YA Sentence Snapshot: We Are Okay


We Are Okay by Nina Lacour

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Image from ninalacour.com


9-12 (The narrator, Marin, is a freshman in college, and the book contains some very mild sexual themes.)

Book Talk:

It’s not uncommon for teens to feel betrayed by their parents at some point — when they show up at that party and drag you home, or hide how sick your grandmother really is — but Marin encounters a family betrayal so huge it has the power to uproot everything she knows to be true about her life. The 2018 Printz Award winner, this book follows Marin on her journey through grief — not once, but twice. The book is gorgeously written, alternating between past and present, as Marin both avoids and moves through her sadness.

Sentence Study:

It was a summer of trying not to think too deeply. A summer of pretending that the end wasn’t coming. A summer when I got lost in time, when I rarely knew what day it was, rarely cared about the hour. A summer so bright and warm it made me believe the heat would linger, that there would always be more days, that blood on handkerchiefs was an exercise in stain removal and not a sign of oblivion.

It was  a summer of denial. Of learning what Mabel’s body could do for mine, what mine could do for hers. A summer spent in her white bed, her hair fanned over the pillow. A summer spent on my red rug, sunshine on our faces. A summer when love was everything, and we didn’t talk about college or geography, and we rode buses and hopped in cars and walked city blocks in our sandals. (Page 152-153)

This passage can help writers…

  • Write rich summary full of detail
  • Use repetition for effect
  • Write effective fragments

Together the class might notice…

  • The repeating phrase “It was a summer…a summer”
  • These two paragraphs are summary, but they read like a scene because of the richness of specific details.
  • The polysyndeton (or “repeating ands”, or whatever your students want to call it!) at the end: “…and we rode buses and hopped in cars and walked city blocks in our sandals.”
  • The magic three — many of these sentences are comprised of three parts or phrases — Example: 1) A summer when I got lost in time, 2) when I rarely knew what day it was, 3) rarely cared about the hour — that create a rhythm and reflective tone.
  • The contrast of vague and specific details: “A summer when I got lost in time” with “blood on handkerchiefs,” for instance.
  • The first paragraphs gives an overview of the narrator’s summer, while the second paragraph zooms in on a specific relationship.

Invite students to try it by saying…

In this passage the narrator is reflecting on the summer spent with her girlfriend Mabel. The sentence falls in Chapter Fifteen, subtitled “July and August”. Even though these paragraphs summarize a two-month period in the narrator’s life, it doesn’t feel like summary — the details she includes are so vivid and specific that it feels like she is painting little scenes for us. Summary doesn’t have to be boing. Summary can be as rich and alive as scene.

Today I want you to think about a short time period in your life — maybe last week or month, maybe all of last year, or maybe another fragment of your life that stands out for  a specific reason. You might begin by listing out some of the details that made this time period unique. And then can you use Lacour’s paragraph to help you string these details together into a summary that feels present and alive and in focus?

What possibilities do you see here for your students? How could this sentence / passage study connect with the current literature or writing content in your class? How could it help your students? Leave a comment below, or connect with me on Twitter @allisonmarchett.





YA Sentence Study Snapshot: Turtles All the Way Down

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Turtles All the Way Down by John Green



Book Talk:

If you’ve ever felt that your life was being written by someone else — your parents, your teachers, even your friends — you’ll relate to Aza, the main character in Turtles All the Way Down. Aza is a smart, sensitive sixteen year old who struggles with anxiety. Together with her friend Daisy, Aza goes on a goose-hunt for the father of an old camp friend of Aza — a billionaire who’s gone missing and for whom there is a significant monetary reward for anyone who brings helpful information to the table. You’ll love this book for its typical John green humor and wit, but also for its rawness and vulnerability — and for the deep dive it takes into the incredibly beautiful and complicated world of mental illness through the very real and lovable character Aza.

