Vulture’s “Close Reads” and Key Passage Analysis: Perfecting On-Demand Literary Analysis with Mentor Text Study

“I just don’t have enough time to say what I want to say!”

“If I had more time, I would be better.”

“I had all of these ideas planned, but I could only write about one of them.”

“I just don’t think I work well under timed conditions.”

Eleventh-graders’  laments fill my IB English classroom at the end of every in-class commentary*, a timed literary analysis that mimics one of the two official exams students will take at the end of the course next year. I have a lot of careful, contemplative writers in my junior classes, and the disappointed looks that cloud their faces after every commentary seem to beg, “Please don’t think this paper represents who I am as a writer! I know I can do better than this!” They look like they want to cry, and looking at them makes me want to cry, so I have decided, in the spirit of Rebekah’s “What’s the worst that could happen?” and Allison’s post about seeing on-demand writing in a new light , to back up and try a new experiment, one inspired by a mentor text about a moment that made me cry a lot. Continue reading

Writing in the Wild: Beyond the 5-Paragraph Essay

“What do you think about when you hear the word essay?”

A moment of silence. Some confused looks. Others, blank stares. A few, smirks.

IT’S LATE AFTERNOON, September, last period. My AP Lang class and I are in the midst of finishing up our discussion of Joan Didion’s wonderful essay, “On Keeping a Notebook.” It’s a relatively small class: twenty-one mostly juniors who come together at the end of each day to read, write, talk, laugh, and yes, learn. It’s one of those classes that—less than a month into the school year—has already started to feel like a writing community.

“I like to start the year with ‘On Keeping a Notebook’ for a few different reasons,” I tell students. First, I explain, we’ll be keeping our own notebooks throughout the year. Our notebooks are the building block of our writerly lives, and I encourage students to use their notebooks beyond our classroom walls. For Didion, a notebook was a place to remember how it felt to be her. As she points out, “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”

Thus, I encourage students, “Don’t wait until class to add something to your notebook. It’s yours. Don’t let it be a place that only has writing prompts from Mrs. Ebarvia.” (Side note: Talking about myself—or my teacher-self—in the third person is becoming habit, I fear. I wonder what it means).

adobe-spark-47We also read Didion’s essay because it’s simply a beautiful piece of writing. I find that many high school students often need to be reminded that English is a language art. We could all do better to notice the beauty found in the words we encounter. As my students and I have discovered over the last few days, Didion is a master of the great sentence—a sentence whose structure and parts, language and rhythm, are crafted in such a way that gives the ideas clarity and grace.

“Finally,” I say to students, “We also read Didion’s piece because it’s a wonderful example of an essay.”

And that’s when I ask my question, “What do you think about when you hear the word essay?”

A moment of silence. Some confused looks. Others, blank stares. A few, smirks. Continue reading

I Haven’t Forgotten About You: Honors Students and the Summer Reading Essay Anxiety

Amid the torrent of myths about gifted and talented students – they don’t need special attention, they can get the content on their own, they cannot function in a heterogeneous society – lays the accurate claim that, from a socioemotional perspective they can be strong-willed and often aim for perfection. This is a well-researched and well-supported claim, but the writing teachers of gifted and honors students only need to assign a writing exercise to see this in action.

These are the students who revise three, four, and five times. They revise until they are beyond positive that they are handing us their best work. They sit outside our classrooms in the morning because they aren’t thrilled with their conclusion and they wonder if they can come in during lunch to work on their counter argument.

Of course, we do a mental dance (alright, sometimes we just dance right in front of everyone) and we shout, “Yes! Yes, come in during lunch. Come in after school. I’ll cancel my dentist appointment so we can work on the transition between your first and second paragraphs. These cavities can wait!”

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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

The Narrative of Learning Essay: Personal Narrative Meets Literary Analysis

Students have a story to tell. So why not let them tell it as a way in to literature — to walk an idea around to see how far it will go and where else it might lead them?

If your students are like mine, they feel boxed in by their preconceived ideas of academic language (AKA “sounding smart), and they sometimes get stuck in the confines of the formal literary analysis. Rebekah has written some genius stuff about using mentors for literary analysis, and I think she’s on to something.

What I like about professional models of what we might qualify as “literary analysis” is their sophistication, their control, and the authentic and interesting voices exploring some equally authentic and interesting ideas. For students, simply giving them permission to exercise their own, authentic voice in literary analysis can be a game-changer in how they approach and craft this type of writing.

A mentor text I’ve had great success with is a beautiful piece from  The New York Times called “What Writers Can Learn from Goodnight Moon.” Full disclosure: I have two little girls, who are not so much babies anymore, but during their toddler years, we, like many other parents and their tots, read over and over again the timeless, melodic, sleep-inducing pages of “Goodnight Moon.” Perhaps that’s why I first admired this essay so much, but after introducing it to students as their first ever “narrative of learning” mentor, I’ve realized that it’s more than just a lovely piece of writing.

The Narrative of Learning Essay

Here’s the idea:

The narrative of learning essay is different in both kind and degree. The task is for students to write a deeply reflective essay in which they explore, reveal, and uncover some aspect of the literature being studied.

Students then…

  • Decide what to discover, explore, and uncover about the text.
  • Choose one feature of the text that they find genuinely interesting and worthy of exploration.
  • Write an essay that is, at its core, a mature, sustained conversation about the text, zeroing in on the one feature they’ve decided to explore and what they discover about it.

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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

Drop Everything and Play: Creating Opportunities for Creativity

When Students Fear a New Text

In fourth grade, right before we were about to step onstage for the yearly choir concert, my teacher told the class to picture the audience as giant pickles. She explained that giant pickles are funny and that if we could laugh before the concert, we wouldn’t be nervous. Of course, we had all heard about picturing the audience in its underwear, but that line had become worn out. The success of the pickle picturing plan was its novelty in addition to its effectiveness. We weren’t scared of performing because we were performing for giant pickles. It was new, and it worked.

