Permission to Start the Year with Blank Walls

I’m currently working on setting up my eighth classroom in eleven years. There have been a few building moves in there, but most were just the result of shuffling around within a building. That’s a whole lot of packing and set-up for any classroom, but for one with a classroom library that grows every year? Well, let’s just say that I am a sweaty mess.

As I unpack and organize, I can’t help but think that if I could time travel back to talk to myself as a first-year teacher, I’d give my younger self some advice. I’d approach new-teacher-me, standing excitedly in the teacher store, a cart full of bulletin board borders, cutout letters, and posters, and I’d say, “put that wallet away.” Well, no, not entirely, but I’d advise myself to save some serious money.

My first year, I spent a lot of money on my classroom. A lot. I’d prefer not to think about how much money I sank into posters and bulletin board goodies. It was all in the quest to make an exciting learning environment. The empty walls looked so sterile, and I just had to do something about that. I bought parts of speech bulletin board sets, posters with snarky grammar jokes, quotes from novels in the canon, and banners about teamwork. By the time students entered my room, there was barely an inch of wall showing through any given location in my room.


Now that I’ve grown as a teacher, though, I make it a point to start the year with a whole lot more blank space. And that’s not just because I’m sick of setting up rooms. No, I’ve come to learn that aside from making the room look less sterile, all of those expensive posters are really just decoration, or worse: clutter. Now I know that by starting with some blank space, I’m saving room for instruction. Continue reading


Build Writing Independence with a Digital Menu of Mini-Lessons

So much of the workshop method is built on the desire to mold students into independent writers who will continue to thrive when they leave our classes. By the end of a year in my ninth grade Reading Writing Workshop, I hope that students will have discovered their own unique writing process, they will know how to use mentor texts on their own for instruction and inspiration, and they will know how to move from the seed of an idea to a polished, published piece of writing on their own.

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 1.15.46 PMAt the end of the first quarter, it’s time to start thinking about how to help my ninth graders take workshop writing steps on their own.

About halfway through my ninth graders’ recent memoir study, I had taught all of the skills that really necessitated a deep dig as a group:

  • having a clear beginning, middle, and end
  • writing an engaging lead
  • crafting a resonant ending (or so what)
  • making a movie in the reader’s mind (a.k.a. showing-not-telling).

Each of these lessons led us into mentor text study (even using an episode of The Walking Dead as a mentor!) and conversation as a group. Since I tend to front-load content and structure lessons, the lessons that remained on my to-do list were style /craft lessons: paragraphing, using appositives to add detail, and properly punctuating dialogue.

These lessons are different — they are procedural, black-and-white. You do it, or you don’t do it.  And while students may well have questions about their own writerly choices regarding paragraphing or the use of appositives, these aren’t lessons that are dependent on class discussion. So, I decided these were the perfect lessons to flip!

A couple of weeks ago, I shared how I flip a portion of my mentor text instruction using I would never want to flip all (or even most) of my instruction. It wouldn’t fit me well. However, flipping a little bit of my instruction has some amazing benefits:

  • Students who are absent or need to encounter a lesson multiple times to truly understand the techniques being described have an artifact they can watch again and again on their own.
  • It gives students more crafting and conferring time. When 15 minutes are given back to the students as writing time, they have more time to work and play with their writing during class.
  • When I know that I am going to be absent, digital mini-lessons allow me to be two places at once and feel like my students haven’t sacrificed a day of productivity.
  • I am freed to do even more conferring!  

and, of course,

  • Students begin to be more independent as learners and writers.

I decided to take the three mini-lessons that remained (and one bonus mentor text) and create a menu of mini-lesson options.   I created simple screencasts, using Screencastomatic,  of the three mini-lessons just as I would deliver them live during class. I uploaded them to YouTube so that I could quickly link to them.

Yes, I probably could have found ready-made mini-lessons of some kind on YouTube, but I think it’s important for my students to learn from me. That’s what they are used to. Right now, I know them best. It’s a tiny chore with an enormous personal touch and payoff.  My screencasts (as you can see!) are not polished and crazy professional. They aren’t even perfect (I make a one-take rule for myself to try to ward of perfectionistic insanity). But they are me teaching my students, using my voice and my terminology. I think it’s worth it.

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 12.54.02 PMThen, I created a document listing each mini-lesson (linking to the video) and giving a brief description of what they student would find in each. Students were required to watch and take notes on the three video mini-lessons. The bonus mentor text, which I had annotated with, was optional for students who were ready to do something more.

