The Door of Chaos: Responding to Original Ideas

An Authentic Problem

Quite often, we ask students to respond to original ideas. We ask them to reflect on an author’s claim. We ask them to connect their values to an author’s values. We even ask them to make personal connections to an author’s background. A colleague of mine has students write letters to Sherman Alexie after reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (to which he has responded once). Importantly, we also ask students to respond to the writings of other students. These opportunities provide moments of authenticity in terms of revising and publishing that carry genuine weight as students begin to see themselves as writers.

The push to allow for students to respond to one another was alive and well in my classroom until a student asked why she couldn’t respond to her friend who was in a different hour of mine. And so began The Door of Chaos.

The Door of Chaos

The idea behind The Door of Chaos is that students have the opportunity to respond to ideas that were generated when they weren’t in the room. Continue reading

Whiteboard Duels: Collaborative Drafting

Collaborative Drafting

In my time outside of school, I often freelance as a speechwriter. My students know this, and when one of my students came to me with the speechwriting scenario of the century, I decided that a whiteboard duel would be perfect for the task.

This particular student is traveling throughout UN member nations researching and speaking about the Sustainable Development Goals. Her task is daunting and the complexity of her mission deserves its own post. However, the speaking portion of her mission requires that she speaks to various groups about her personal connection to these goals and her unique viewpoint as one who has spanned the globe to see these goals in action. In short, she has become a pseudo-expert for the UN, and she has an intriguing need to express her expertise effectively.

In helping this student prepare her remarks, I used a collaborative drafting method called a Whiteboard Duel.


We began our drafting by answering 3 metacognitive questions: What are you doing? Why does it matter? and Why should other people care?

The Materials

The biggest whiteboard you can find, two or more different colored markers, two erasers, and a timer.

The idea of the Whiteboard Duel is that two or more writers collaborate on a project in real time. In my scenario, my student and I decided to work on a specific portion of the speech, and we set a ten-minute timer. We then set about crafting a speech.

The Process

  1. Set a purpose
  2. Set a timer
  3. Draft

The Rules

  1. For the duration of the timer, talking is not allowed.
  2. Anything can be erased, but it must be replaced with new writing.
  3. Now is not the time for grammar and punctuation edits.

The beauty of this drafting exercise is that it provides two (or more) writers with the explicit authority to revise a collaborative text. While, in the end, this speech will be delivered by my student, and I will have little to no responsibility to it, the in-the-moment drafting gives both writers real ownership.

My words became her words and her words became mine.

Continue reading

#squadgoals or The Importance of Collaboration & Community

Frequently, I seem to find myself with a work related catchphrase, something I find myself repeating in classes, in meetings, and in PD opportunities. It becomes a key part of my philosophy for a time.

This year, I find myself harping on the fact that what we do, as teachers, is a human endeavour. When it comes to our work with our students, especially in the times we live in, this is readily apparent.

However, I feel like we sometimes lose this notion when it comes to our professional relationships. It is far too easy for us to exist in some sort of Fortress of Solitude, sometimes it’s out of our control, yet other times we do this to ourselves.


Of course I’m going to use a nerdy picture to talk about teamwork. (Image via iCloud Wallpaper)

I’m thinking about this for a couple of reasons this week. Partly, it’s a reaction to what I’m seeing online. My social media feeds are clogged with people who are struggling, with people who are sharing, with people who are questioning… in short, there are a lot of people questioning their role in things, and seeking, or offering, a sense of community in our work.

This is important for me, because my online PLC has become very important to me. It was a great support, and sounding board when I felt that I lacked that in my “real world” professional life. I had changed schools, and although I worked next door to amazing teachers, we didn’t always work as a collaborative unit, as a team. Interacting online fulfilled that need for me. It led me to wonderful communities of educators, like the one here at Moving Writers. People share openly, ask questions and make suggestions, all things that move “the work” forward in ways that just aren’t there when you’re flying solo.

The other thing that’s happening is that my English department has changed. (It’s literally only four people, and I’m the only one who only teaches English.) There are two new people, and we’re currently teaching the same English courses. Our classrooms are right beside each other.

And we’re collaborating like mad! It’s so energizing and engaging! As I type this, we’ve in the midst of all three of us doing the same set of activities that we hashed out around a drama performance our students saw this week. The magic of like minds, sitting around a table, inspiring, challenging and supporting each other is my favorite part of teaching, outside of the actual work with the students. We’re each benefiting professionally, and the material that we’re able to put in front of our students is so much stronger.

