Making It Work — with Tim Gunn

Our guest post today is from Amy Menzel who currently teaches English language arts at Waukesha West High School in Wisconsin. She is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and Emerson College, and a Teacher Consultant with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Writing Project. You can reach her at or connect with her on Twitter @mrs_menzel (she’s new to the Twittersphere).

TV Insider

“Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.” This is what my stepson says as he points out the “hidden” arrow in the FedEx logo. He says it every time he spots it — which is quite often recently, now that we take multiple walks around the neighborhood each day and FedEx trucks and Amazon Prime vans seem to be the only vehicles on the road. But I get it. Not the allure of the FedEx logo, so much, but the inability to “unsee” something. It’s how I’ve watched Project Runway for the last several years, always viewing the design process like the writing process. Always thinking about how Tim Gunn is the ultimate peer reviewer. And, just like my stepson (but maybe a little nerdier), I always have to point this out to people.

So when I read Rebekah’s recent tweet:


I was like, “YES!!! THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT I’VE BEEN SAYING!!” We had virtually high-fived across the teaching Twittersphere. It’s like we were both pointing to that FedEx truck and nudging one another. “You see it?! I see it too!”

I’ve been known to dedicate entire class periods to the Project Runway : writing process analogy. If you’d like to follow along (or present this lesson yourself), take a look. Here’s the skinny…

Challenge = writing assignment, complete w/task, purpose, and audience

Time to sketch = brainstorming

Workroom time = workshop time

Tim checks in = conferring

More workroom time = continued writing and revision

Runway show = publication

Of course, as Rebekah noted, there should be–and is–a focus on the genius of Tim Gunn. Gunn has mastered the art of conferring. I mean, I want to be Tim Gunn when I grow up. Meanwhile, I encourage us all to channel our inner-Tim Gunn.

It’s great if we, as teachers, can take some notes from Tim Gunn. It’s even better if students can. I may be the most experienced writer in the room, but we’re all writers. If I can build a community of confident writers, if I can empower student writers to read and respond to each other’s work thoughtfully, I can increase the power of our workshop thirty-fold.

Challenge accepted.

Students aren’t always as easily convinced they can tackle such a challenge…initially. First, they’ve had some disappointing/frustrating/not helpful experiences with peer review. (We all have, no?) Phrases like, “You’re such a good writer! Great job!” and “Cool story, bro,” riddle these memories. “But what if I’m not that good of a writer?” they ask.

“Let me ask you this,” I say. “Raise your hand if you watch movies or TV shows.” You can imagine all the hands. “Okay. Keep your hand raised if you have opinions about those movies or shows.” Yup. Same hands. “So you have an opinion about the quality of a movie or TV show even though you’ve never written a screenplay or a script? Of course you do! You likely have opinions about the acting or the directing or the use of special effects even though you haven’t done any of those things at a professional level either.” I remind them that people write for an audience, for readers. Our job as writers is to try and clearly communicate our brilliance to others through our writing. We don’t have to have special qualifications as readers or reviewers; we each have a unique perspective we bring to everything we read (or watch) and we can use our varied perspectives to help writers craft better versions of (revise) their own work.

Even the best peer reviewers, even the ultimate peer reviewer, Tim Gunn, doesn’t always have all the answers. We take a look at Gunn in action.

I’ve carefully curated (read: watched a ton of clips with the “it’s for work” excuse) a collection of clips from Project Runway that show Tim at work. (I’m trying that out–calling him Tim. Like we’re friends. A teacher can dream.)

For those of you following along in the lesson Google doc, we’re on slide 11. I don’t actually show this slide to students until after we watch, reflect (in writing), and discuss the moves Tim makes in each clip. The five major takeaways, one coinciding with each clip, are:

  1. Allow the designer/writer to start the conversation.
  2. Don’t think you need to have all the answers. Support and guide.
  3. Remind the designer/writer to consider the task, purpose, and audience.
  4. Appreciate the designer/writer’s unique style/voice/approach.
  5. Ask questions to help prompt the designer/writer to further consider their work.

Students regularly note all sorts of other wonderful Gunn-y moves, including his positivity and encouragement. This semester, though, a student noted something entirely new and incredibly enlightening. After watching the fourth clip, a student said, “He helps the designer prioritize.” And, yes! Yes, he does. Despite the fact that I’m always trying to get peer reviewers to prioritize their feedback (“What one or two moves would most help the writer improve their writing?”), I had never noticed how Tim prompts the designer to prioritize in this clip. Now I can’t unsee it.

Getting students to witness the peer review prowess of Tim Gunn is the first step. Establishing an effective peer review process (outlined on slide 12) is the next. Then, it’s all about encouraging students to channel their inner-Tim Gunn as we proceed.

I find posting this at the front of the classroom helps:


(flower-clad foot for scale)

So, I guess what I’m saying is… Until you get back into your physical classrooms, take some time to watch (/binge) Project Runway or Making the Cut and take notes (or don’t). You’ll be a better teacher for it because, now that you’ve read this, you’ll be unable to unsee the connections to writing, peer review, and your classroom.


  1. I have always thought of Project Runway/Making the Cut in this way as well, and I appreciate how Menzel articulates it. Everyone needs a Tim Gunn in their lives!

  2. This post was fabulous! I absolutely adore the Tim Gunn clips as examples of conferring. This was a great reminder for myself and I plan to share this with my TA as well, who can sometimes get lost in the weeds when conferring.

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