Sentence Study:

If I’d been the author, I would’ve stopped thinking about my microbiome. I would’ve told Daisy how much I liked her idea for Mychal’s art project, and I would’ve told her that I did remember Davis Pickett, that I remembered being eleven and carrying a vague but constant fear. I would’ve told her that I remembered once at camp lying next to Davis on the edge of a dock, our legs dangling over, our backs against the rough-hewn planks of wood, staring together up at a cloudless summer sky. I would’ve told her that Davis and I never talked much, or even looked at each other, but it didn’t matter, because we were looking at the same sky together, which is maybe more intimate than eye contact anyway. Anybody can look at you. It’s quite rare to find someone who sees the same world you see. (Chapter 1, Page 8)

This passage can help writers…

  • Use repetition for effect
  • Show don’t tell
  • Use absolute and participial phrases to add detail
  • Reveal a character’s (or their own) true feelings verses what other characters and people see and know

Together, the class might notice…

  • The repetition of the phrase “I would’ve told” (four times), emphasizing the tension between Aza’s true feelings and the hang-ups that prevent her from opening up
  • The if/then pattern (If I’d been the author, [then] I would’ve…
  • The trio of descriptive phrases to add detail
    • our legs dangling over (absolute phrase)
    • our backs against the rough-hewn planks of wood (absolute phrase)
    • staring together up at the cloudless summer sky (participial phrase)
  • The mini scene within a scene (The external/present scene is Aza, sitting in the cafeteria with her friends; the inner scene is Aza and Davis on the docks)
  • The super-long compound-complex sentence followed by a short declarative sentence (“Anybody can look at you.”)
  • How the passage is bookended by big thematic statements (“If I’d been the author…” [of my own life…] and “It’s quite rare to fine someone who sees the same world you see.”)

Invite students to try it by saying…

In this scene, the main character Aza is holding a lot inside. There are things she wants to share with Daisy, but something is holding her back. Can you think of a time you wanted to tell someone something — but didn’t — because you were scared, distracted, or worried about the consequences of sharing that information? Maybe you wanted to open up to your mom or dad but were worried about getting in trouble…or perhaps you wanted to share something with your best friend but didn’t know what she would think. How might you use the phrase “I would’ve” to reveal something, big or small, you’ve been keeping inside?

What possibilities do you see here for your students? How could this sentence / passage study connect with the current literature or writing content in your class? How could it help your students? Leave us a comment below! 

Teaching Writing Through Video Games, Part II

Today we present Part II of Sarah’s thinking on building student interest in your writing classroom by weaving in video games and video game writing. You can read her full post from Wednesday here

On Wednesday, I discussed a few small ways teachers can use to bring video games into their classrooms. Today, I want to explore some more substantial approaches to including video game-inspired writing in your classrooms with several ideas for mentor texts in specific units of study in which video games bring some interesting possibilities!

Critical Review and Top List Units

The sites I linked on Wednesday are also perfect for game reviews that teachers can use for critical review or argumentative units in the writer’s workshop. Some of the best writing craft comes from writers at these gaming outlets including hooks, descriptive language, hyperbole, humorous tone, alliteration, the list goes on! In our current game reviews unit, one student found the Horizon Zero Dawn Review by Lucy O’Brien on IGN, one of the games in the running for game of the year in 2017, and my students couldn’t stop gushing over how well-written it was! This paragraph caught their interest based on the descriptive language throughout:

On top of that, Horizon‘s ‘post-post apocalyptic’ landscape itself is beautiful and terrifying, so journeying through it in search of things to do between main quests – not that you ever have to go too far – is usually a reward of its own. Snowy vistas, autumnal forests, and vast deserts are stunningly realised, even capped at 30 frames per second as it is. (That’s true on PlayStation 4 Pro as well, where it runs in a stunning 4K mode.) Frozen mountain peaks or the calcified remains of a skyscraper make for eerie, quiet jaunts, made more unnerving by the Lost World-esque horror that sits in Horizon‘s underbelly. One of the most thrilling moments in my playthrough was when I got lost early on, skirted too close to the water’s edge, and accidentally walked across the giant tail of a half-submerged Snapmaw before sprinting to safety with sweaty palms. Being killed in Horizon isn’t Dark Souls-style punishing, but as you save via spread out ‘campfires’, the threat of death also equals the threat of losing some progress. It’s enough to make these moments of terrifying discovery into Horizon’s ‘water cooler moments’ – the ones you look back on and shiver.

IGN is a student favorite, but you can also utilize YouTube reviewers like GT Reviews, ACG, and others. Top ten lists are also an excellent genre to build argumentative skills and the gaming world has plenty of videos and written pieces zooming in on different topics within gaming; not to mention that most people get hooked on these lists! WatchMojo on YouTube is a great source for gaming top ten lists and other gaming outlets have them as well. Here are some favorites from our Game Review Unit and Top Five List Unit this year:

Creative Writing Units

Video games can be excellent for creative writing as well. My students write 100% poems and vignettes about games, characters, and topics centered around gaming; many gamers are big into fanfiction writing as well. I have had many students publish their stories set in video game worlds about a character they developed on different fanfiction sites like Fanfiction.net and Archive of Our Own simply because they wanted to.