Today, as my students work to see themselves as writers, I draw on my fourth grade teacher’s advice. How can I make the oftentimes daunting task of writing new and exciting? What can I do to demonstrate to my students that new texts are not tedious and should never be sources of fear?

On the first day of analyzing a new text, my students are hard at work charting the text. As a group, we have broken it into digestible chunks, and now, we are completing a triple-entry journal that will act as the pre-writing for our argumentative analysis essays. Our goal is to dive into the brain of the author to figure out how he is trying to persuade us. As effective as this is, it has also been done before. It is the equivalent of an audience in its underwear.

Drop Everything and Play

Dropping everything and playing is the pickle in the audience. The goal is to transform the fear of a new text into an opportunity for pure creativity.

More specifically, when students drop everything and play with a text, they are given complete creative license to do anything they want with their copies of the text.

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Teaching Shakespeare (and Literary Analysis!) with Prompt Books


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Page of a Prompt Book from Drury Lane Theater production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, circa 1763, Source: Folger Digital Image Collection


This April, English teachers, Anglophiles, all buddies of the Bard will commemorate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. Museums, libraries, schools, and theater companies are marking the occasion with special events like the homecoming of the Globe to Globe tour of Hamlet, which will have performed in around 200 countries by the time the company’s journey ends; Chicago Shakespeare’s Shakespeare 400 Chicago; and the Folger Shakespeare Library of Washington, DC’s First Folio Tour, which will bring a First Folio from the library’s incredible collection to every state in the union and Puerto Rico (I’m counting the days until it reaches Wisconsin in November!).

The First Folio Tour is just one of many resources that the Folger has to share with teachers. The library also hosts some incredible professional development workshops and institutes on its campus and around the country. In the spirit of celebrating Shakespeare and writing with mentors, I’d like to share my adaptation of the prompt book, a mentor text-based approach to teaching Shakespeare, close reading, and literary analysis that I learned while attending the Folger’s 2014 Teaching Shakespeare Institute. My seniors recently completed prompt books as a final assessment for our study of Hamlet, and the results were phenomenal.

What is a prompt book?

A prompt book is a copy of a play’s script that has been cut and/or annotated by the director. You and your students can explore historical prompt books in Luna, the Folger Library’s digital image collection. Here is a link to one of the Luna images I shared with my students, and here is a link to a prompt book with directions for Hamlet and Laertes’s swordfight. You’ll notice in these examples that directors have indicated where actors should move on stage, what gestures should be made, how a line should be delivered, or which lines will be cut.  

The Assignment:

After sharing prompt book mentor texts with my seniors, I instructed them to choose a passage from Hamlet that we had not already performed in class and create a director’s prompt book for the passage. Then, I added another “layer” to the prompt book: after making their directorial decisions, students had to explain why they were making those choices (in other words, they had to articulate their analysis of the text).  I asked students to craft the prompt book electronically using tools in Google Docs; students could italicize or recolor stage directions, and they could use the comments feature or a series of paragraphs following the prompt book to explain their directorial choices. Continue reading

On Teaching a Genre You Know Nothing About (or: an Infographic Study!)

Sometimes, no matter how good our routine, we need to shake it up. This is true in exercise; our muscles and our minds need to be surprised occasionally with a new move in order to achieve maximum results. It’s also true in writing.  And it’s true in teaching. Sometimes the very thing we need to wake up and recharge our teacher brain is to try something new, experimental, and a little bit unknown.

When my seniors recently finished studying the poetry of Wilfred Owen, none of us could face another essay, no matter how authentic or rooted in the real world of writing. They needed something else — something to re-ignite their brains, something to force new synapses to fire, something to nudge them to view literature with fresh eyes.

So, rather than writing a big paper, I assigned a genre I had never taught and knew little about — infographics!

There are so many good reasons to try infographics — they are beautiful, accessible, offer great opportunities for collaborative work, access different parts of our students’ brains. Best of all, infographic are a very authentic product of real world design and writing. As my students said, “Oh, these are everywhere!”  And they are! Open up a new tab, search “Infographics”, and you’ll see oodles.

But this was pretty terrifying to me. I am neither artistic nor extremely visual. I have no graphic design experience, and although I can tell you when an infographic is attractive and clear, I don’t really know how to define those things or tell students how to achieve them. Allison has bravely taught infographics before, so I relied heavily on her wisdom and pep talks to get me through.

Even with Allison’s help and advice, I was still nervous. Nervous like I used to be before every writing study. Nervous like I used to be before I even jumped into writing workshop — what if students asked me questions I couldn’t answer? What if I couldn’t help them? What if the products were disastrous?

Here’s what I decided: to approach the study with honesty and optimism. I confessed to my students that I didn’t know a lot about creating infographics, but we would figure it out together.

The Assignment
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Building Writing through Independent Reading Projects – a Follow-Up

In January, I reviewed Dan Feigelson’s Reading Projects Reimagined, and I was on fire! I couldn’t wait to take the brilliant-yet-simple idea of inviting students to track an idea of personal interest throughout a book. No more prescribed annotations! No more end-of-chapter questions! No more herding students into tightly-constructed pens of thought built on what I think is significant!

Especially with a book like The Catcher in the Rye, the whole-class novel my ninth graders were about to tackle.

I’ll tell you the end of this story upfront: independent reading projects were a huge success. I’m never going back to what I was doing before.

Here’s the rest of the story and how we walked through the first independent reading project together (chock full of goodies from my classroom for yours!):

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