Using Mentor Texts to Teach About the Passive Voice

Today’s post is from a guest, Kelly Pace. Kelly teaches 9th, 11th, and 12th grade English and Theory of Knowledge to students at my former school home in Hanover County, Virginia. And aren’t they lucky to have her? 

Kelly has been regularly emailing me the mentor texts she is using with her students, and this one was so interesting and answers such a common problem in student writing that I thought she should just share it directly with you! Use this as we approach the Winter Break as a little mini mentor study and rid your students’ writing of the passive voice!  Enjoy and leave Kelly some love in the comments below!

Mentor Text: “The Christmas Tree Allergy Phenomenon…”

Writing Technique:  When using the passive voice is effective (and when it’s not)

Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 8.57.56 AMBackground: 

Many people find it odd that as a teacher, I don’t own a red pen. I have a rule never to grade a student’s writing in red ink because the sea of red can be very disheartening for young writers learning the craft. I picked this up somewhere in a pedagogy of teaching writing class in grad school and since then, I have been faithful in upholding this rule. Yet, I recently realized the statements I write on my students’ drafts are a bit disheartening, focusing mainly on what not to do or what they shouldn’t’ do in their writing. Don’t put a comma here. Don’t just reiterate your thesis statement in your conclusion. Don’t use passive voice.

I have found myself recently writing this last comment regarding passive voice over and over again on my eleventh grade IB students’ drafts. When I initially addressed it, they said they had no idea they were even slipping into passive voice. I showed them what they were doing, but the next paper, an analytical essay and then subsequent in-class writing assignments, I couldn’t get past reading the passive voice. It stood out in their papers and made their writing stale, forced, and extremely lazy.

I continued my crusade against their use of passive voice, yet my students didn’t seem to be listening. Perhaps I have told them what not to do so much that I have begun to sound like the teacher in every Peanuts comic strip. I had lost my own voice in my classroom and needed to gain it back.

It was then that I realized I needed a new marketing strategy to get my students to listen. Instead of showing them when not to use passive voice, I presented reasons when it was acceptable to use passive voice.

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Mentor Text Wednesday: Concrete Details


Mentor Texts:

Has Snowboarding Lots Its Edge” by Christopher Solomon. The New York Times, 16 January 2013.

“A Sports Star’s ‘Crash,’ Then The Search For A New Normal” by Ian Buckwalter. NPR, 4 July 2013.


“The Power of Snowboarding” by Jordan., 15 December 2010.

Writing Technique: Using concrete details


I am experimenting in writing workshop.   (In some ways, writing workshop always feels like a wonderful, high-flying experiment, doesn’t it?)

I am teaching a unit based on a technique that crosses genre — using evidence to illustrate and support the writer’s purpose.  And I’m doing so with four mentor texts that will remain consistent for the whole unit.

Two weeks ago, I showed how I use these mentor texts to talk about how writers find their genre by beginning with their ideas.

Today, I am using these same mentor texts to show how writers use concrete, specific details as a type of evidence.

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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

Showing-Versus-Telling & The Walking Dead

The first twenty minutes of the pilot episode of The Walking Dead is virtually silent. I hadn’t remembered that when, out of desperation and end-of-October exhaustion, I agreed to show the episode to my ninth graders on Halloween. They begged. I was weak. In a lame effort to sound educational, I grasped wildly for one of our recent mini-lessons.

“As we watch The Walking Dead, think about what we know about the world that we aren’t explicitly told. In other words, think about where the show is showing and not telling.”

The Problem

“Showing versus telling” is my instructional arch-nemesis. I teach it every year. I have some really good mini-lessons — or so I think. And still, every year, this is one of the skills that a chunk of my students have the hardest time mastering. This baffles me. It becomes a story of the writerly haves-and-have-nots, with some students mastering the skill instantly, innately.

If a student comes to my class without being an avid reader or without being a confident writer, the student still has years of story under their belt. On some level, they know that stories have action and dialogue and details. They can pick it out when they see it. They can talk about it. Yet, when it comes to translating this into their own writing, I always have the other 30% students who deeply struggle to show — and not tell — on their own.

I’ve modeled until my hands hurt. We’ve practiced: Tell me about your ride to school this morning. Now, show me your ride to school this morning. We have identified exemplars in our independent reading books. But nothing I have tried has met with more than about 70% success.

Until I gave up trying and showed an episode of a TV show.

Read the rest of this post at Talks with Teachers! 


– Rebekah