YouTube is also full of “let’s plays” mentor texts where a gamer plays through a game and records commentary or dialogue. Some are fully immersive with voice acting on the gamer’s part and editing to make it seem like a movie. One great example I have found is Rycon Roleplays on YouTube who has done an incredible “let’s play” of cinematic quality entitled Let’s Roleplay The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim “Leon’s Tale” in which he plays Skyrim with voice acting, storytelling, and creative editing. Creating one of these “let’s plays” could be a project for a gaming student as well.

Video games often get a bad reputation, but in reality they can be some of the greatest pieces of art our world has to offer. You don’t have to have a class dedicated to video games or even a love of video games to get these possibilities in your classroom; you don’t even have to make a unit dedicated to them! Little changes to notebook time, discussion prompts and articles, and choice of mentor texts from gaming outlets can incorporate video games into your classroom on a small or large scale! From amazing landscapes to brilliantly designed characters to the interwoven gameplay and storyline, video games are a door to some amazing writing. How about letting them in?

What are your thoughts on including video game inspired writing in your classroom? I’d love to hear your thoughts comments below!

Sarah Jones teaches Writing Through Video Games I and II and Spanish I and II at Cuyahoga Falls High School in Cuyahoga Falls, OH. She earned her B.S. in Education at Miami University in Oxford, OH and later earned her M. A. in Teaching through the Ohio Writing Project at Miami University. She is an avid writer, reader, and gamer and is working to incorporate the workshop approach in both her Writing Through Video Games classes and her Spanish classes. You can connect with her via email at jonessj2@miamioh.edu or Twitter @jonessjteacher.





Teaching Writing Through Video Games, Part I

I’m so excited to present today’s guest post by Sarah Jones, whom I met through the Ohio Writing Project last summer. Sarah is an avid writer, reader, and gamer and is working to incorporate the workshop approach in both her Writing Through Video Games and Spanish classes. You can connect with her via email at jonessj2@miamioh.edu or Twitter @jonessjteacher.

Today Sarah will share two ways you can bring video games into your writing classroom TODAY. On Friday, she’ll help us think about incorporating video games into whole units of study. 

“This is the only English class that I actually want to write for.”

I get that a lot in my small elective called Writing Through Video Games. I designed the curriculum a few years ago as a writer’s workshop and now we are adding Writing Through Video Games II next year. Now that I have established the class, the students know what to expect when they walk in: we’re not playing video games, we’re writing about them. This class came out of my desire to have my students be more invested with their writing and from my love of video games.

As teachers, we always discuss how we can get our students more engaged in our classrooms and in their writing. For some students, essays about literature they did not choose to read are not relevant and it is easy to find the “answers” on the internet. I wanted to teach craft, style, and structure in a way that was engaging. The writer’s workshop was the perfect way to be engaging with rigor and relevance but I needed a lens with which to teach my students how to write better. What were my students often engaged with? Video games!

Most research polls now say that around 97% of our students play games in some fashion, whether it’s Candy Crush or Grand Theft Auto V. I have had hours of conversations with students about a game’s mechanics and flow of story, the development of characters, the pros and cons to purchasing a game, or the profound impact a particular game had on their lives. Whether we like it or not, video games are important to our students; now what do we do?

We invite our students to write game reviews, top ten lists, autobiographical pieces, and so many more. We don’t need a class solely devoted to the study of writing through video games, especially if video games are not your cup of tea! We just need to give them the option; a way to use their interest in video games to help them practice their craft.

Here are a few small ways you can implement the lens of video games into your classroom!

Notebook Time

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An easy way to include video games in your classroom is during notebook time–or Quest Logs as we call it in our class! My students have been inspired by:


  • Images of characters or landscapes from games
  • Graphs and statistics about gamers or opinions of gamers
  • Famous quotes from games
  • Lines from great writing about video games

I find most of my images and graphs from places like Statista and Google searches for images. Gaming outlets on the internet also have a lot of the mentor texts you can use for notebook time like IGN, Gamespot, Metacritic, and PC GamerScreen Shot 2018-04-18 at 7.49.01 AM

Dungeon Forum Fridays

Video games can also be the source of great discussion and research. My students in Writing Through Video Games use NPR’s articles and stories about gaming to develop new ideas and opinions about their favorite hobby for discussions. We do what we call a Dungeon Forum on Fridays (based on Spider Web Discussions by Alexis Wiggins) where they read an article ahead of time and hold a discussion about the topic. Dungeons in many video games are designed to be cooperative, just like these discussions, and online forums are always open to everyone to jump in to say their opinion. During these discussions that are focused on the article, I always stay out of the discussion and let them lead it. I just take notes in the background and map out the web of their ideas, solutions, and references to the text!