When I introduced this new concept to my classes, we talked about the needs of different writers. Some writers might want to learn from all of the mini-lessons up front, with more time to work freely on the back end. That may well be overwhelming for other writers, who need to tackle one mini-lesson at a time — first the video, then application in their memoir, then a new mini-lesson video. Some writers might prefer to do all of the writing until they are completely satisfied, and then go back to polish using the mini-lessons. Each approach is “right”.

Students worked at their own pace over four class periods — we began class with some Notebook Time and a business meeting as usual. I did a status of the class roll call each day to get a sense of where students were working, and then they were on their own — writing, watching mini-lessons, conferring.  They did whatever it was they needed to do that day.

When all was done, I asked my students what they thought. Here are what a few students shared:

“I really enjoyed the mini-lessons because I think I do work better independently. I liked how I had the ability to rewind if I needed to and I could go at my own pace. I would definitely like to do this again in the future.”  – Sydney

“I liked using the small mini lessons because it let me go through my writing process however I wanted to. The first couple days I had a broad idea in my head so I wanted to get that down on my computer as fast as I could, and then I went back and watched the mini-lessons. Even though I knew how to do dialogue, watching the video and powerpoint on it helped my dialogue in my memoir just with little tips of where commas should go, and whether they went on the inside of quotation marks or the outside.” – Josef

“I think that these REALLY helped because I was able to go through and stop where I needed and rewind. I could also watch the lessons in action which helped me to visualize and actually understand how and when I needed to use them. I would definitely suggest doing this again because it gives us a chance to learn on our own, which I think is a better way to learn overall.” – Bella

The first attempt was a success. Both the students and I enjoyed a little bit more freedom than we are used to during writing workshop. I had more writing conferences than ever, and students took a meaningful step toward discovering their own writing process. 

How have you flipped writing instruction in your classroom? Even if it wasn’t digital, how have you offered choice and independence in writing lessons? Leave us a comment below to tell us what you’re thinking about or find us on Facebook or Twitter (@rebekahodell1, @allisonmarchett). 

Offering Choice During Mini-Lessons

In April, in Creative Writing, we’ve taken a detour from technique-driven units of study. Students are participating in a National Novel Writing Month-inspired challenge, choosing from one of the following writing projects: 30 poems in 30 days, a novel (10,000 words minimum), a screenplay (45 pages minimum).

As the weather turns from winter to spring, everyone welcomes this opportunity to go where the wind takes them.

This change in routine, however, can present a classroom management challenge. With students writing in three different genres–one of which students are very unfamiliar with (screenwriting)–I wondered:

  • How can I best support these writers while giving them the freedom and time they need to create?
  • How can I tailor this experience to individual writers while disseminating information about genres that many writers need?

Rather than planning a month of whole-group mini-lessons, I created a rich menu of lessons from which students could choose. Continue reading

Step-by-Step: The Value of Mini Mentor Texts

A few months before our wedding, my husband and I signed up for private dance lessons at the local dance studio. On the first day, we were brought into a small room with a large rectangular window that looked out into the main ballroom. Professional dancers in street clothes leapt and arabesqued across the wooden floor. There was no instructor to be seen. I remember squealing.

The juxtaposition was thrilling at first. Here we were, novices without a clue, looking out into a room filled with professionals who made the dancing look effortless. It was both inspiring and… immobilizing. Could we do this?

Our instructor Chris didn’t let us linger at the window for too long.

“Ok! Let’s get started. What is it you would like to be able to do?”

That,” I said, pointing to the dancers beyond the window. We laughed.

My fiancé took a more logical route. “We basically want to look good,” he said, smiling.

“I can help with that. Do you have the song?” Chris asked, motioning for a CD.

The song we had. The vision we had. We just needed the moves. And so we began.

The first thing he taught us was box step, a basic building block. When we mastered that, we learned how to stand together, and then how to do different turns. Occasionally Chris would cut in and model for my fiancé how to hoist me into a turn or where to put his feet. We practiced these basic moves over and over again, occasionally glancing across the practice space, through the large window, into the room of professional dancers.

And this is how the lessons went for a few weeks before we started putting it all together.

Step-by-Step Instruction

As a teacher, I can appreciate the effectiveness of Chris’s instructional model. It’s reminiscent of Kelly Gallagher’s “Professional goes, I go, you go” method of using mentor texts and writing in front of students.

But Chris did something else, too.

Like my husband and me at the window, when students are exposed to complete mentor texts, they can become overwhelmed quickly.

