Oh, the places you’ll go! Mentor texts for writing about a meaningful place

Each year, my students compose a series of brief writing pieces—each one describing a person, place, or thing. Currently, students are working on their “person” essay—a personal essay inspired by the beautiful mentor text, “The Stranger in the Photo is Me” by Don Murray. The essay is a meditation on memory and identity, and as students write their own essay, like Murray, they look at photographs from their own lives to help the unearth and reconnect with the people they once were. Students also read Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook” as an additional mentor text for looking at the way memory and identity can be explored in writing.

So while students draft this essay, I’ve been looking for additional mentor texts for their next piece, the “place” essay. While both Murray’s and Didion’s essays include places—both physical and emotional—I wanted a few more mentor texts that really focused on defining a place through rich and vivid description. By writing about a meaningful place in their lives, students might also sharpen their observational and descriptive writing skills. My hope is that by focusing on how to write about a person, place, and eventually, a thing, students can then draw on these writing experiences and synthesize these skills when writing longer pieces later this year.

The only problem was that I was I wasn’t sure which mentor texts to use for place. Although I had a few I’d used in the past, my collection felt a little stale. So I put a call out on Twitter with this simple request:

As you can see, I posted this Tweet at 3:15 on a Saturday afternoon. I wasn’t sure what kind of response I’d get—it was the weekend, after all—but I should have known better. Within 24 hours, I had dozens of responses, many from the Moving Writers team, but many others from wonderful teachers from across the country. Suggestions included passages from non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and children’s books. The generosity of teachers to share their expertise, their time, their love for their work and their students—it will never cease to amaze me.

While you can explore the thread on Twitter, I decided to compile the list here in this post for easier reference. Below are the mentor texts and the teachers who shared them. (I’m also currently in the process of copying them into the Moving Writers Mentor Text Dropbox—some of the texts are linked to where I’ve saved them so far. When images were shared of mentor texts on Twitter, I linked to those Tweets, and if the text was easily available online, I also linked to those texts.)  Continue reading


“Beautiful Oops”: Another Lesson in Making the Best of Mistakes

I thought I was so clever. I thought I had saved myself some time. Survey says…I was wrong! Join me today as I learn from my mistakes and try to make a “beautiful oops.”

The Inspiration:

Earlier this semester, I noticed that my seniors seemed to struggle with on-demand literary analysis. They are perceptive readers who share complex ideas about literature during class discussion, but their analytical writing was convoluted, tortured, and, often, nonsensical. How could I help them express themselves clearly? How could I weave more writing instruction into an advanced literature course (at a new school with a new rotational schedule that I’m still figuring out) without sacrificing the curriculum hours required by the course? Continue reading

Ask Moving Writers: Mentor Sentence Mini-lessons


Hi, Beth!

Thanks for asking. As you know, mentor texts can be incredibly powerful tools to help students see the beauty in our language—and studying mentor texts at the sentence level can help students see what happens when we gather the best words in the best order.

I almost always use mentor texts to teach craft at the sentence level. We start each day with a notebook prompt, and I often use brief excerpts from essays or novels that illustrate thoughtful sentence crafting. 

When I use mentor texts to teach at the sentence level, I focus three different elements: diction, syntax, and punctuation.  Continue reading

First Day of School: Six Word Stories with a Twist

Today’s guest post is from one of Rebekah & Allison’s colleagues, Maria Bartz. Maria  is an English teacher at Trinity Episcopal School in Richmond, VA.  She loves a clean white board for spontaneous think tank sessions with her inspiring colleagues, a fully charged laptop to explore the ever-growing world of educational technology, and  big circle of passionate teenagers engaged in thought-provoking discussion.


First-day six word memoirs from Maria’s students

Planning for the first day is a balancing act.  I want it to be fun, unique, and a truthful preview of what the school year will look like in my room.  For the past six years of teaching, plans for the first day were a mix of icebreakers, quick review of the syllabus, and writing some sort of introduction letter, which they would finish for homework.  It just never felt genuine or much like my classroom.  

