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)




A Lesson for Tomorrow: Using Art to Teach Repetition in Writing and Reading

Students are great barometers of lesson effectiveness. At the end of each writing workshop genre study, I ask students to reflect on the lessons that had an impact on their thinking and writing. When asked which mini-lesson she found to be the least helpful in our memoir genre study, a student wrote:

The mini-lesson I found least helpful was Narrative Transitions. It didn’t really help to show me how to actually do it. We saw and talked about narrative transitions in a more helpful and understanding way in mentor texts and other mini lessons than the actual Narrative Transitions mini-lesson.

The Narrative Transitions mini-lesson was a direct instruction writing lesson. The “mentor texts” and “other” lessons she refers to were reading mini-lessons. Savannah’s reflection is a powerful testament to the inseparable link between reading and writing instruction. It serves as a reminder that reading instruction can have a more significant impact on student writing than direct writing instruction itself.

Below I outline a “reading lesson” that uses art to sharpen students’ writing skills.

The Inspiration

The other night, I stumbled upon a compelling passage in Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. In this scene, Ari, the main character, presses his father to talk about his brother Bernardo, who has been in jail for several years. In a fit of discomfort, Ari’s dad pulls the car over, and Ari observes:

He nodded. He got out of the car. He stood out in the heat. I knew he was trying to organize himself. Like a messy room that needed to be cleaned up. I left him alone for a while. But then, I decided I wanted to be with him. I decided that maybe we left each other alone too much. Leaving each other alone was killing us.

        “Dad, sometimes I hated you and mom for pretending he was dead.”

        “I know. I’m sorry, Ari. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” (283)

As I read this passage, my eyes backpedaled over the line “I decided I wanted to be with him,” honing in on the word “decided.” It jumped off the page as I noticed another occurrence of it in the next line. Then, I suddenly became aware of the numerous iterations of the word “alone.” And the repetitive syntax of the first few lines: “He nodded. He got out. He stood out.” I paused, happy to slow down and savor the craft.

And in my slowing down, I began to rehearse a lesson on repetition for workshop later that week:

Good writers use repetition to emphasize important ideas. Good readers notice repetition and link these words to larger themes in a text.

The Planning Stage

I spent a few days pondering how to teach repetition. How to reframe it. How to show my students that repetition is more than restating. That purposeful repetition is one of the writer’s best tools for conveying her purpose and the reader’s best tool for discovering it. (As a side note, in Notice and Note, Kylene Beers and Robert Probst teach intentional repetition as “Again and Again,” signpost #5.)

And that’s when I stumbled upon  an EDSIDTEment lesson on repetition in visual art. I strive to “think big” and present lessons in terms of broader, universal ideas, so I was thrilled to stumble upon this lesson, which took repetition to a whole new level:

Visual repetition in some ways acts like an echo. There is frequently one feature (often this is the object that is in the foreground of the painting) that appears as the “original,” with additional recurrences seeming to repeat—to echo—the first. You may ask students to think about what happens when they hear an echo. They hear the first sound, they then turn their attention to the echoed “response,” and soon begin searching with their ears for additional recurrences. Visual repetition can have the same affect [sic]: the recurrences of the visual “echoes” draw a viewer’s attention to that point in the image, and soon they are searching with their eyes for additional references. In this way repetition is often used as a tool by artists for guiding the viewer’s eye around the canvas. (“Repetition in the Visual Arts”)

I decided to use the idea of “guiding the [reader’s] eye around the canvas” as a framework for presenting my lesson.

The Lesson

Following the EDSITEment lesson fairly closely at first, I began by sharing the point of the lesson:

Today we’re going to look at how artists use repetition to echo important ideas. We’re going to start with visual art, and as we look at these paintings together, I’d like to you to think about the following questions: Where do your eyes go first? Where do you see additional recurrences of that color or shape?” Please jot down your observations in your writer’s notebook. I will give you some time to think on your own first and some time to share in your group before we share out.

We looked at Monet’s Palazzo del Mula Venice. (Click here for my PowerPoint with the artwork and line drawings from the EDSITEment lesson plan.)

Students recorded observations in their notebooks; then they shared with their table partners. Volunteers came up to the board and pointed out what they saw:

  • The blue posts flanking each door

  • The windows in this same blue

  • The gold and yellow tones on the building, reflected in the water

  • The boats in the foreground–it took some discussion before a student recognized these as gondolas

  • The horizontal lines segmenting the buildings into stories

Next we studied the line drawings, which, like the outline of a paper, revealed underlying patterns in the artwork, highlighting repeating shapes and colors in the design.

We repeated this activity with three other pieces of art. Students were getting out of their chairs to get a better view. Some with backgrounds in art were leading the discussion. The classroom was abuzz.

Then it was time to make the art-writing connection. First, I shared the repetition-as-echo analogy, explaining how repetition works like an echo in that it draws the reader’s eye and ear across the page, in search of other occurrences of the pattern.

Then I gave them a pretty standard definition of repetition–a device in which words, sounds, and ideas are used more than once to enhance rhythm and to create emphasis–which they copied into their writer’s notebooks.

Next, I projected the excerpt from Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, and I did a think-aloud to show students how my eyes, brain, and ears had moved across the page as Sánez drew my attention to something important and then emphasized his point through repetition. My script went something like this:

When I’m reading a really good book, I get lost in the story like you do. But sometimes my eyes catch something, and I want to slow down…like when I read this passage the other night. Suddenly I noticed the word “decided,” and then I saw that it was repeated in the next sentence. I became curious.  I know that writers don’t repeat the same word in such close proximity unless they are trying to get us to pay attention to something important. Suddenly I knew this car scene with his dad was going to be more than just a car ride, and I became eager to slow my reading down and look for other clues.


My talk-aloud continued as I pointed out additional instances of repetition, being sure to connect the concrete technique to the abstract ideas of the text:

  • syntactical repetition in first few sentences: “He nodded” “He got out” “He stood” — underlines the narrator’s close reading of his father, moments before his “aha”

  • “sorry” appears four times, underscoring the dad’s guilt

  • “alone” appears three times, representing the disconnect between father and son

Next, I showed them the “line drawing” of this passage (which I made simply by “whiting out” all non-repetitive text and leaving the repetition in black font), so they could get the full effect of the intentional repetition. A communal “ohhhh” echoed throughout the room as I revealed the underlying structure of the passage.

Not only did it “look cool” on the screen, but it made my close reading of the text visible for students, and opened up lots of possibilities for them as writers.

“Ok, so now we’re going to…”

They finished my sentence with their actions, plunging eager hands into backpacks. Soon everyone had a book on their desk, ready to locate meaningful repetition in their own books.

A few days later, I used this lesson as a springboard for talking about logical transitions. Reading an editorial together, students noticed how writers use key words and repetition to create logical transitions between paragraphs. And so they set to work on their own pieces, using repetition to bolster their arguments and move their readers from point to point.

The Reading Writing Connection

This year I teach Writer’s Workshop on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and Reader’s Workshop on Tuesdays and Thursdays. But my student’s thoughtful evaluation, and the success of this lesson, reminded me that good instruction doesn’t fit neatly into “writing lesson” and “reading lesson” boxes. Thinking like writers informs our reading. Reading like artists informs our writing. And making the connection between reading and writing more obvious makes a difference.

How have you used reading instruction to bolster student writing? Please leave a comment to share an idea!

~ Allison