What Do You Do in the Last Days of a Writing Study?

As a writing study dwindles to an end, it can be hard to know what to do in those last few days — what minilessons your students want, whether to plan for more conferring time, how to address the range of needs at the end. Students are working toward a common deadline, but this can look like a lot of different things in one classroom: some students may be polishing their work with editing lessons while other students are furiously drafting because they changed their idea halfway through the study. Maybe a few students are done even and are looking for something new to work on. Needless to say, structuring time in the last few days of a study poses a specific set of challenges.

Last study I decided to try something new with my eighth graders to refocus the last few days and ensure they were using the minilessons inside their notebooks as they worked towards a final copy: student-made minilesson posters.

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The project is simple: put students in groups, and assign each group to one or more minilessons taught during the unit of study. Then have students give brief presentations (2-3 minutes tops) to share their poster with the class.

What I love about this project is that it costs minimal time (one and a half class periods) but has great results. While students worked on their posters, the language of all the minilessons was alive, floating around in the classroom. I heard students saying things like, “My notes say something different than yours. How should we put that down?” Or “I have a gap in my notes here — what do yours say,” or “I think we should find a better example from the mentor text.”

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As I waltzed around the classroom answering questions, I realized that I do not give my students enough opportunities to discuss minilessons after I teach them. We share notebook time, we share writing, but rarely do we share our ideas, concerns, and questions about the actual lessons. Instead, we dive right into writing and conferring, and while I am able to check for individuals’ understanding in conferences, students don’t have the chance to work through questions or seek clarification with their peers. I had no idea how valuable that experience could be until I did this activity!

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Aside from giving students a chance to talk to one another and helping each other fill in their notes while reviewing key concepts, this activity had some other benefits:

  • It helped me identify misconceptions about certain minilessons. For example, the group covering “choose your words carefully” was having trouble picking out strong words in the mentor text “Litany” by Greg Orr. They were working with the line “In the bowl, among the vegetable chunks / pale shapes of the alphabet bobbed at random / or lay in the shallow spoon.” They were confused because they didn’t see any “big” words. I was able to remind them that carefully chosen words may be “small” but sharp: concrete nouns and vivid verbs that pack a real punch. It only took a few seconds to remind them that adjectives only go so far and bigger words for the sake of using bigger words were not examples of well chosen diction.Screen Shot 2015-12-20 at 9.28.55 PM
  • Students had fun. The poster for “cut to the bone” (a Nancie Atwell lesson) was created by three boys who had a lot of fun coming up with a fake version (on the right, in red) of the mentor text “First Love” by Carl Linder to demonstrate the pitfalls of clunky writing that has not been edited for unnecessary repetition  and adjectives.Screen Shot 2015-12-20 at 9.30.36 PM
  • We gained a collection of posters to keep around the room to reference in later studies.
  • Students were closely and carefully reviewing the minilessons that would help them revise and polish their writing  — something I can’t guarantee was happening prior to this activity.

After this poster activity and mini presentations, I concluded with an activity Rebekah shared in a post last year — a simple way to check in with students and help you plan your last few lessons of a study: give each student a sticky note, and pose this question:

What do you need to meet your next deadline? What do you need more of? What are you having trouble with that I might be able to address in a minilesson?

Then have them stick their note on the board on their way out. (Responses to these questions were so much richer and more thoughtful after the mini poster project!) Study their answers and compare them with your observations during the poster project to determine what’s essential to teach to the whole group, and what can most likely be addressed in individual conferences.

What do you do in the last days of a study? How do you structure your time together? Do you “review” your minilessons or teach new ones? Leave us a comment below, find us on Facebook, or Tweet us at @rebekahodell1 and @allisonmarchett.

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September 2015

Available on Amazon or Heinemann!



Mentor Text Wednesday: Restaurant Review PLUS Interview with Writer


Mentor Text:

Wells, Pete. “Fred and Barney Would Feel Right at Home.” The New York Times. The New York Times Co. 28 Jan. 2014. Web. 7 April 2014.

Author Information:

“At the Critics’ Table.” The New York Times. The New York Times Co. 3 Sept. 2013. Web. 7 April 2014.


Driving to work this week, I had an epiphany.

Mentor text study should not be limited to the study of texts but should include the study of the mentors themselves.

Here’s what Katie Wood Ray has to offer on this topic: “In genre studies, particularly, it’s a good idea to find out as much as you can about the people behind the texts you’re reading and the kind of work they do to support their writing. If possible, you may find interviews with writers and either include them in the stack of texts for students to read, or in whole-class gatherings, you might highlight what you think are the important points from the interviews. Also, ask students to pay attention to any author’s notes or information on book jackets that might provide insight into the writers and the work they do” (128).

I had read this passage in Study Driven before, but it didn’t sink in until this week. And then the guilt hit. I use mentor texts religiously but rarely do I stop to talk about the person behind the words.

What message are we sending to student writers about writers when we talk around  authors but not about them?

In an effort to make good on Ray’s suggestion, I immediately went to work to find author information to support the text we’re currently reading in our review genre study–a review of M. Wells Steakhouse in Long Island City, Queens.

How I Used It

Students are in the “immersion” phase of genre study. We are using these questions from Study Driven to frame our reading:

  • What kinds of topics do writers address with this genre and what kinds of things do they do with these topics?
  • What kinds of work (research, gathering, reflecting, observing, etc.) does it seem like writers of this genre must do in order to produce this kind of writing?
  • How do writers craft this genre so that it is compelling for readers?

We read through the review once together.

Students then did a second draft reading in which they paid special attention to the focus questions and made notes in their margins.

Afterwards, we plotted our noticings on the board. Here is the working list that we will continue to add to and refine as we immerse ourselves in several more mentor texts:

Review (Restaurant) – Initial “Noticings”

  • Includes slideshow with images from restaurant
  • Hyperlinks to other reviews of restaurants owned by same couple
  • Introduces the concept of “the steakhouse” and sets essay up to “set apart” the new steakhouse
  • Balances unbiased information about the type of restaurant with opinionated review
  • Compares this restaurant to other restaurants
  • Talks more about the substance/food than the chefs themselves (though he does give a bit of background information)
  • Discusses about 11 dishes
  • Uses the language of food
  • Uses figurative language & comparisons
  • Covers apps, main entrees, and desserts—you feel like he’s tried everything
  • No forecasting statement—he takes us on the journey he experienced
  • Has a 3-sentence conclusion
  • Delivers a rating system at the end: atmosphere through wheelchair access
  • Runs about 3 pages
  • Includes prices
  • Has a creative, captivating title that alludes to a television show
  • Includes LOTS of detailed imagery about each dish
  • Has a star system–how do they assign stars? Are the restaurants being compared to ALL restaurants? or restaurants of their kind?

After we charted the noticings, I shared the following clips to enhance students’ understanding of the work of a restaurant critic, as well as introduce them to Pete Wells, The New York Times restaurant critic.

Video: The restaurant critics’ guide to using disguises and fake names

Video: What actually happens at the critic’s table

If you look back at the list of noticings, you’ll see that my students wondered about the rating system. I was able to show them this clip to help explain how critics assign stars.

Video: NYT restaurant critics demystify the star-rating system

Ray, Katie Wood. Study Driven: A Framework for Planning Units of Study in the Writing Workshop. Heinemann: Portsmouth, 2006.

We’ve added a new section to our dropbox project–a folder called About the Writers–where we’ll post author interviews, author notes, etc.–anything to supplement the study of mentor texts and pay homage to the writers themselves.