This year, I decided to make it truer to my class: I wanted them writing.  And not just an introduction letter that skims the surface of who they are and what they like to do. Still, it’s tough to get students studying mentor texts and writing a finished piece in only 25 minutes.  I was up for the challenge.

My secret weapon came in the form of six word stories….with a twist.  In past years, I have used Ernest Hemingway’s famous six word story to open the conversation about intentional word choice: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”  While this is still one of the most heart-wrenching stories I have ever read, I wanted this activity to act as an introduction to the process of studying mentor texts as well as a gateway into the students writing about themselves in a personal way.

So instead of asking them to create a fictional six word story, it had to be a six word memoir.  Here’s how the class went:

  • Define “memoir”

I define the word “memoir” for my students and explain that memoirs can come in all lengths–a couple pages or an entire book.  I then tell them that they are going to write their memoir in only six words (listen for the gasps!).

  • Study  one six-word memoir together.

I preface the reading by saying, “This writer was asked, ‘If you had to tell me about your life in six words, what would you say?’ This is the memoirist’s response: ‘Ask me again in a month.’”

Independently, students respond to these questions: What is the tone, the feeling exuding from the sentence? How do you know?

I let students share with their group and then share to the class. Students notice that the word “month” is an indicator of hopefulness or despair, depending on how they perceive the length of a month to be.  Students note that the word “ask” is friendly or intrusive, depending on how they interpret being asked personal questions. We only spend a few minutes discussing this, as they quickly grasp the power of each word in the sentence.

  • Study more mentor texts

Next, we read ten examples of six word memoirs (amazing examples here). I chose IMG_1531examples that varied in topic, tone, and style and that resonated with high school students. Here are some of my favorites: this and this and this and this  They are unintimidating and clever; students have even commented, “I like these” or “This is cool.”

Students choose their favorites from the list of ten and work through the same questions about tone–what is the tone?  How do you know?  To that question, I add “What makes that sentence special–is there a play on words? Is there a creative use of punctuation?”  Some circle or highlight words, others don’t. Since this is a 25 minute class, I will save that discussion for another day.  My goal today is just to have them read sentences thoughtfully.  Due to my time constraints, we don’t share our thoughts on our favorite sentences; although, if the class was longer, I would ask for volunteers to share their findings.

  • Students take a turn

I then tell the students that it’s their turn–that they will be writing their own six word memoirs.  Some eyes widen, some let out a groan for having to do more work on the first day of school, but most are already spinning the wheels in their heads.  

For the sake of those who are not as eager to write, I offer up myself as tribute and share the drafts of my own six word memoir.  I explain why I made any major or minor adjustments in each draft and show my final draft written cleanly on a sentence strip.  This is intended to ease their anxieties, allow them to get to know me personally, and illustrate the power of revision.

At this point, there is about five minutes left in class.  I coach them along, asking rhetorical questions that could spark an idea–”What is going on in your life right now?  What is your life motto?  What are your hopes for the future?”  Some students will write six words immediately.  Others reread the mentor sentences and have zero words written when the dismissal bell rings.  Homework is to finish the first draft of their six word memoirs.

Without much dawdling, this took one 25-minute class period.

The next class, as the warm up, I ask the students to reread their original six word memoirs–does it reflect the tone you intended?  Does anything need tweaking?  Once they are satisfied, they will write their final drafts on sentence strips–no names required.

IMG_1532That afternoon, I staple all the memoirs on our bulletin board to publish their writing.  When students return to class, they are given three votes (pencil hash marks) for their favorite ones; we applaud those who got the most votes but keep the winners anonymous.

Students love reading each other’s memoirs and seeing their own work displayed.  I’ve even had a few students submit a new six word memoir, feeling the inspiration of their peers’ and their own writing.  We will refer to this activity throughout the year when I introduce the concepts of mentor texts, word choice, and taking risks.

