How Mentor Texts Engage Secondary Students in Play


We are over at the Heinemann PLC Series this week chatting about mentor texts & discovery . Read — and watch — more here!


3 Reasons Literary Analysis Must Be Authentic


Teachers from Farmington High School in Farmington, CT, armed with authentic literary analysis mentor texts and a game plan for bringing it to their classrooms!

Hello, friends! Oh, how we have missed you!

Allison and I are still in the midst of finishing our new book on teaching analytical writing, but we couldn’t resist a quick check-in with you to share some of what we have been up to!

Yesterday we had the great fun of doing an hour of virtual professional development  via Google Hangout with a department of teachers from Farmington High School who are searching for better, deeper, more meaningful ways to engage their students in writing literary analysis.

We all know that traditional, academic literary analysis — the kind of 5-paragraph themes you and I wrote in high school — don’t really work. Students hate writing them. We hate reading them. At best, students have successfully followed a formula that has allowed them to regurgitate what they have heard and discussed in class. At worst, students limp through the motions, inserting ideas pilfered from Spark Notes and badly-written Internet essays.

So, that doesn’t work. What does?

As in all writing, students’ process and writing products must be authentic if we are going to get buy in and engagement.  Here are just three reasons that the literary analysis writing we teach and students create must be authentic: Continue reading

a Writing With Mentors Webinar!


Maybe you’ve got the broad strokes of teaching with mentor texts — show students authentic examples of writing in a genre to guide and inspire their own writing.

But what does this look like in your plan book?

How do you move students from reading like readers to reading like writers?

How do you introduce mentor texts to your students?

And how do you plan for regular bursts of mentor-text-inspired writing and for entire units of writing study centered on mentor texts?

We’ve got a webinar for you!

Join us for three-sessions that will help you build a mentor text foundation with your students and use that foundation to grow confident, inspired writers! With your registration, you get access to the recorded sessions for one year — so even if you can’t join us live, you won’t miss a second of the hands-on, mentor-text-centered work and collaborative learning!

Sign up here with Heinemann today! We can’t wait to learn with you & fill your plan book with inspiration for your students.


The Power of “What’s The Worst That Could Happen?”

This summer began with a hold-over goal from last summer: my daughter wanted to jump off the diving board. The previous summer had ended with her standing on the board, toes curled over the edge, but no jump. As soon as the pool opened this season, her mind was set. She would jump.

And yet, when we got down to the pool, nerves had reappeared. Georgia demurred. Day after day, she talked about the diving board. She looked at the diving board. She even touched the board from the safety of the deck.

But one day as Georgia watched the other children fling themselves from the board, she looked at me, resolute, and asked, “Mom, what’s the worst that could happen? There is a life guard right there. I know I can swim. You’re watching me. I just need to jump.” And so she did.

This is the way I want to teach.

I believe in the transformation that happens in our minds and in our classrooms when we take a leap and launch into an experiment, into the unknown. It’s a shot in the arm — a wake up call. Medicine for weary teachers and complacent students.

Recently, on the Talks With Teachers podcast, Allison and I shared that experimentation isn’t always borne of courage and conviction. In my experience, it has most often come out of desperation — of seeing something that isn’t working, hypothesizing about a solution, and then saying to myself, “What’s the worst that can happen?”

This is a question I come back to a lot. And it’s a question I also pose to my student writers. Because I want our classroom and their writing to be filled with the kind of wonder, discovery, and risk-taking that happens when we try. When we experiment.

Risks make better teachers, and risks make better writers.

For Teachers


Experiments — large and small — innovate our pedagogy.

Six years ago, I knew my writing instruction wasn’t working. I was scared to really teach writing — scared my writers would fail — so I resorted to no-fail solutions: formulas, fill-in-the-blank essays, giving them arguments. Of course, these measures also killed their writers’ souls. Not knowing if it would work or if I could pull it off, I wiped my plan book clean, read Write Beside Them asked “What’s The Worst The  Could Happen?”, and started a full-fledged writing workshop.