So, I close this week thinking about our human endeavour. I work with great teachers who inspire and excite me. I interact with people online, and this happens there too. As this drops, a whole bunch of folks are gathering for NCTE, and my biggest regret about not being there isn’t the cool stuff I’d learn, but the cool people I’d learn it with.

So make a point of engaging in this human endeavour. Talk, face to face, or via some fancy futuristic electronic method. Share, ask, offer and grow. It is all win.

Who’s in your squad? What magical things have you cooked up with your colleagues?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy, and we can expand our PLNs!


Academic Gifting: Offering Authenticity and Collaboration

Creating Authenticity

One of the most frequently asked questions in my writing class concerns itself with the intended audience of a text. When we analyze informational articles, we determine to whom the author is writing. When we analyze biographies, we analyze who might appreciate the organization of the text the most. And when we craft our own argumentative or analytical texts, we decide for ourselves who our readers are and what they want from us.

This last question, especially, hinges upon the idea of authenticity. My students crave real writing and real writing opportunities. It’s what makes a RAFT (Role, Audience, Format, Topic) writing assignment so intriguing. They like to occasionally take on new personas and voices, and they certainly like knowing that their writing is real and that it matters.

With the notion of “realness” in mind, I recently turned to Academic Gifting as a way to create both authentic writing opportunities as well as an opportunity for collaborative learning.

Academic Gifting

The Materials: Envelopes, Note Cards, and a Classroom Timer

I began the Academic Gifting exercise with the guiding quote of our unit:

“When the wind of change blows, some build walls while others build windmills.”

Students were tasked with responding to this quote on the front of the envelope. For six


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minutes straight (building that writing endurance), pens and pencils could not leave the envelope. Students made “I wonder…” statements, asked questions, and connected the quote to the four major texts of our unit. Importantly, they did not write their names on the envelopes. Instead, while they were writing, I walked around with a sharpie and numbered each envelope according to my seating chart. This allowed me to shuffle the envelopes throughout the room but to still be able to identify the author of the envelope at the end of the lesson. Continue reading

Titan Talk: Pen Pal Letters and Social Health

While sitting in a professional development workshop this summer, Chelsey Avery, a stellar special education and language arts teacher, and I were working on an issue that had been haunting us for days:

“How can we bridge the social gap between our highest academic achievers and students with unique educational needs?”

Our answer to this question has been implemented over the first month of school in the form of pen pal letters. These letters, which we call Titan Talk, are anonymous letters sent between my honors students and Chelsey’s special education students. While they serve vastly different purposes in our writing curricula, they have already shrunken the gap between these two groups of students.


  1. Honors English 10 students and 9 special education students will write anonymous letters to one another.
  2. Students will use code names to communicate.
  3. 2 honors students will be responsible for writing to 1 special education student.
  4. Teachers will review each letter before it is sent to the recipient.
  5. Direct and indirect writing instruction will be provided throughout the process.
  6. At the end of the process, students will meet at a reveal party.

Code Names

In an effort to keep the letters anonymous until the big reveal at the end of the school year, students have been assigned code names. For instance, Simba and Nala are writing letters to Batman, while Simon and Garfunkel write to Princess Leia. By asking students to take on pseudonyms, we can encourage them to take more risks in their writing (a natural result of anonymity) while maintaining the authenticity these letters provide.titan-talk-2


  • Authentic writing and reading opportunities – students are writing with actual students in their own school. This is not writing a pen pal they will never meet nor is it a contrived assignment in which students write to an absent other.
  • Writing to provide advice and to solve problems – the beautiful aspect of these letters is that the sophomore honors students just finished the experiences that the freshmen have just started. Thus, the expertise of the sophomores will motivate the freshmen. Furthermore, the sophomores will be motivated to provide sound and relevant advice when they know exactly what the freshmen are experiencing.

Continue reading

Mentor Text Wednesday: Synonym Toast Crunch, Euphemistically Speaking

Mentor Texts:

Excerpt from Labors of the Heart by Claire Davis

Writing Techniques:

  • Word Choice


In Nova Scotia, where we usually spend July, there is an amazing chain of thrift stores. They usually have an interesting selection of books, which corresponds nicely with my having more time to read.