My students also tap into TIME Magazine, The Guardian, Polygon, and Kotaku to find articles to support claims, pose discussion questions, and inform themselves about the gaming world. I generally search for articles based on topic, but I find that Keza MacDonald, a video game editor at The Guardian, has some intriguing and sometimes provoking opinion pieces. My students tend to disagree with her ideas and tone frequently and it brings up interesting counters from the students! Using an article about video games to start a discussion will spur some compelling debates and get most students involved in defending their opinions. Here are the articles that my students enjoyed the most:

What are your thoughts on adding small ideas about video games into your classroom? I would love to see your comments below!


3 Strategies for Students Who Say, “I’m Finished” After Writing a Paragraph


I grew up in Connecticut, so the old southern phrase “Bless your heart” isn’t a part of my everyday vocabulary. However, I’ve caught myself saying it a few times, in identical situations. Here’s the scenario:

Student: Ms. Marchetti, I’m finished.

[I look down at the student’s paper, see a few sentences scribbled. The mentor texts            we’ve been studying are pages long.]

Me: Bless your heart.


Student: Ms. Marchetti, I have nothing else to say.

[I look down at the student’s paper, see a few sentences scribbled. The mentor texts           we’ve been studying are pages long.]

Me: Bless your heart.

My southern friends have taught me that “bless your heart” is the phrase you say when  you’re trying to be nice. But there’s an edge to it. A bit of sarcasm or exasperation or maybe even pity. It’s the phrase that comes to mind when a student thinks she’s done writing, but I know she’s only just begun.

How do we help these writers — the ones who honestly believe they’re done, that they’ve written into all of their ideas, that they can call it a day? How can we literally bless their writing hearts and help them along on their cut-too-short writing journey?

There have been times when I’ve pointed to a sentence or paragraph and said, “You need to add more here” and left it up to the student to figure out what that means. These are not moments I’m proud of. I’d rather look back on the times when I’ve given the student a strategy to try, one they can use not-just-this-time but over and over again, whenever this problem of “I’m finished” presents itself.

Here are a few techniques I’ve shared with students that have helped coax them back to the page to do some more thinking and writing — to help them deepen and extend and thoroughly develop their ideas.

Strategy #1: Explode the Moment

I first learned about this Barry Lane technique at the Writing Project Summer Institute. The idea is simple: take a short phrase, sentence, or paragraph and explode it into more short phrases, sentences or paragraphs.

Here’s an example I wrote together with my students a few years ago. We pulled a sentence from a student’s draft and imagined all of the things happening in and around that particular moment; then we fleshed it out.

Screen Shot 2017-12-10 at 9.47.10 PMExploding the moment is typically used to help students flesh out a piece of narrative writing, but it can work just as well in informational or analytical writing; a lot of informational and analytical writing depends upon a strong narrative introduction or thread anyway to hold the reader’s interest and add texture to the piece.

Strategy #2: Mirror a Mentor Text

Whenever I can, I use mentor texts to help my students work through writing problems and puzzles. I like to ask the question, “What did the mentor do?” and help my student describe the work of the writer so he can try it in his own piece.

In this technique, you help the student find a mentor text that is like the writing they are doing, and you invite them to see what content the writing has that their piece may lack.

I love the example Rebekah shares in some of our workshops about her student Josef, a 9th grader, who was writing a persuasive piece about “must-see” bands in 2016. His draft looked a little something like this:

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Josef had written 10 nearly identical paragraphs for the different bands he had chosen for this piece. And for Josef, ten paragraphs was a big accomplishment — surely he was done. But they all lacked something major, something that held his writing back from being a substantial piece of analysis. Each paragraph lacked the reasons and evidence needed to support the claim that the band was worth seeing live!

So, Rebekah shared a tiny excerpt from the mentor text 25 Best Things We Saw at Bonnaroo.

