Happy New Year from Moving Writers!

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2015 was a momentous year for us at Moving Writers: we published a book with Heinemann, and collected over 52,000 views on our blog!

This is all thanks to you, dear readers, for your support, your questions, and your continued interest and enthusiasm in our work. As a thank you, we are reposting our top five posts of 2015!

#1 So I quit grading… | October 2015

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In this post, Rebekah shares the story of her brave experimentation with doing away with grades altogether in her upper-level IB English class. She shares what she does in lieu of a traditional grading system, some student feedback, and the results so far. She promises another post in 2016 once she has gone gradeless for a full school year!

#2 Thinking about Mentor Texts for Literary Analysis | April 2015

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This post explores the problem of needing to teach literary analysis in a world in which literary analysis doesn’t really exist (outside academia). The solution: authentic mentor texts! In this post, we share our approach to culling mentor texts for teaching literary analysis. We cover mini mentor texts and whole mentor texts pulled from sources like The New Yorker and A.V. Club that highlight the skills our students need to write literary analysis in smart pop culture reviews.

#3 Mentor Texts for the First Week of School | July 2015


This summer we compiled posts that explored the use of mentor texts during the first few days of school. In this post you’ll find simple one-day activities for kicking off the year as well as a more in-depth project called The American Teenager Project that will move you into the first writing workshop study while teaching all of the procedures and habits your students will need for a successful year of writing.

#4 Writing Workshop Workflow: A System for Tracking Student Progress | October 2015

Submission Form

Submission Form

In this post we share a way of tracking student progress and collecting work during a unit of study using both digital and paper media.  This post contains lots of goodies — a code for tracking student progress, conference summary sheets, writing study cover sheets, and more templates to make your life easier and your workshop smoother!

#5 A Different Way to Teach Literary Analysis: A Literature-Based Analysis Study | May 2015

In this post we share a literature-based analysis study built on the poems of Seamus Heaney. This project offers a rich and exciting way of incorporating analysis into your classroom: analysis of a text, analysis of a writer’s choices, analysis of one’s own writing. The best part? No boring literary analysis essays in sight!

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Two years ago, when Rebekah and I decided to form our own two-person PLC, we had no idea it would lead us HERE. But every day we shared resources, brainstormed together, and wrote about our work.

If we could give you, our readers, anything it would be the gift of a PLC. Kick off 2016 by forming your own microPLC. Share this post with a colleague or two and commit to trying new idea in January. Then write about it!

As always, please let us know if there are topics or questions you would like us to explore at Moving Writers in the new year — leave us a comment below, find us on Facebook, or connect with us on Twitter (@rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett). We have been working on some exciting changes and additions to the blog for 2016 and are anxious to share them with you. Stay tuned for some amazing guest posts, a blog series, and more!


Allison & Rebekah

Screen Shot 2015-11-23 at 2.56.21 PMLike what you’ve read here? Check out our new book, just published by Heinemann, Writing With Mentors: How to Reach Every Writer in the Room Using Current, Engaging Mentors Texts. (Available here and here and here — wherever your holiday gift card takes you.)


Literary Analysis Week Wrap-up: Observations, Conclusions, & Lingering Questions

You might remember that this burning desire to meaningfully bring literary analysis into a real, thriving writing workshop began because I was trying to find a solution for the mutual malaise experienced by my students and me in my IB English class. There had to be something more — something better — than the by-rote way we had been used to writing.

Together, we discovered that writing workshop can transform the writing of literary analysis — making it dynamic, making it invigorating, moving it out of the classroom and into real life.

In the last couple of weeks, I have shared about

Today, I want to share with you some things that I have observed after diving into this full-time with my IB students over the last few months. I also want to share some of my lingering questions, wonderings, and itches — the places I intend to investigate next.

My Two Biggest Instructional Take-Aways

  • For my older writers, the time in class to write and confer has much more to do with the rehearsal acts of writing than actual paper-on-pencil drafting.