It is my favorite first day yet.  

(For another beginning-of-the-year writing idea using six word memoirs, check out Stefanie’s post from last week!)

What new experiments are you trying on the first day this year? What are your tried-and-true favorite ways to getting students writing from day one? Comment below, find us on Facebook, or Tweet Maria @MsBartz.

Zen Teaching

Adobe Spark (43)

Now that it’s officially August, I’m starting to feel what I suspect many teachers feel this time of year—the all too familiar mix of anxiety and anticipation. While I use this time to cross off items on my summer bucket list—beach getaways, sticky popsicles, and poolside naps—I also use summer to reflect on all the things that could have gone better last year and the changes, big and small, I can make starting on day 1. I wonder about the students who will fill my classroom—and my life—in just a few short weeks. Who will they be? What will they be like? And how will I reach them?

These are just a few of the questions that go through my mind as I plan for next year. As I flip through pages of pedagogy books and teacher websites, my notebooks team with ideas. Ideas for independent reading, prompts for notebook writing, and of course, lists and lists of mentor texts. Yet while discovering new ideas energizes me, it also overwhelms. And I wonder—maybe you can have too much of a good thing.

Too much of a good thing. When I first started teaching, the hardest part was always feeling like I didn’t have enough—enough support, enough materials, enough ideas. I’m so thankful for the mentors who nurtured me during those early years. Now, fifteen years later, it’s not a matter of having too few ideas but too many. Even a cursory glance through favorite Twitter hashtags, teacher blog sites, and online workshops speaks to the abundance of ideas in the connected educator world—and to the generosity of so many talented teachers who share their work with open hearts.

So as I enter another year of teaching, and with so much rich material out there—how can we make sense of it all?  Continue reading

Sentence Hacking Through Social Media

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Image via Pixaby.com

Today we bring you another amazing guest post from Jeremy Hyler, a middle school language arts teacher and co-director of the Chippewa River Writing Project. He is the  coauthor of Create, Compose, Connect: Reading, Writing, and Learning with Digital Tools with Troy Hicks.

There is no arguing that the landscape of teaching students how to write has changed and continues to evolve. Students aren’t just writing anymore with their pencils and paper, they write in a number of different spaces and with different devices. Students don’t consider spaces such as Facebook, Emails, Twitter, or even Snapchat writing spaces. However, they truly are places where our students write on a daily basis. With that in mind, I feel that as a teacher of writing — and being a writer myself — we need to shift our thinking about how we teach our students grammatical skills in today’s digital age.

One of the ideas I want my students to think hard about are those spaces where they write. I spend a lot of time discussing the terms formal and informal writing with my 7th and 8th grade students. Oftentimes students (and adults) blur these lines and don’t realize that it is critical for them to write in a more formal matter when they have a certain audience. For instance, students should know that when they send an email to a teacher, there should be a proper greeting and closing within the email. In addition, there shouldn’t be any, what Kristen Turner, a professor and author at Fordham University, calls Digitalk in their writing.

Turner writes: “I see digitalk as a complex and fascinating combination of written and conversational languages that adolescents use when they text, when they instant message (IM), and when they participate in social networks” (37). Students today have found their own language and ways to communicate with their peers that is easy for them to write and understand information in an informal way. We can’t chastise students for using the letter “u” to represent the word you or how they spell love l-u-v.

As mentioned earlier, it is an opportunity to teach my students the difference between formal and informal writing. I want my students to know I respect their own language, but want to show them the appropriate times to use it. They need to know that what Turner refers to as code switching is necessary. Turner has written two different articles in English Journal about the idea of students using their own language and teaching our students to code switch:  “Using text speak as an example of code-switching may acknowledge the legitimacy of the language while bringing its use to the conscious level, where students can choose to use it or not, depending on the context” (61). In my own classroom, I want my students to practice code switching to help them to think critically about the moves they make as writers, especially in the different writing spaces they write in daily, in and out of school.