Chris didn’t let this happen. He did let us gawk at the professional dancers for a few minutes, but then he calmly lead us back into the room and began showing us, one at a time, the “moves” or skills we would need to master before we could really begin to dance.

There’s no question about the value of using full mentor texts to teach writing. But we should supplement full-length mentor texts with mini mentor texts that target specific skills. When I was learning how to waltz, Chris’s step-by-step, move-based instruction and modeling was critical to my development as a dancer.

Hatching the “Mini”

My colleague and I first came up with the idea of mini mentor texts while planning a literary analysis genre study. We struggled to find real world examples of literary analysis (it doesn’t really exist outside of the English classroom), but there was no shortage of analysis. It was everywhere. On blogs. In The New Yorker. On our favorite pop culture websites like and With a little searching, we found exciting, relevant examples of analysis, like this review of Lucie Brock-Broido’s book of poems Stay Illusion and this analytical comparison of Breaking Bad and Mad Men.

And though we knew that these full-length mentor texts would not be accessible to our ninth grade writers, we believed that pieces of them would be. And so we hatched the idea of the mini mentor text, which has all of the qualities of a brilliant, uncut mentor text without the distraction of a full-length piece.

Below is one “mini” from the article “The New Stephen Curry” that we use to teach the skill of explaining evidence in our literary analysis genre study.

In very simple terms, Golden State has taken Lee’s touches and given them to Curry, unleashing him as something much closer to a full-time off-the-dribble force. And as it turns out, most standard NBA defenses are simply not equipped to deal with an off-the-dribble player who can shoot 45 percent from 3-point range. The change has crystallized against the Spurs, who haven’t been as committed as Denver to trying to take the ball from Curry’s hands with aggressive traps out toward midcourt; Curry dribbled the ball more in both Game 1 and Game 2 of this series than in any of the approximately 60 prior games recorded by SportVU data-tracking cameras installed at Golden State’s home arena and 14 other arenas this season, per data provided exclusively to Grantland. He has held the ball for nearly three more full minutes per game over those two games than he did on average in the regular season, a massive change for a player who controlled the ball, on average, about 5:20 per game this season, according to the data.

First, we read this passage out loud for comprehension. (I let the sports enthusiasts explain the basketball jargon!) Then, we read it again with the purpose of noting where the writer supplies evidence and follows it with explanation.

Then it was my turn. In my classroom, when students wrote analysis essays on a poem of choice, I worked with Stanley Kunitz’s “The Portrait.” I typed a little, projecting my thinking and writing onto the screen. Write. Pause. Write. Pause. Struggle. Write some more:

In the first line, the speaker acknowledges that his mother “never forgave [his] father,” a statement that immediately suggests betrayal or infidelity, until the actual reason for the mother’s stubbornness is revealed in the second line: “for killing himself” (1-2). Kunitz enjambs the next four lines, slowly revealing one shocking detail after another: “especially at such an awkward time/and in a public park,/that spring/when I was waiting to be born” (3-6). These deliberate line breaks increase the intensity of the news while shocking the reader in a way that mimics the emotional shock of a suicide…

Then it was their turn. Below is an example from one ninth grader, Garrett, who was studying Robert Wallace’s “The Double Play”:

This analogy of life to a double play is well-defined in Wallace’s continuous use of well-chosen line breaks that do this throughout the poem. By using these line breaks, the poem is slowed down at various times, effectively capturing specific moments in the double play. “Drawing it disappearing into his long brown glove / stretches” (18-19) is a perfect example of this. This particular moment portrays the very end of the play, when the first baseman catches the ball to record the second out. Line 18 is extremely crowded and hurried, but it is slowed down massively with only one word in line 19; this break most certainly slows down the moment and perfectly captures the small things that make this double play a success. With line breaks such as these and “to the leaning- / out first baseman ends the dance” (16-17), Wallace demonstrates the importance of completing work and following through, because in baseball as in life, finishing strong is just as important as starting strong.

Can you see the footwork of the “mini” in his body paragraph?

Moving the Writer

One of the greatest benefits of using mini mentor texts is the teaching and learning of skills that cut across genres. For example, when I teach an editorial genre study, and I want to show my students how to support their claims with evidence and explanation, I can refer to this same mini mentor text. With minis, our lessons get more mileage. We teach skills that move the writer, not just the one piece of writing.


If you’re wondering whether those dance lessons paid off–they did. They were a great investment. Because the box step is a skill that cuts across multiple genres of dancing. So we can dance our wedding dance.

But we can also do the rumba.

Image– Allison