This is the same way I eliminated traditional grades in my senior English classes last year.

On a smaller scale, this is how I approach daily instruction. While our fundamentals remain constant — choice, target instruction, time to read, time to write, time to talk — I keep my teacher heart engaged by experimenting with the variables.

screen-shot-2016-10-02-at-9-07-02-pmIn the last few weeks, Allison told me that she has been getting her 9th grade writers to share their writing process and receive feedback under the document camera. In her class, students clamor to share; whole class periods are filled with sharing. I didn’t think this would work for me. What if I asked the students to volunteer to share, and no one did? What if they came forward, but they didn’t know what to say? And I didn’t know what to say? And it was painful and awkward for everyone? But, I know my students need more opportunities to talk about their writing, so I tried it. And it worked — students shared and enjoyed peeking into one another’s notebooks.

Angela’s post on making writing using a grid  intrigued me as I was looking for tangible ways for my students to revise their free verse poems. But I worried: would students understand what to do? What if they couldn’t apply the poetry strategies that I taught…? And I was suddenly confronted with that reality … in the last days of our writing study? Still, I was curious. What would happen? And I didn’t want to wait until our next writing study. What was the worst that could happen?

So, we tried it last Tuesday. It was fun and fresh — a new way of looking at our writing. It transformed some students’ poetry. A few confirmed their faith in their original lines and gained confidence to stop tinkering. A couple truly struggled- – they quickly realized that this is not a revision strategy for them. At least not now. But what was lost? Nothing. Writers learned something about their process.

For Students:

I want this ethos — that we will try anything to become better — to pour over into my students’ writing.

How can we get our students to try new things in their writing? How do we get them to ask, “What’s the worst that could happen?”

The good news is that their sweet and strange teenage brains are already wired for this – we just have to tap into it:

Show Them The Moves of Real Writers

Students can’t take risks if they don’t know what they look like. When we immerse them in the work of real writers, we improve the chances of them trying the (risky) techniques of real writers.

Because they saw real writers use these techniques, Federico tried his hand at using a Tweet as evidence in his sports analysis, Lauren wove personal anecdotes into her film analysis, and Claire tried out a strange and surreal metaphor in her poem about snorkeling.

Give Students Opportunities for Revision

Some experiments succeed and others fail wildly. We need to allow our students to take risks in their writing along with the opportunity to fix it if it doesn’t work. In real life, writing is not one-and-done. It shouldn’t be one-and-done for our students either, especially if we are asking them to try new techniques in their writing.

Provide Opportunities for No-Stakes Writing Play

Big, polished, published pieces can’t be the only time students take risks and experiment in their writing. Daily notebook time gives students a chance to try new techniques with the safety that comes from knowing that no one else will see it, no one will judge it, no one will give it a grade.

Reward Risk-Taking

We encourage students to take risks in their writing when we reward it. Allison’s notebook spotlight under the document camera is a wonderful way to highlight times that students have moved beyond their comfort zone in their writing. I have even awarded students bonus points for telling me how they have taken risks in their writing.

Confer About It

Asking students “what risks have you taken in this piece so far?” brings the concept to the forefront of the student’s mind and the conversation about writing. Asking this question nudges students in the direction of experimentation and lets them know that it is not only permissible but encouraged.


“What’s the worst that could happen” is one of the most powerful questions in my toolbox — right up there with “How’s it going?” and “What do you notice”? Here’s the thing: when our risky experiments are rooted in best practices and the best interest of our students, they might fall flat, but they will never fail. We will be learning about our own pedagogy, reinvigorating our practice, helping our students discover what does and doesn’t work for them. This is true learning.

So, here’s a challenge: in this next month, try an experiment, take a risk to find a solution for something that isn’t working. Big or small, find a way to ask, “What’s the worst that could happen?” and make a shift. Then, come back here or on Twitter (@RebekahOdell1) or Facebook and tell us about it.