One of the many reasons I wanted to bring writing workshop to my older students is that they had gotten into very bad habits of procrastinating on writing tasks and then turning in work they weren’t proud of because they didn’t have any time to revise. I wanted to break this habit by showing them the value of working steadily along in small pieces.

This didn’t exactly happen.

Though I followed the exact same workshop routines that I follow with my younger students, when I finished the mini-lesson with my 12th graders, their work looked a lot more like talking through ideas with peers, writing off the page, and studying mentor texts. Initially, I looked at this and saw failure. But Katie Wood Ray saved the day (as she has a habit of doing) when she visited my class one day, and said, “But they are writing. They are doing tons of rehearsal, and that is writing!”

I think my students still write most of their papers in the nights immediately before a due date, but they have spent many more hours considering their writing, planning their writing, rehearsing their writing aloud than they ever did before. To borrow from Andy, one of my students, they are now writers with a plan rather than “writers floundering in a vacuum.”

  • We are all more engaged, and we are all better writers

Bringing the depth of literary analysis into the life of writing workshop has engaged my students more deeply than I have ever seen them engaged before. I taught this year’s seniors before when they sophomores. I know them well. This is the hardest I have ever seen them work, the longest I have seen them toil in productive wrestling with their ideas. It’s the best writing I have seen them produce.

And not just for the brilliant writers, whose work I have shared with you in this blog series. Writing in a more open, more authentic way about literature has benefitted my students who are still struggling with commas and structure and logical organization and effectively supporting their ideas. Even when their product isn’t perfect, they are thinking through the task in deeper ways and coming out with writing that has more voice and personal imprint.

I am also more engaged. This has been a (wonderful) challenge for me, too. Finding mentor texts that speak to the tasks of literary analysis has been a new kind of treasure hunt for me. Answering their questions has pushed me, too, to define literary analysis for myself, to examine what is truly being demanded by IB/AP/school standards, and to reconcile my beliefs about writing instruction.

Without doubt, I am a better teacher than I was months ago because I jumped into this experiment beside my students.

What I Wonder

As I move into my summer period of idea incubation and research, there are still lots of avenues I want to pursue. Specifically:

  • Is there a scaffolding of analysis skills that should progress as students move from 9th to 12 grades?
  • What does brain research actually say about the teenage brain and its capacity for analysis? What should we be expecting of our students in terms of cognitive development and this very challenging way of thinking and writing?
  • What are accessible literary analysis products for newer and younger writers? If they aren’t ready to write like writers from The New Yorker, what are they ready for? What’s fair?
  • Do our writers ever need to write a traditional, academic piece of literary analysis? Are journalistic analysis pieces “enough”?
  • Should we ever teach formulaic analysis? Is that truly a stepping stone for more sophisticated analysis? Does it ever make sense to teach skills we will later want to unteach?

Answers — and inevitably more questions — are forthcoming.

In the end

Perhaps my biggest — and most surprising — takeaway from this school year is that this kind of writing has actually done the work of moving writers. I expected the quality of writing to improve. I expected students’ engagement with the writing process to improve. But I didn’t expect to grow aspiring writers through the process of writing literary analysis.

Multiple students have reported to me that they now “feel like a real writer” as they craft papers for English class in response to the literature we are studying. One student, Madison, says, “I now am actually considering a major in journalism because of studying the mentor texts.”

Friends, treating our students like writers, regardless of the kind of writing they are producing, truly makes them think of themselves as writers. It raises the stakes everywhere.

Thank you for following along with me this week! What lingering questions do YOU have? What other observations have you made? Where are you still nervous? Skeptical? What makes you the most excited to dive in with your students and redefine literary analysis?

Comment below and find us on Twitter @rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett.

A Different Way to Teach Literary Analysis: A Literature-Based Analysis Study

This week, I gave my ninth graders this definition:

Analysis: breaking something into its parts and pieces so that we can closely examine it and, ultimately, come to a better understanding of the whole.

Literary analysis: when we do this with a piece of literature.