This year, I really lucked out. I’ve become a big fan of the Best American series of books, and this year, the stacks coughed up three of them, two short stories, and one poetry from the early 2000s.

As I dug through the short story book from 2001, I came across this passage from Claire Davis’ story Labors of the Heart:

Labors of the Heart

Right away, I knew I had something I wanted to share. Continue reading

Connecting Through Words: Kids as Writing Coaches, Part III. The finale!

We have loved bringing you Chris & Robyn’s exciting project this week! Today marks the final installment in the series, but if you want to hear more (and hear it live!) find their session at NCTE16 in Atlanta in November! They will be presenting under this same title!  Thank you, Chris & Robyn, for sharing with our community! 

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Part Three

We hope you’ve enjoyed our journey as told in the first two blogs in this series.  If you haven’t yet read parts one and two, please check them out; we promise you that this piece will make much more sense if you have read the first two.

This year has been – by far – the most enjoyable year of our teaching careers, and that happiness, the quality of our instruction, and the success of our students’ learning can all be traced back to this project.  Our focus on CLEAR learning (collaborative learning through empathetic and authentic relationships) motivated us as teachers and our students as learners to remember the human side of school. We refocused our instruction and assignments and asked our kids to be mindful of relationships first and foremost—relationships with others, with texts, and with the written word. Nothing we did was revolutionary; we simply refocused our efforts, through collaboration, on what matters most: building empathy.  So, regardless of if you plan on trying some of the activities we have written about in the last two pieces or not, we sincerely hope that your takeaway from our work is simple: don’t lose sight of the kids, the relationships and the empathy—the standards and test scores will take care of themselves if we take care of the caring.

With that said, we wanted to leave you with a few suggestions if you are to try to create CLEAR Learning in your class (or by collaborating with another class, ideally!) as well as share a few changes we will make next year based on student feedback.

  1. Establish a system for workflow

This is really essential; as anyone who works with Google Drive knows, it can be very easy for students (and often times easier for teachers) to get lost within their own Google drive.  So, early on in the collaboration, be sure to establish the workflow for the collaboration.

When we built student partnerships, we used Google Spreadsheets to keep a record of partnerships; this was easily made viewable for all our students and included contact emails and first and last names so students could refer back to it as needed. When it came time to assign work, Chris used Hapara to push the assignment/document to each of his students, and then each of his students shared the document with his/her partner and with Robyn. We also had students copy us on essential emails so we were in the loop for specific projects (and this reinforced how to write a friendly yet professional email – a skill so necessary for all kids today).

This entire collaboration used the spectrum of GAFE; students commented, chatted, and embedded links and images into work done in Drive. These systems worked for us, but they are certainly not the only way.  Whatever you choose, be sure to think that through from the start.

  1. Join the fun

For every writing assignment that we gave to our students in this collaboration, we joined in on the fun. As busy as we all are as teachers, it is all too easy to get caught up with the more mundane tasks of our job, forgetting how much fun we had writing poetry analyses during undergrad or giving a friend feedback on a piece of their writing. We co-wrote, responded to each other’s poetry analyses, and tried to provide real-time models of our work. In addition to showing our kids our own writing processes, we also had FUN. Take the time to join the fun; you will love it, and your students will love seeing it.

  1. Practice Patience and Persistence

This should come as no surprise because, regardless of the task in teaching, we have all learned the even the best of plans come with their share of unexpected chaos! However, when working with two classes (or in our case three) in two different schools that meet at different times during the day, an extra pile of patience and persistence is needed.  There will be times when you dedicate class time for your students to work on their half of the new assignment only to find that their partners didn’t do what they were supposed to the night before, thereby “ruining” your plan for the day. Adjust for things like the November 1st college application deadline, prom, senioritis (ahem), and/or other activities.

Being flexible is so essential in collaboration! This is just one example of many that we experienced along the way in which even the best plans didn’t go as expected.  But for us it was simple: there’s always tomorrow. If we want to teach empathy, we need to practice empathy as educators; there are bigger issues in life than having to alter a lesson plan because your students’ partners were too busy with life, and all that comes with it, to finish their paragraphs the night before.  The chaos was a constant reminder to us, as teachers, of the human side of teaching, and it gave us a consistent opportunity to show our students that we care.

