Lifting the level of writing through mentor text

I’ve been thinking a lot about how work is done in my class. I love the time I have with my students when we meet in the middle to learn a new skill or new strategy. I love listening during work sessions when they are trying out their skills and strategies in their work. I love conferencing with students and having meaningful conversations about their struggles and celebrations in their reading and writing. These are all necessary and vital parts of my classroom.

But I also love when students discover learning on their own with only gentle nudges from me. This was the type of thinking and learning we focused on this week.

We are writing narratives, more specifically memoirs. Students have worked hard to get their ideas down on paper and write a complete draft. And they have done this more or less successfully. Let’s be honest, this is not the first narrative they’ve ever written. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them are recycling that token memory they’ve used in several previous grades for narrative work.

But I wanted them to lift the level of their writing.

So here’s how we went about it:
I made copies of an excerpt from the first chapter of Geoffrey Canada’s Fist Stick Knife Gun and the lyrics to Macklemore’s Wings. (Full disclosure: I was introduced to both of these texts through Mary Ehrenworth, one of my heroes in life, during a Teacher’s College workshop. There are so many uses for these texts!) I did a read aloud of Fist Stick Knife Gun. We talked briefly (really briefly) about this text and how it fit our definition of memoir. Then I asked students what craft moves did Canada make that really worked well in his writing?

I would love to tell you that my students were shouting out ideas so fast I couldn’t keep up as I furiously jotted on our anchor chart. But that didn’t happen. It was quiet. Silent, actually.

I waited.

A student finally said, “I really liked this part when they were talking.”

“I like that part too! But what did Canada do in his writing, what craft move did he make, that makes us, the reader, like this part?” I responded. And then waited some more.

“He uses dialogue that sounds like a kid. His words are more like that of small kids, so you know he is telling it from that perspective,” another student chimed in.

“Is this a move we could try out in our writing? Making sure our dialogue is authentic?”

We worked through a few more craft moves with this piece in the same manner—asking the students to think about the writer’s craft and the impact of the craft. 2015-08-19 12.32.57We watched Wings and talked about what visual craft moves we could mimic in our writing as well, listing these on chart paper.

Then I gave students a text set with more memoirs (the texts that I used are listed at the bottom of the blog). They worked together to read through these memoirs (they had been exposed to several of these already) and added craft moves they found to our chart paper. The next day I posted the charts from all the classes on the wall and asked students to select two moves they wanted to try out in their writing.

Later in the week, we repeated a version of this with leads and conclusions. Instead of just taking a few notes on leads and conclusions, students developed their own list of craft moves for effective leads and conclusions. Then they decided what might2015-08-19 14.40.51 work for their memoir.

Here’s what I liked about this:

  1. Students were engaged with many mentor texts that they could use as references.
  2. Students were reading like a writer.
  3. Students were learning to talk the expert language of writers.
  4. Students took ownership of the craft moves they wanted to try in their writing.
  5. Students’ writing was lifted through the work in a meaningful way.
  6. Students discovered way more craft moves than I could have shown them in a mini-lesson.
  7. Students were self-assessing their writing using the mentor texts.

I was most pleased with the conversations I overheard during their work sessions or when the students met with me for writing conferences.

2015-08-19 12.09.55Here’s a few of my favorites:

  • Brenden: My dialogue is trash. It’s not real at all. I’m going to go back and rework it.
  • Samareia: I tried changing my point of view to when I was a kid, but I didn’t like it. I think it made it confusing, so I’m going to tell it in flashback.
  • Darrell: I think I used the same word like 50 times in here. I need stronger words.
  • Savannah: I realized I wrote too much about other stuff that wasn’t important. I want to zoom in on the small moment and elaborate more.
  • Audrey: I really liked how powerful the use of repetition was. I want to try that out. I’m going to do several small moments and use repetition to tie it together.

A note about wait time:  This wouldn’t have been as effective if I had jumped in during the silence.  Students need wait time to process, to think, to formulate responses–especially when doing new or rigorous work.  Silence is okay.  Let the moment hang there to give students time to work through the question.  If we, as teachers, always give the answers after a few seconds of quiet, students will learn they don’t have to process or think, they just have to wait out the teacher.

Bonus Read: So many feels when I read Amy’s My Classes are Only 45 Minutes—How Do I Do Workshop? post on the Three Teacher’s Talk blog. Like Amy, this is a question that I wish I had an answer to many years ago. I’ve done a lot of trial and error (and still do) to find the right balance in my 50-minute class period. This post provides much wisdom and many resources. I recommend this post to all teachers in all stages (even haven’t started) of workshop.  There is something for everyone here.

“When I was first trying to figure it out, the best advice I got was from Penny Kittle. She told me: ‘You choose to do this, which means you choose not to do that.’” I recommend this read for any teacher at any stage (even not started) of the workshop integration.

Memoir Text Set (in no particular order):

**Many of these texts and other great ones can be found in The Moment: Wild, Poignant, Life-Changing Stories from 125 Writers and Artists Famous & Obscure, edited by Larry Smith.