In the traditional high school English classroom, literary analysis has looked one way — like an essay, sometimes in five paragraphs, beginning with a generic introduction, thesis statement, body paragraphs (following a strict topic-sentence-followed-by-evidence-and-explanation format), and a conclusion that regurgitates all the was said before.

But look at the definition of analysis again. Can we teach students to use these same skills — thoughtfully, deeply — and come out with a different product?

Last week, we looked at one way to approach this in a writing workshop classroom — breaking literary analysis into sub-genres, teaching the techniques and characteristics of that sub-genre, and using real world analysis examples as mentor texts. You saw two different technique-based analysis workshops as they lived in my classroom:  an analysis of two texts side-by-side and a character analysis study.

But there is another way to approach literary analysis in the writing workshop: literature-based analysis studies.

After we have studied a work of literature together, that text morphs into a writing mentor text, and students craft their own piece based on the work of this mentor.  Literature-based analysis studies came to life in my classroom because I wanted to give my IB students a different kind of writing experience, while still focusing on the whole-class literature we are required to study and analytical skills they will need for their exam and for their future.

This is the ultimate double-duty workshop classroom moment. Students already do the noticing and studying of craft moves as they read and discuss the text. They simply lift the analysis they have done in their reading and translate it into a piece of writing! For this reason, literature-based analysis studies tend to be a bit shorter than technique-based analysis studies.

Here’s how the process works:

  • Whole class studies a piece of literature
  • Students choose some of the mentor’s moves to put into their own original piece of writing, in the same style as the mentor  — when we study a poet, the students write poetry; when we study memoir or essay, the students write memoir or essay, etc.
  • Students mark the footprints of their mentor in their writing
  • Students write a brief commentary analyzing how their own mentor-inspired choices have impacted the overall meaning of their piece.

Analysis is all over this kind of work — analysis of a text, analysis of a writer’s choices, analysis of one’s own writing and the impact of one’s own choices as a writer.  My students report that this is way harder than they thought it would be.

Here’s a taste of a literature-based analysis study my students did after studying the poetry of Seamus Heaney.

The Assignment
Continue reading

Literary Analysis Blog Blast Day #3: Character Analysis Writing Workshop

On Wednesday, I shared the rationale for analysis workshops centered on different analytical techniques, and I shared one technique-based analysis study in which students analyzed two texts side-by-side. Today, I want to share another technique-based analysis study with you — this time, a character analysis.

The Assignment

Without choice, there really is no writing workshop, so, for this writing study, my students had choice about which character in which piece of literature they wished to analyze. They could interpret this charge anyway they chose — broadly or narrowly — writing about a clearly defined protagonist, a secondary character, or even something far more abstract that they defined as acting like a character in the text.

The Mentor Texts

Since my students have been chirping about the new Netflix original series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, I pulled three different character analyses about this show.

  1. Why It’s So Hard for Us to Agree About Dong from ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ (NPR) — This text looks at Dong, a secondary character from the series, and weighs his role against ideas about conventional Asian stereotypes.
  2. Candy Girl (The New Yorker) — This piece analyzes Kimmy, the protagonist, against the broader themes of the show. While it seems like the most conventional piece, this was probably the most sophisticated mentor text in the cluster because of the quality of the writing and the breadth of the argument.
  3. ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ Takes on New York City (The Washington Post) — This mentor text considers New York City as a character in the series.

Continue reading

A Technique-Based Literary Analysis Workshop

But even if we want to, how can we teach literary analysis in writing studies throughout the school year using a workshop approach?

Do we just repeat the same mini-lessons again and again until the students have mastered them? Do we teach the mini-lessons once at the beginning of the year and just bring out new mentor texts for each subsequent go-round? Do we only teach literary analysis in one study of the year and hope it sticks?