So, what next?  Lessons Learned from Student Feedback

  1. We want to meet our partners sooner and more often.

We waited too long; it is that simple.  While the field trip was a smashing success (you can read about it in blog #2), we learned something very quickly: we waited too long to give them a chance to talk to and see one another.  Maybe it was fear of the logistics (of course there are all sorts of hurdles to jump with this sort of collaboration), or perhaps just not knowing, but the reality is, we plan on getting our kids talking face-to-face via Google Hangouts much sooner into the process.  We will still develop the foundation of the relationships through writing, but not too soon after, we will get them talking with one another.

  1. We want to talk books, darn it!

While they had a chance to annotate poems together (you can read about this in blog #1), it is clear that they wanted to create lit circles with members from each school mixed into the same team.  The best part: they didn’t want it to be part of a grade or have any points or any assignments: they simply wanted to read together, talk together, explore together through literature. If that isn’t an English teacher’s dream, we don’t know what is.

  1. Can we just have more time to write?

Speaking of English teachers’ dreams, it doesn’t get much better than this. Simply put, they wanted more time for writing, and while that in and of itself sounds great, it is even better when you dive into it. They didn’t just want more time because they were lazy or procrastinated, but they wanted more time to draft, to explore language, to revise based on feedback, to get more feedback to revise again, and to learn from one another.  They wanted to be authors – totally free to play with words, to take risks, to FAIL, but to have the time to pick themselves up or to be picked up by their partners and to know that the right product was within them the whole time, it just hadn’t had the opportunity to jump out onto the page yet.

If you have any questions about this work and/or would like to get in touch with us, Chris can be reached at and Robyn at  Additionally, we will be presenting on this at NCTE this year on this very topic, so please come by, say hello, and learn (and maybe write!) with us.



Connecting Through Words: Kids as Writing Coaches, Part II


Yesterday you read part one of Chris and Robyn’s collaborative writing story! Here’s part two!  

modern day pen pals- (1)

When we set out to have our students collaborate over Google Docs, a face to face meeting wasn’t part of the original plan. After multiple pairings and collaborations, our students asked, “So, when are we going to meet each other?” Their request made perfect sense – when we (Robyn and Chris) began collaborating on our own writing projects, it was initially done online – and then, of course, we met up to share a drink and discuss writing. Meeting in person humanized the process, making our collaboration – and our writing – stronger. So, why not offer our students the same opportunity (minus the wine bar and plus a school-sponsored field trip)?

Using writing protocols from the National Blogging Collaborative, we designed a day of thinking, writing, and working together. Chris bussed his freshmen from Downers Grove North High School to Hinsdale Central High School, where Robyn’s seniors waited in the Community Room, the air packed with baked goods and absolutely no idea what to expect. Once the initial awkwardness of our students meeting began to wane (think: um, do we shake hands? How will we even know how to find our partner?), we got down to the work of writing and thinking with the charge “Let’s Write!” After viewing a Ta-Nahesi Coates interview on the writing process, students reacted to Coates’ words with a brief gush write, followed by both freshman and seniors sharing their ideas and finally(!) hearing each other’s voices!

Because we didn’t meet until 10:15 and had just spent 45 minutes watching, writing, and discussing the Coates clip, it was time for lunch; however, time was not to be wasted. We kept students in their discussion groups (which were based off of their argument-writing groups), and projected several discussion questions onto the wall. While eating, students pondered such topics as: “why do you write?”; “what is your biggest challenge as a writer?”; “what sort of reading influences you most as a writer?”, and so much more. The conversation was casual yet deep, friendly yet intellectual. In short, it was the exact sort of conversation that teachers push for: grounded in deep thought, yet authentic and real in structure.

As the lunch time conversations began to wrap up we had three more activities from them: playing with verbs, finishing their co-writing projects, and collaborative poetry writing.

The first of those turned out to be a blast, with students laughing in carefree and child-like ways. We asked each student to, individually, start writing a story about being in a car. As students wrote, Chris called out changes to the story. For example, he called out events like: it begins to rain, or you phone rings, or you realize you are missing a shoe. None of these had any rhyme or reason to them, but they forced the writers to push through the story quickly and in different ways. After about five minutes of this, they were asked to stop writing and trade papers with a partner. Then they were asked to do the following:

  1. Read your partner’s story
  2. Give it a title
  3. Reread the piece and, changing only the verbs, completely alter the tone of the piece.

After these three steps, they traded back so that their partner could read the “new” piece, changed by the verbs. Students laughed with one another, seeing how powerful (and oftentimes forgotten) verbs are to writing. Without us prompting, students were asking to share (read in front of everyone) parts or all of their story, so of course, we took time to for this, allowing everyone to hear and laugh together, enjoying the power of writing.