The activity I use to help my students work through their different writing spaces is simply titled “Sentence Hacking”. It deals specifically with the different types of sentences students are playing with through the process of sentence combining and composing — a process that is outlined in the Writing Next report.

Now, the sentence types my students focus on are:

  • Compound
  • Complex
  • Compound-complex

Each year the activity grows and evolves with the help of student feedback. Students start off with a template I share with them through Google Slides. As you can see in the example below, it encompasses many different social media spaces that my students write in daily. In this template Google Documents, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Email, and instant messaging are represented. The idea behind Instagram is that the students find pictures that represent the grammar concept being taught.  

Before the students begin working on the template, we establish as a class which spaces are formal and informal writing spaces. This can lead to some great conversations with students, and you can decide as a classroom community which spaces could be formal or informal. As my class and I have this discussion, we often talk about the audience for each writing space, which can change whether it is a formal or informal space.

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Blank template students start with


The task for the students is to first work with a group of 4-5 of their peers to complete the template using a type of sentence that I give them to start. For example, as we read The Giver in 8th grade, I give them an example of a compound-complex sentence from our text:

The fabrics on the upholstered chairs and sofa were slightly thicker and more luxurious; the table legs were not straight like those at home, but slender and curved, with a small carved decoration on the foot (Pg. 74).

My 8th graders then take the sentence and plug it into the template demonstrating what the sentence could potentially look like in the different social media spaces when it comes to formal or informal writing. Students are learning 3 important things

  • Students are learning how to rearrange and “play” with specific types of sentences to adapt in future writing assignments.
  • Students are learning how to differentiate between formal and informal writing spaces.
  • Students are using technology in meaningful and purposeful ways to make them better writers while using mentor texts.
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Template completed by 8th grade students

Now, I could get into how this activity connects to the Common Core State Standards, but I am more interested in sharing the actual activity than the curriculum connections.

After the students complete their templates as a group, I have each group share their template with the class and we discuss the moves that each group made as writers with their sentences or the grammar skill that was taught. Generally, it takes two 60-minute class periods. The skill the students learned is then applied to their own mini writing assignment where I can assess them on the skill that was taught. I do not drill and kill my students with worksheets or teach grammar in isolation.

Though the activity addresses the necessary skills that students need, it continues to evolve and change as I receive student feedback. Recently, my students wanted Snapchat added instead of Instagram because they use that social media tool more. As with any lesson that educators try to implement into the classroom, it should be adapted to your students needs. Also, students’ access to technology can play a key role in how the template may look.

It is without a doubt our students live in many different writing spaces and in general they actually spend a lot of time writing. Technology is not going away and using it just to use it, won’t help our students. Instead, we need to be smart about the implementation of tech in our classrooms. As teachers, we need to embrace the spaces that our students write in and help them differentiate when to write formally and informally.



What digital tools can you you use in your classroom to help students engage more in grammar? Do you think technology is to blame for students lack of correct use of grammar?

You can contact me on Twitter @jeremybballer or at http://www.jeremyhyler.wikispaces.com

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

Sentence Study to Textual Analysis — an Aha! moment

Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 3.15.13 AMIn 2014, I attended Alison and Rebekah’s presentation at NCTE in Washington, DC, and left buzzing about so much of what they shared, especially sentence studies. For reluctant writers like my freshmen, a sentence study is a great way to ease into creative writing or new sentence styles. The  thought of writing a paragraph sometimes paralyzes them, but a sentence they can handle.

As my freshmen study fiction, I’ve been challenging myself to find interesting sentences from our short stories and novels for sentence studies. Recently, a Notebook Time sentence study of a passage from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 evolved into a class-wide close reading and character analysis.

I use Notebook Time to start my classes, and Allison’s and Rebekah’s early posts at Moving Writers helped me to organize Notebook Time and keep my daily prompts varied. I began class two weeks ago with these two sentences:
Continue reading