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Then she asked Josef, “What does this mentor include that isn’t yet in your piece?” A light bulb went off. Josef immediately realized that he had failed to talk about the music itself. So he went back to the drawing board and added another paragraph to each section. Here’s the paragraph he added to the bottom of his Catfish and the Bottlemen section:

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With longer mentor texts, it can be helped to have students create a true mirror in their notebooks by cutting the mentor text into chunks — chunks that represent different sections or topics — and pasting them onto the left side of their notebook. Then, on the right side, they can experiment with adding similar sections to their own writing.

Strategy #3: The Braided Paragraph

The Braided Paragraph is a variation of the Braided Essay in which writers weave together different “threads” of a topic, resulting in a beautiful and nuanced mishmash of genres and thinking and moments of revelation. Here are the directions I give my students for trying the braided paragraph:

  • Draw a line down the middle of a fresh sheet of notebook paper. On the left side, copy what you have written, putting one sentence on each line (or skipping lines in between sentences).
  • On the right side, create new but related content by trying one of the following:
    • Write the opposite of the line on the left.
    • Write a related detail, fact, or piece of evidence.
    • Write a surprising line to go with the line on the left.
    • Write the word “but…” and continue the line on the left.
  • After you’ve written a new line for every original line in your piece, braid these two columns of writing together into something bigger, better and more interesting than what you had before.

Sometimes the Braided Paragraph technique produces amazing results. Sometimes, like a good exquisite corpse, it makes for really wacky writing that sometimes inspires something new in the writing and sometimes dies right there on the page. What matters is that you’re inviting students to write in and around their original thinking, to play with it, stretch it, and contort it into new possibilities.

How do you help your writers move past a paragraph into more developed writing? How do you entice the writer who says “I’m finished” back to his notebook? 





Mentor Text Wednesday: Creepy Pair of Underwear!

Today’s post comes from Amy Estersohn, a middle school English teacher in New York and a 2016 recipient of the NCTE/ALAN Gallo Grant.  She writes comic book reviews for noflyingnotights.com and blogs on books and teaching at teachingtransition.wordpress.com

Mentor text:

Creepy Pair of Underwear! by Aaron Reynolds and Peter Brown

Writing Techniques:

  • Elaboration
  • Story Structure
  • Effective Repetition


Whether it’s Goosebumps or Neal Shusterman’s Unwind, readers love creepy stories.  Creepy stories seem just that — designed to entertain and delight readers, not to Teach Something Important or Convey an Idea.

Spoiler alert:  The picture book Creepy Underwear isn’t all that creepy.  And it Conveys an Idea.  But it also provides several entry points for older readers and writers.

Elaboration: I asked students to brainstorm possible objects that would make good “creepy” stories.  Their responses: apples, pencils, fidget spinners, toys, coffee, books, and more.  After some brainstorming, I shared my own creepy story-in-progress with them:

Yeah…. I wrote a story about a creepy fidget spinner.

I showed students how I was inspired by the details about the Creepy Underwear (not to give too much of this story away, but let’s just say Creepy Underwear has a talent for glow-in-the-dark and reappearing in strange places) to make sure I centered my creepy fidget spinner in my story.  I even borrowed the phrase “ghoulish, greenish glow” from the story.  I also gave students a list of questions I had considered while I was writing my own creepy story:

  • What does my creepy object look like?
  • Does it talk?  If so, what does it say?
  • How do others react to seeing or hearing the creepy object?
  • Does my creepy object have any best friends? Worst enemies?
  • Where did my creepy object come from?

We can inspire students and ourselves to give these figments of our imagination developed histories.

Tone: This story is wonderful for teaching and discussing the slippery nature of tone.  At one point in this story, Jasper Rabbit determines a second creative way to dispose of the Creepy Underwear, and the narration says, “He was still a big rabbit.  He wasn’t scared or anything.”

A younger reader in a read-aloud shouts at this page, “No, look at him!  He’s still scared of the underwear!” while a more mature reader might parse this moment for analysis, since the image and gestures in the illustration suggest the opposite of the text.  I’d also pay attention to voice and word choice here, since the inclusion of words like “still” and “or anything” suggest the kind of “Am not/Are too!” defensiveness that younger children are known for.

Writers can practice using this tone by mimicking the sentence structure  and substituting in examples from their own lives, like:

“Sally was just going to check her Snapchat for a few minutes before starting her homework.  She wasn’t going to start obsessing over her followers or anything.”