Let’s celebrate the leap itself.



3 Tips for Using Literature as Mentor Texts

Teaching is often a balancing act. We’re constantly balancing, sometimes battling, the seemingly opposing forces of lesson planning vs. grading, eating the cake in the workroom vs. not eating the cake in the workroom, literature study vs. writing study.

But why can’t we have our cake and eat it, too? And by cake, I mean writing. (And actual cake.)

As an AP Literature teacher, I feel the weight of the heavy-duty curriculum and the ticking of the exam clock, no matter how hard I try to balance the scales of the classroom.

When it comes to writing and mentor text study in a literature intensive course, I rely on a few tricks of the mentor-text trade that encourage students to deliberately craft their writing, not just get words on the page in the allotted time. The best way I know how to do that is to the use the literature itself as our mentor texts.

Tip 1

Use intentionally chosen passages from the literature you’re studying as mini-mentor texts.

I like to…

  • Choose mentors based on the device I’d like the students to practice or replicate.
  • Tag particularly rich or moving passages that evoke a reaction or response.
  • Look for variations in structure and style.
  • Choose passages that I admire or aspire to.

Take for example the following excerpts from short stories and literary nonfiction my students recently studied:

The hills across the valley of the Ebro’ were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies.


He picked up the two heavy bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks. He looked up the tracks but could not see the train. Coming back, he walked through the bar-room, where people waiting for the train were drinking. He drank an Anis at the bar and looked at the people. They were all waiting reasonably for the train. He went out through the bead curtain. She was sitting at the table and smiled at him.

‘Do you feel better?’ he asked.

‘I feel fine,’ she said. ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.’

 – from “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway

“There stood, facing the open window, a comfortable, roomy armchair. Into this she sank, pressed down by a physical exhaustion that haunted her body and seemed to reach into her soul.

– from “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin

I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world…I was sad for those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.

– from Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates 

Tip 2

Always follow the Read Like a Reader rule. Then ask: What do you notice?

Allow  students to read and react to the mentors as readers first. My students’ gut reaction to these mini mentor texts can go a couple of different ways. If they are not yet familiar with the text, they will want  to piece together the context or discuss potential symbolism, rather than examining how the writing is put together, which is exactly what they’re trained to do. So, let them do that. If students are familiar with the text or we’ve already tackled the piece in our literature study, students tend to first discuss the passage in context, which sounds something like, “Oh that’s where he…” or “Remember, that’s after they…” or “I love/can’t stand how this character…”

Allow students to experience the joy and surprise and emotion of reading beautiful passages in literature.

After that, one simple question will do the rest: What do you notice?

(Or I sometimes ask, what do you notice about how this is put together?)

With this question, students begin to see the mentors with new eyes.

For our classroom discussion and share out, I typically have students talk about their “noticings” first with their small groups, as I work the room and coach. After four or five minutes of small group discussion, we bring it back to the whole class. I ask one person from each group to share something they noticed, and I build a list of their noticings on the board — or what Allison and Rebekah call “writer’s moves.” From there, the students riff off one another.

I’ve found that even if some students don’t have the language for language, they are still willing to offer up what they see as important about the construction of the passage. I believe if we create opportunities for these conversations about the writing itself, students will be well on their way to Reading Like Writers and employing a few writerly tricks of their own.

Allison recently published a great post on this subject as well — on reading like readers, reading like writers, and identifying writers’ moves. You should definitely check it out.

Here’s what my students had to say about the second Hemingway passages in class:

Here they are reading like READERS: 

Here they are reading like WRITERS.


Tip 3

Create opportunities for students to be inspired by the mentors in their own writing.

If this seems like an exercise in invention or creative writing, it is! This is so much of what I love about the mentor text approach. Mentors allow my literature students to live in both worlds — to study great and powerful Literature-with-a-capital-L, and through simple writing exercises, to continue to explore their creativity, their depth of thought, and most importantly, themselves as unique and valuable individuals.