The next activity we did provided students time to work in their passion groups to finish their pieces. The goal of this activity was to create a final version of their collaborative pieces, and we suggested that students play with embedding images and links into the finished pieces to add interactive elements. We gave them an hour and half to write, and they really went to work (gotta love a deadline!). While the kids were typing away, figuring out what to cut, where to add, and what links or pictures to weave into their pieces, we pulled a couple of partnerships into a separate room where they were interviewed by a student videographer. We asked them to share their experience on camera, and it was later published in Hinsdale’s online newsmagazine.

Our final activity was a short collaborative poetry experience. We headed outside to Hinsdale’s chilly yet picturesque courtyard (complete with baby ducks and the resident goose, whose aggressive posturing was nearly as entertaining as our poetry activity), and grouped students into small poetry cohorts. Students wrote down their favorite lines from the passion pieces, and, using those lines as a springboard, wrote poems together, passing their papers clockwise and adding lines and phrases under a tight time limit (20-30 seconds max for each pass). We watched and listened to them giggle as they added to each other’s work and shared from their poems. It was amazing to see the camaraderie formed throughout the day, and this activity really sealed the community with laughter and comfort, smoothing out the awkwardness that they had at their initial meeting and creating a truly collaborative atmosphere.

You can connect with Chris & Robyn on Twitter @MrBronke and @RobynCorelitz or the Moving Writers Community on Facebook.


Connecting Through Words: Kids as Writing Coaches, Part I

This week, we bring you a special treat — a three-part series from two new guest writers. Over the next few days, they will tell the story of their cross-school, cross-grade writing collaboration as they connected 9th and 12th grade writers. As you’ll see, this partnership grew beyond their expectations! 

Christopher Bronke is the English Department Chair at Downers Grove North High School, and Robyn Corelitz teaches English at Hinsdale Central High School.  Both schools are located in the Western Suburbs of Chicago.  In addition to their work at school, they both work for the National Blogging Collaborative–Chris as co-director and Robyn as a writing coach.  They met first, digitally, through collaborative writing, and are passionate about connecting teachers and students through writing. You can connect with them on Twitter @MrBronke and @RobynCorelitz. 


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There was a palpable energy in the room; nervous, yet weirdly charming. It was a foreign experience for these seniors, but one to which they had been looking forward for a few months now. The room was set up to look and feel like a collegiate workspace – pods of desks and chairs arranged in friendly quads, a break table full of donuts, a tangle of power cords and adapters criss-crossing the floor.

The bus slowly rumbled its way over the final speed bump, and that is when it hit the freshmen: they were about to meet their senior writing partners.  The youthful laughter and playful sounds of the bus ride quickly turned into faces filled with consternation, a few quizzical smiles.  Finally, after working together for eight months, they were going to meet their partners.

They knew one another as writers, editors, readers, poets, presenters, and people; despite having never met, all of this was accomplished through the power of collaborative writing.  It started as an exercise aimed to improve peer feedback.  Robyn, a teacher at Hinsdale Central High School,  faced a problem: her seniors weren’t taking peer-editing as seriously as she would have liked (we can all relate to that). Chris, department chair at Downers Grove North High School, also faced a problem: he feared his freshmen did not have the discipline-specific vocabulary (yet) to give meaningful enough peer-feedback to truly improve writing.  So, a collaboration was born.

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 9.07.25 PM.pngOver the course of eight months, these two groups of students from two different schools in two very different grade levels, came together virtually to learn from one another.  The collaboration started with an introduction letter, ninth grade students writing to their senior partners not only introduce themselves but to share their fears about being in high school as a person and as a learner/writer.  In return, the seniors wrote back, also introducing themselves, but then addressing the freshmen fears as as well as making a few book recommendations.

From there, we changed gears to the main purpose of this partnership: improving peer-to-peer feedback.  After finishing Fahrenheit 451, the freshmen wrote an analysis essay, and then  shared those with their senior partners.  Seniors then had a few days to give feedback.  The best part about this: none of it was graded.  Not the actual essay for the freshmen nor the feedback for the seniors.  This really was scholars, being scholarly for the sake of scholarship, and it was beautiful.  While not required, most pairings exchanged multiple drafts and received multiple iterations of feedback.  One fact became clear: this exchange, the power of having an authentic audience with which to share one’s writing and one’s feedback, created an intrinsic motivation within our students that neither of us had ever seen before.