“Brian was late to school for the fifth time this month.  The line at Dunkin Donuts was longer than usual — it wasn’t his fault or anything.”

Effective Repetition: This book uses repetition, symbolism, and place to show how Jasper Rabbit’s grows up  and how his attitude towards the Creepy Underwear change over time.  At the beginning of the story, Jasper goes to the underwear store with his mother.  At the end, he returns by himself with his own allowance money.  At the beginning of the story, the narrator describes the underwear’s “ghoulish, greenish, glow.”  At the end, the underwear has a “gentle, greenish, glow.”

We see this kind of trick in music all the time – in Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” the last repetition of the chorus layers in beats that were present elsewhere in the song.  (In classical music, this moment is called a fugue, but I hesitate to bring up classical music and Taylor Swift in the same sentence.)

In writing, it’s a little trickier, because we have to be intentional about what words we’re repeating and why.  Perhaps the easiest way to practice this technique is to have writers make their last sentence the same as their first sentence, but with one small change.

I hate to break it to readers that Creepy Pair of Underwear isn’t actually *that* creepy, but readers young and old will get a kick out of using this story to improve and reflect on writing.



3 Techniques for Students Who Know What They Want to Say But Not How to Say it

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Can you picture the student who has just said this in a writing conference? He smoothes the pages of his notebook to reveal countless scribbles and doodles that he has spent the past few days getting down. He has generated multiple ideas for his next writing project. He has done his homework. But he sits here on Flash Drafting day, staring at a blank screen, the cursor mocking him.

“You doing okay?” I ask.

He sighs. “I know what I want to say, but I don’t know how to say it.”

I sympathize with this student. He’s a perfectionist. He writes one sentence and then the next, slowly building the perfect essay in the same way my son arranges his animals in his crib at night: one after the other, each in its place; snug, tidy, perfect.

So much depends on what I say next. And when I say “so much” I mean: this student’s stamina, his self-confidence, his writing future.

It would be easy to look at his notes and suggest a starting line — to “put words in his mouth.” And while this may help him get started on this particular paper, it’s also where the help ends: here. Next time he can’t figure out “how to say it,” what tools will I have given him? How will he move forward without a teacher whispering in his ear?

Here are three strategies you can share with the student above to help him move past his current state of stuck and any stuckage he may encounter in the future.

Strategy #1: Loop Your Thoughts

Looping is a strategy I discovered in Kelly Gallagher’s Teaching Adolescent Writers (my favorite book of his!) that helps students in myriad ways: land on a topic, narrow the focus of a piece of writing, or figure out “how to say it.”

The steps:

  1. Write your topic or basic idea at the top of the page.
  2. Then write as fast as you can for 2 to 3 minutes, jotting down whatever comes to mind on this topic. Let your ideas flow onto the page without judgement.
  3. Read over what you wrote, either out loud or in your head.
  4. Choose one thing resonates with you — a word, a phrase, or a line.
  5. Skip a few lines on your paper, and write this new idea on a clean line.
  6. Repeat steps 2-5, writing from your new idea each time, until you figure out what you want to say.

Strategy #2: Write In Between The Lines

Often when a student tells me she knows what she wants to say but not how to say it, she has a draft in front of her. She just doesn’t like how it sounds. And while there are times when scraping a draft makes sense, when starting from scratch can provide the clean mental space a student needs to find momentum again, but I usually encourage the student to try writing in between the lines first.

The steps:

  1. Start with a draft, even if it’s yucky, even if you hate it.
  2. If it’s on the computer, double or triple space it.
  3. If it’s in your notebook, type it up and double or triple space it. Print it out.
  4. In a colorful pen, write in between the lines, or in the white spaces, to flesh out and extend, or question and contradict, the existing writing.
  5. Type up everything you’ve just written in the different color.
  6. Read what it says. See if it moves something in you, or if it better expresses what you were trying to say.
  7. Consider blending the first draft with this “in between” draft for the perfect expression of your ideas.

Strategy #3: Start Talking

James Britton must have been thinking of the writers who can’t find the right words when he wrote that “writing floats on a sea of talk.” In the past I rarely made time for writing partners and groups to get together and talk about their ideas: I worried it would fester into chit-chat and what-are-your-weekend-plans chatter all too soon. But the more I realized the power of conversation as a writing tool, the more room I left in our schedule for regular meetings between writers. This talk strategy can be used in writing partnerships, writing groups, or in a writing conference with your student.