Technique-Based Analysis Studies

To combine the study of literary analysis writing and writing workshop, one trick I have found is to break literary analysis into sub-genres: analyzing theme, analyzing character, analyzing symbol, analyzing a key passage, etc. Not all analysis is created equal —  in different kinds of analysis the techniques differ. The structures differ. The way we read, think, and unpack our ideas differs. So, we can teach students to look a pieces of analysis differently based on their purpose.

The Assignment

A few weeks ago, my IB students launched into a technique-based analysis study in which they analyzed two poems side-by-side. (For my IB friends, this is the same task they will be asked to do on Paper 2 … so it was great exam prep!) I intentionally avoided calling it a compare-and-contrast paper because I didn’t want visions of Venn diagrams to pop into my students’ heads — that’s too simplistic, too easy, compared to what a sophisticated analysis of two texts actually does. Like all true workshops, students had choice — they each chose the poet and the two poems on which they wrote.

My IB students, seniors all, are well-versed in writing rote literary analysis. They are masters of school writing. They understand the structures — they know how to construct thesis statements and bring in textual evidence.  Thus, the focus of our study was breaking out of the tightly constructed box that we, their teachers, have made for them over the years. We focused on maintaining fidelity to smart, tight, persuasive analysis while also incorporating voice and style — hopefully writing something that they would actually want to read.

The Mentor Texts:

I began by giving my students four mentor texts: Continue reading

Thinking About Mentor Texts for Literary Analysis

When we are choosing genres to teach in workshop, one consideration is always at the forefront: is this real writing? Is this writing real writers do? Can I find authentic examples of it out in the world? Generally, if the answer is “no”, we don’t teach it.

With one notable exception: literary analysis.

In our mentor text explorations, we have yet to find an example of pure, academic literary analysis roaming around the real world. And yet, we acknowledge the need for students to work in this genre.

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 9.56.45 AMBut, maybe not for the reasons that you think.

In many — maybe most — high school English classrooms, literary analysis is the primary mode of writing. It’s the whole shebang. There are many reasons for this, but I think the most potent one is simply this: it’s tradition. It’s what you and I did when we were high school English students. And we enjoyed it. And we were good at it. And that’s why we became English majors. And then English teachers.

But literary analysis is one star in a vast universe of analytical writing. The traditional high school English classroom makes it the sun.

While you won’t find a literary analysis feature article in The New Yorker, analytical writing is everywhere. Political analysis of the 2018 Presidential election. Personal analysis in essays and memoirs.  Sports analysis. Analysis of Furious 7 and Mad Men. And, yes, in its way, analysis of literature in book reviews. Analysis is everywhere.

So, in our view, students should be writing analysis — lots of it — but analysis of all kinds, not just literary analysis. The skills are the same. And if students can skillfully analyze their favorite movie and the effectiveness of the new iPhone and the significance of an important event on their life and the theme of a poem, they will be fantastic, well-rounded  analytical writers who are much more prepared to enter the real world of writing than those students who have only written essays about literature.

Where does this leave us on the mentor text issue?

Like all genre studies, we give students real-world, hot-off-the-press examples of analysis — showing them that the skills they are learning to make a claim about a piece of literature are the same skills that professional writers are using to analyze all sorts of things in the world around them.

Our requirements remain the same — our mentor texts should be accessible and relevant for students, they should be well-written, they should be rich with craft.

Mini-Mentor Texts

Allison wrote about mini-mentor texts in one of our very first blog posts. Mini-mentor texts zoom in on a specific skill — making a claim, using supporting evidence, etc. — in a larger piece of analysis.

Rather than using a cluster of whole mentor texts, we parse out snippets of larger articles as we teach specific skills. We don’t give students the entire article — just the relevant paragraph or two that demonstrates the technique we want to see in student writing. Because these are bite-sized mentor texts, we use them most often with our younger writers who are new to analysis.

