students finish revising for that day’s mini-lesson technique, they return to their Have To/ Might chart to continue making other revisions.
  • Students use the Have To/ Might chart to ask for writing conferences.
  • The Have To/ Might chart is a wonderful self-monitoring and self-assessment tool. When a student raises her hand to say, “Um, I think I’m done”, I say, “Go back to your Have To/ Might chart. See what needs to be done there.”
  • It is my rubric! These are the skills that we have noticed and discussed, that have been taught and conferred upon.  The Have To/ Might chart turns into a beautiful assessment tool: did you do the things in the Have To column? How effectively did you do them? Did you try three techniques from the Might side? How did that work out?

Suddenly, that beautiful lesson from the beginning of the writing study isn’t relegated to memory. Making it a concrete to-do list helps students keep track of their own progress and internalize the requirements of genres in a new way.

How do you make mentor texts noticings concrete, actionable tasks? Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @rebekahodell1.



  1. Hi Rebekah,

    I am curious about the Harkness as well because I feel that I’m neglecting the reading like readers step in the workshop. Do you have them develop these questions for each piece? Do you give them all the pieces at once, have them read and then talk about all at once? Do you go one at time. Just curious about how its all paced.

    Thanks as always for the amazing work on here.

    1. Hi, Dan! Here’s the truth: it depends. What I am after in these discussions is reader response — I want them to have a forum to have that kind of discussion because I think it’s valuable and important to bring themselves to a text. If they go beyond that (into writerly noticings or symbolism or theme), that’s gravy. My approach here would also be different if this were our literature study – but it’s not. If the mentor texts are short, I might give them a whole set at once. (Or if I’m teaching seniors who can handle more.) But if the texts are longer or challenging in some way, I might given them out one or two at a time and then discuss. I also go more slowly at the beginning of the year. By the end, it’s a free for all. 😊 Let me know if you have other questions!

  2. Hi Rebekah,
    I absolutely love this idea of using “noticings” and the Have To/ Might checklist! I was wondering if you have explained the way you conduct the Harkness Seminars when your class “reads as readers?” I did go to one of the Harkness website and read over the document, but I’m wondering if you may have modified it for your class? Or any tips on how to set it up to run efficiently? Thank you for all your great ideas!

    All the best,
    Ken Greco

    1. Hi, Ken!

      Thanks for reading! My Harkness discussions are very, very laid back — I don’t use a lot of roles for the students. After reading a text, I have them prepare some discussion questions, and I do as well. They prep for a few minutes, and then we circle up and talk. The big thing in terms of writing is that this is the time that we just think about the content of the text we’ve read — what we agree and disagree with, what we connect with, etc. I’ve found it’s helpful for students to have this time to do this kind of thinking about the text before launching into reading like Writers and making writerly noticings. We get this out of the way, and then we aren’t so tempted to dive into this important but non-writerly discussions when we are trying to use the text to guide and inspire our own writing.

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