I tell students that after we practice and practice and practice with these mentors – these rich and evocative passages – that the deep structures of what we notice about the construction of  writing will transfer to their own writing as long as they are making intentional choices in their craft. I’ve found that getting students to consider how they’re constructing their writing is half the battle. As soon as students are open to the idea that repetition, detail, diction, dialogue, and syntax are so.much.more than unwieldy words we sometimes throw into a literary analysis, and that by taking control of their own voice and being aware and cognizant of how they, too, can craft their language like the pros – well, we’re getting somewhere.

Below are a few examples of some lovely student writing as a result of these methods.

The mentors we studied come from “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway; “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin; and an excerpt from “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates — all of which are found at the beginning of this post. 


How do you incorporate mentor texts into your literature classes? What stories or passages from literature might be fit for mini-mentor text study? I would love to hear from you!

Leave a comment below, find me on Twitter @karlahilliard, or connect with us on Facebook! 



The Narrative of Learning Essay: Personal Narrative Meets Literary Analysis

Students have a story to tell. So why not let them tell it as a way in to literature — to walk an idea around to see how far it will go and where else it might lead them?

If your students are like mine, they feel boxed in by their preconceived ideas of academic language (AKA “sounding smart), and they sometimes get stuck in the confines of the formal literary analysis. Rebekah has written some genius stuff about using mentors for literary analysis, and I think she’s on to something.

What I like about professional models of what we might qualify as “literary analysis” is their sophistication, their control, and the authentic and interesting voices exploring some equally authentic and interesting ideas. For students, simply giving them permission to exercise their own, authentic voice in literary analysis can be a game-changer in how they approach and craft this type of writing.

A mentor text I’ve had great success with is a beautiful piece from  The New York Times called “What Writers Can Learn from Goodnight Moon.” Full disclosure: I have two little girls, who are not so much babies anymore, but during their toddler years, we, like many other parents and their tots, read over and over again the timeless, melodic, sleep-inducing pages of “Goodnight Moon.” Perhaps that’s why I first admired this essay so much, but after introducing it to students as their first ever “narrative of learning” mentor, I’ve realized that it’s more than just a lovely piece of writing.

The Narrative of Learning Essay

Here’s the idea:

The narrative of learning essay is different in both kind and degree. The task is for students to write a deeply reflective essay in which they explore, reveal, and uncover some aspect of the literature being studied.

Students then…

  • Decide what to discover, explore, and uncover about the text.
  • Choose one feature of the text that they find genuinely interesting and worthy of exploration.
  • Write an essay that is, at its core, a mature, sustained conversation about the text, zeroing in on the one feature they’ve decided to explore and what they discover about it.

Continue reading

The Catalyzing Moment – an Interview with Allison & Rebekah

Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 9.07.50 PMWe owe a lot to Tom Newkirk. Actually, we owe almost everything to Tom Newkirk. This brilliant man has been a leader in our fields for decades, but one cold morning in Boston 2 1/2 years ago he spoke directly to Allison and me through a crowded room. And everything changed.

We talk about this “catalyzing moment” over on the Heinemann blog today — a moment that moved us to tears, that led us to start a blog, and, ultimately, to write Writing With Mentors. A moment for which we will be forever grateful.

Watch our interview here!

Building Writing through Independent Reading Projects – a Follow-Up

In January, I reviewed Dan Feigelson’s Reading Projects Reimagined, and I was on fire! I couldn’t wait to take the brilliant-yet-simple idea of inviting students to track an idea of personal interest throughout a book. No more prescribed annotations! No more end-of-chapter questions! No more herding students into tightly-constructed pens of thought built on what I think is significant!

Especially with a book like The Catcher in the Rye, the whole-class novel my ninth graders were about to tackle.

I’ll tell you the end of this story upfront: independent reading projects were a huge success. I’m never going back to what I was doing before.

Here’s the rest of the story and how we walked through the first independent reading project together (chock full of goodies from my classroom for yours!):

Continue reading