This exchanged continued for two more rounds of papers. Chris’s students shared their drafts and Robyn’s students provided high-quality and meaningful feedback; however, we quickly realized, based on student feedback, we were missing the bigger point: this didn’t have to be a one-way street.  The seniors wanted to share their writing with the freshmen in order to get their feedback, too.  This serendipitous surprise truly blew our minds.  We never figured a senior Advanced Placement student would see any value in sharing a piece of his or her writing with a freshman honors student, and yet, they were clamoring for it.   As good fortune would have it, the seniors were currently working on their college admission essays, so not only were the freshmen able to see the seniors’ writing and give feedback, they were able to already start to think about college essays and learn from the seniors.  This step in the process was a highlight for Chris in particular as his earlier fear about his students not having the discipline-specific vocabulary to give meaningful feedback was quickly laid to rest; as a result of getting multiple rounds of great feedback from the seniors, his freshmen had developed the language needed to reciprocate that feedback.

It was at this point in the year that both sets of students began to ask for two things: can we meet our partners at some point this year and can we write WITH them?  Who were we to deny these requests? We quickly worked with our administrations to get a field trip scheduled, and began to create a collaborative writing experience based on the protocols used by the National Blogging Collaborative. Students were paired based on a common passion, given time to gush write, categorize their gushes, and eventually work to turn that into a single coherent piece of writing. After a few weeks on this project, we realized that in order to finish these well, we would need to have them work face-to-face at the field trip (which we will share more about in the second blog in this series).  So, we put this assignment on hold and turned our attention to reading and analyzing poetry.

Students, regardless of age, struggle with poetry; this much we know.  Because of this, we thought these partnerships might be the perfect way to attack poetry.  Turns out, we were right.  Over the course of a month or so, students, using Google Docs, collaboratively annotated/text-marked poems, learning from, questioning, and challenging one another.  This honest and open -yet safe- environment provided the perfect space for students to take risks when discussing poetry, something that is not normally easy for them to do.  Ultimately, this part of the project ended with a true and authentic They Say/I Say style writing piece in which the seniors selected a poem and did a written analysis.  The freshmen then had to read the poem and their partner’s paper and do a response back, working on their argumentative and analytical writing skills while being forced to authentically navigate a real counterclaim. Many of Robyn’s seniors claimed that the feedback from their freshman partners was one of the most valuable writing exercises of the year – many of the freshman really took them to task in their counter-analysis, which sharpened the seniors’ revision process and made them acutely aware of shortcomings in their analyses.

The reality is that we could go on and on about some of the other projects that the pairings went through, but the purpose of this first blog in the series is for you to get a sense of this project, the why, how, and what of this collaboration.  Stay tuned for part two in which we will discuss the actual field trip and what it was like to bring these classes together, face-to-face: to write, think and laugh – not as students, but as people.


A Collaborative Writing Study That Will Rock Your Students’ World: Children’s Literature

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A page from ENDLESS HOURS by Jarrett W. and Andrea E.

It’s often said that writing is a solitary act. The word writer calls to mind a wooden desk, a few pens, a notebook, and a lone writer hunched over a trashcan of crumpled paper. While certainly romantic, this imagery doesn’t represent the whole truth of the writing life — writers don’t always work alone.

I think of my favorite writing professors in colleague – most of them were married to other artists with whom they frequently collaborated. Professor Spaar’s husband set her poetry to music. Professor Orr’s wife, a visual artist, depicted his poems on oversized tapestries that hung in the McGuffey Art Center. Collaboration, it seemed, was another part of the writing process – a thing writers and artists did in addition to planning and creating and revising and publishing. A place where art both began and ended.

Planning out my year, I knew I had to give my students a taste of this — an opportunity to work with other artists to create something bigger and more meaningful than anything they could do on their own.

The first thing I did was plan a collaborative study of children’s literature. As a young mom, I had already done a lot of the mentor text reading at night with my son! And lucky for me, I happen to work at a school with a very strong art program and wonderful art teachers. I knew at least one of them would be excited to collaborate.