Take, for instance, this David Edelstein review of the new Spongebob Square Pants movie — a “text” from childhood that our students would be amused to revisit.  Edelstein gives a charming synopsis of the movie that can help my students as they write meaningful, engaging context for a piece of literature in their analysis. I might pull just this paragraph as a mini-mentor text:

It begins as all “SpongeBob” episodes do, with a hairy pirate who’s there to sing the theme that whisks us to the undersea world of Bikini Bottom, with its ukulele music and flower-cloud backdrops. But wait, here, he’s live-action and played by Antonio Banderas, and he’s on an “Indiana Jones”-like quest to find a magic book. After dueling with a skeleton and shushing some card-playing seagulls, the pirate reads aloud from that mysterious tome, a story of wholesale destruction, societal collapse, apocalypse, all triggered by the loss of the recipe for the wildly addictive Krabby Patties from the Krusty Krab restaurant where SpongeBob works and his best friend, Patrick, the fat, pink, dimwitted starfish, eats. I know what you’re thinking – this has something to do with Plankton, the tiny but very loud owner of the rival, Chum Bucket, restaurant. And you’d be right to an extent. Plankton did engineer a scheme involving pickle torpedoes, a giant robot and a Trojan horse-like coin to get into the Krusty Krab’s safe – I have a feeling I’m losing you. The best thing about this movie is that it can’t be explained, though you can hear how high the stakes are when Mr. Krab straps Plankton down, and with SpongeBob watching, uses diabolical means to recover the recipe.

Notice how Edelstein paints a scene, gives the gist of the plot, and connects with his audience.  I can use it for more than just teaching context, though. This excerpt from Edelstein’s review also makes an allusion to Indiana Jones — a helpful skill to teach students as they work to draw connections between the literature they are studying and the world around them. I can also use it to teach making a claim about a text; Edelstein makes a claim at the end of this paragraph that he will spend the rest of the article unpacking: “The best thing about this movie is that it can’t be explained.”

This mini-mentor text has the potential for use in three mini-lessons perfect for the writing of literary analysis.

Whole Mentor Texts

While mini-mentor texts are perfect for teaching literary analysis skills, whole mentor texts are great for teaching skills melded with voice and style in analytical writing.

My students love the casual-yet-authoritative style of The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, whose piece “Candy Girl” — a character analysis of Kimmy on Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt — we studied as a mentor text for their own analytical piece on a character from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Nussbaum’s piece bears all the essential skills students need to include in a work of literary analysis: a claim, reasons that support that claim, copious evidence that props up those reasons. But, from this text, students also explored how to sound expert and human at the same time (my students often swing between sounding like a robot with a thesaurus or a tween chatting with friends at the mall). They noticed the effective use of parentheticals to hold extra information and commentary. They picked up on Nussbaum’s use of dashes for emphasis and to quicken the pace of her argument. They examined her skillful and clever transitions — pulling the idea from one paragraph down into the next paragraph to deepen her nuanced argument.

Whole mentor texts are perfect for our older writers who are already familiar with the essentials, and thus can more easily digest and translate an entire article. These students are ready for something more — ready to take their writing to the next level.

Now that you’ve gotten a taste of how we think about finding mentor texts for studying literary analysis, Wednesday we will dive into a workshop analysis unit — a technique-based study comparing/contrasting two pieces of literature.

Moving Writers’ Literary Analysis Blog Blast: April 27 – May 6

Last week, I promised more details on using the workshop approach to teach literary analysis. I haven’t forgotten you!

And, so that you won’t have to wait to hear all we have in store, next week we will celebrate our very own Literary Analysis Blog Blast Week. Here’s the lineup:

Monday, April 27: Ways to Think About Mentor Texts for Literary Analysis Workshops

Wednesday, April 29: Technique-Based Analysis Studies — one kind of analysis workshop, with suggestions for mentor texts, mini-lessons, and samples of student writing.

Friday, May 1: A second sample unit for a technique-based study

Monday, May 4: Literature-Based Analysis Studies — another kind of analysis workshop, with a sample unit.

Wednesday, May 6: Take-Aways, Discoveries, and Next Steps for Literary Analysis Workshops

We hope that you will join us each day as we tackle a topic that is so central to high school classrooms!