  1. Grab a buddy.
  2. Talk to them. Tell them what you’re thinking. If you’re trying to write a scene, close your eyes and tell them what you see. If you’re writing about an opinion you have, tell them your opinion and why you feel that way and why it’s important to talk about. If you’re writing something informational, tell them what you already know and what questions you have and what excites you about the topic. Just talk. For a few minutes.
  3. Buddy: Grab some sticky notes. Write down words, phrases, and lines that resonate with you as the writer speaks. Then tell the story of your sticky notes, and hand them back to the writer.

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    Notes from a writing conference: The students’ handwriting (left) and mine (right)

  4. Writer: Put these sticky notes in your notebook. Ponder them. See what additional thoughts they may yield. Note how powerful it can be to see your words staring back at you.

How to use these strategies with students

Rewind to the moment when my student tells me he doesn’t know how to say what he wants to say, and keep in mind that conferences should be short, instructive, and transferable. In this particular moment, I have three options:

  • If I had taught one or more of these strategies as a minilesson in the past, I could direct the student back to his notes, review the steps with him, and watch him get started.
  • If I had never taught one of the above strategies, I might choose in my head the one that I think would best fit his purpose or writing style and do a quick 30-second demo in my own notebook in front of him.
  • If there were other students in the class with whom I had shared these strategies, I might form an impromptu writing group in the corner and ask each of these students to share one of the strategies with the writer.

Over time, as you teach minilessons that help students solve writing problems, you might consider helping them create glue-ins or classroom anchor charts that remind them of the different tools at their disposal. Here’s an example of one:

It’s tempting in a conference to help the student “fix” the paper in front of him, but if a larger goal of our teaching is our students’ independence, we have to help him solve his problem now and in the future. In other words, we have to give him a tool — or a few — that he can keep in his back pocket for the next time the same problem presents itself.

What strategies do you share with writers who struggle to find the words to express their ideas? Let’s add to this list of strategies together! Find me on Twitter @allisonmarchett or email me at movingwriters.org.

Archives of 11/12 #movingwriters Chat

It’s #NCTE week, and the #movingwriters team couldn’t be more excited!

Because we pretty much can’t take our mind off of #NCTE, we had a little pre-NCTE celebratory chat last night exploring some of the themes we’ll be uncovering in our presentation on Sunday at 12:45!

Here are the questions we considered:

Screen Shot 2017-11-13 at 1.45.42 PM

Missed the chat? Want to review and take notes? Click here to view the full transcript!

See you at NCTE!




Extreme Classroom Makeover: Student Writing Portfolios

I have been using writing portfolios to assess my students’ writing in December and June for as long as I’ve been teaching. Portfolios are wonderful for so many reasons: they invite students to compile a body of work, encourage revision, show growth over time, and so forth. But sometimes they feel a little stale, a little boring, a little manilla-foldery.

Even when I switched from printed portfolios stacked in folders to Google Drive portfolios complete with hyperlinks and images, they left something to be desired. Many of them were thrown-together, lackluster, blah.

Over the past two years I’ve been searching for ways to make students’ writing portfolios more exciting, authentic and meaningful. As usual, when I confront a problem in my writing classroom, I ask myself, “What do real writers do? What do portfolios in the wild look like?” Well… real writers don’t have portfolios. Not really, anyway. In my research, the closest thing I’ve found to portfolios are author websites and author readings, and each of these “formative assessments” contains several components that can be adapted for writing portfolios. Continue reading

6 Halloween-Infused Writing Ideas for Tomorrow

Lately my son’s favorite activity has been our daily Halloween Walk in which we start at the top of our block and stroll from house to house snapping pictures of all the Halloween decorations we see with his Fisher Price camera. Today we saw spiders and pumpkins and ghosts and skeletons and scarecrows and orange lights and witches hanging from doorknobs. IMG_5930These afternoon walks have spawned two reactions in me:

1) We need to step up our Halloween decoration game big time…

2) We should do something fun and festive and Halloween-y with our students on Tuesday. If your school is like my school, only seniors are allowed to dress up. Aren’t 9th, 10th, and 11th graders entitled to some fun, too?

On Valentine’s Day last year I had similar feelings, and I found myself googling “Valentines’ Day activities” at midnight on February 13. This year, I’ve compiled a few Halloween-infused writing activities ahead of time.  Continue reading