The Study

As in all good writing studies we began with mentor texts. I selected a handful of children’s books that Katie Wood Ray calls odes, or  “books where it’s clear the author has an interest, fascination, love for a topic and crafts a text to help the reader see whatever it is through that lens.” Here are the special books we worked with:

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Our mentor texts

We studied the craft of these books, dreamed up plans for our own stories, and begin writing. Students wrote on everything from guitars to the beach to hiking and biking to tennis to the imagination!

Along the way I taught lessons on clear, engaging titles; creating voice through surprising or invented words; adding rhythm through sentence length; building “word music” with alliteration and other sounds; and using figurative language to show something familiar in a new way. We wrote, studied the mentors, conferenced like crazy, revised, wrote, and finally polished. This process took about three weeks.

The Collaboration

Once the text was set, I sent the writing to my colleague Meredith in the art department to distribute to her artists. We decided to keep the pieces anonymous so the artists would choose projects based on writing they were drawn to – not people or friends they wanted to collaborate with.


JaNiece & Kippy find out they are working together!

The day we brought our artists and writers together to announce the partnerships that had formed out of true respect for the work was as exciting as I imagine any residency match day to be!

Here’s how the rest of the collaboration went:

  • Meeting 1: Students and artists met for 40 minutes to read through the text together and talk about initial ideas
  • Artists spent the following week drawing up several prototypes, based on initial conversations
  • Meeting 2: A week later, students met again to look at prototypes, make suggestions, and ultimately discuss a plan for the illustrations

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    A page from INFINITE OCEAN by Ella T. & Millie B.

  • Artists were given a month to create the illustrations, in addition to other class projects they were working on; my writers moved forward in their next writing study
  • Meeting 3: Everyone gathered together to share artwork and discuss book layout. We shared this layout tool with students to help them decide what content would go on each page. Students then completed this template.
  • Various meetings between writers and artists  – some students met more frequently to discuss illustrations, ask for tweaks, etc.
  • Then, once the illustrations were finished, in one week’s time, my students created and published the final books in iBooks with the help of our technology integrator

You can see samples of the amazing books sprinkled throughout this post!

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A page from WINTERGREEN by Bailey H. and Whitney H.

Would I do this study again?

Without a doubt in my mind, I WILL do this study again! Here’s why:

  • This study brought out the adults in my kids

    This was a surprising find. In the first few days of the study, I thought I had made a mistake in doing this study with my 8th graders. They almost seemed too close to the years of children’s literature themselves to fully appreciate this opportunity. They began to act younger, sillier. But once we really dug into the study (about a week) — and especially when we brought in the Honors artists (juniors) — they transformed into wiser, more mature young writers who had a purpose to carry out. They were forced to rise to the maturity and experience of the best artists in our school. They wanted their writing to be just as amazing. Everything we did from that point on was filled with an incredible sense of pride. And pride can do wonders for students’ writing. It was quite beautiful — watching this evolution take place almost over night.

  • Students became published authors overnight

    iBooks is amazing! With some very basic skills, anyone can publish and sell books with iBooks Author. Students can publish hardcover books OR e-books, so cost is not an issue. They can make their books public or make their books only available to friends, family, and other people with whom they want to share it.

  • This study was the perfect precursor to the study that followed

    Following our children’s literature study, we studied children’s book reviews from The New York Times. Students chose one of the children’s book mentor texts we had been studying over the past month to review. I’m certain their reviews would have been far less informed, confident, and smart without an extensive study of the literature itself — so much so that I’m convinced of this: if we ever want students to write powerful analysis of literature, we have to teach them and inspire them to write that kind of literature first.

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A page from MOUNTAIN CLIMBERS by Liza C. and Millie B.

  • Working with visual artists strengthened the visual content of students’ writing

    Conversations with their artists brought to my writers’ attention areas in their writing that weren’t quite clear enough — parts of their book that needed more focus, more detail, better word choice. Students whose writing lacked clarity and specificity weren’t content with the artists’ prototypes. I would hear them say things like, “That’s not what I wanted,” or “That’s not what I had in mind.” My students literally had to go back to the drawing board to clarify in words what they wanted their artists to visually depict. No lesson I could teach in sensory detail and clarity of writing could match this experience.

In my next several posts, I will share another collaborative writing study I did with my 8th graders this year (nature essays), as well as my tips for creating cross-curricular writing studies, and my thoughts about why this kind of work is important in our classrooms. In the meantime, feel free to share your experiences with collaborative writing studies or other collaborative units that involve writing in your classrooms!

Allison (@allisonmarchett)