**Some texts were edited for classroom use


What I learned when I did the work I gave my students

It was Friday afternoon, our first week with students completed. It was a great week, but I was exhausted and ready to go home. As I was tidying up and trying to figure out what I needed to take home with me, I kept thinking about our memoir unit. Something was bothering me. I walked down the hall to Laura’s room. We 2015-08-11 11.46.10debriefed for a moment about a narrative mapping brainstorm activity she had learned at our district’s Teacher’s College (TC) Home Grown this year. The activity turned out really well, but I shared with her that I wasn’t sure my students were finding those significant moments.

She responded: When we were at Home Grown this summer, the thing that really lifted our level of writing was that Carla (TC Staff Developer, follow her on Twitter) had a powerful memoir of her own to share.

Laura’s response stayed with me.

Just the day before, Elizabeth had shared a powerful tweet from TC Staff Developer Katy (follow her on Twitter and her and her colleague’s blog) :


Both these moments reminded me of a question another TC Staff Developer,  Cornelius (follow him on Twitter and his blog), asked me. I had told him I was struggling with what skills were needed, how to articulate those skills, and when to teach those skills.

He responded: Christie, have your written the essay? It’s really powerful to do the work we want our students to do. How do we know what to teach without knowing what it takes to master the standard or skill ourselves?

Then, there was the part in one of my favorite books, Cris Tovani’s So What Do They Really Know?

“Most kids want to be successful, so when they aren’t, it’s my job to find out why. I ask these questions:  Have I done the assignment myself? What hurdles did I face that my students might be experiencing?  Have I modeled how to negotiate the hurdles? …”  (2011, p. 142).

I realized maybe what I needed was to stop, look at what I had sketched out for my students to do the following week, and do it myself. So I did. And here is what I learned.

What I planned: On Friday, we had spent time doing the narrative map and closed by writing for a few minutes on one small moment from their map. For Monday, I had planned to have them write about two more small moments, giving them the opportunity to “try on” a few more ideas before beginning a draft.

When I did it: I did the narrative map with my students on Friday. I chose to do the Ely Market from when I lived in England. Although there were lots of small moments from my trips to the Ely Market, there wasn’t really three moments that I wanted to write about. I felt a bit frustrated with having to make three ideas work.

What I changed: I decided I wanted to give my students a few more opportunities to brainstorm in different ways. I pulled out my writer’s notebook from Home Grown 2014. TC Staff Developer Gerrit (follow him on Twitter)  had given five different ways to brainstorm, whereas I 2015-08-11 11.56.41had only given my students one. So we will spent time thinking of important people in our lives, doing a personal timeline, and listing turning points in our lives. Also, I asked students to “write in the air” about several ideas. I think talking out their idea with a partner who has purposeful questions to ask helped them think through their ideas before we start flash drafting. (Side note:  I teach six classes, so I made the brainstorming charts once and then used sticky notes to model each class period.)

What I planned: I wanted students to get their ideas out on paper, and I wanted to work on writing stamina. At this point, I wasn’t really concerned about how it sounded or looked. To get them to do this, I was going to have them write without stopping in two different segments with pointed instructions to talk to a partner in-between writing session.2015-08-11 11.58.31

When I did it: I knew I needed to write the memoir myself all day, but I kept putting it off.  I planned out what I needed for another class, checked my email, cooked dinner, and washed dishes instead.  As I placed the last plate in the dishwasher, an idea on how to start my memoir came to me.  I realized I had been putting off (I mean seriously, I was doing dishes) the writing because I didn’t know how I wanted to start.  I set my timer for 8 minutes and began to write.  When the time was up, I wanted to keep going.  I did not want to stop and talk about it yet.  I continued to time myself, writing in another 9-minute and then 10-minute increment.  After I was done I called my sister to get feedback.

What I changed:  I began the class by sharing my memoir I had written the night before and some of my struggles.  I think it made students feel safe because I too was a writer who had to work through struggles, it gave students a model of writing and expectations, and it made us all a part of the community of writers, not just them.  Instead of having students immediately begin writing, I gave them 5-minutes to get ready to write.  This meant looking through their brainstorming pages, browsing pictures they brought, trying out first sentences, or finding a place to spread out.  No matter the process, they were ready to write after the five-minutes.  I still had them write in increments (8, 9, and 10 minutes), but I didn’t have them share and talk until the end.  I liked breaking it up because it made them feel more successful as we were building stamina.  The 30-second stretch breaks betw2015-08-11 12.52.17een writing was all they needed to keep writing.  After the last writing increment, I gave them the choice to keep writing or to meet in the middle to share and get feedback about their writing.

Bonus Read:  This week I am absolutely loving Katy’s blog post, “How I Joined the World of Whitewater Rafters and Learned that We’re All Just Between Swims.” I’ve been working on my dissertation which focuses on disciplinary literacy and the vocabulary of experts.  Katy’s post is exactly what the research says, in a more organic, practical, and fun way.  I love that she gives examples and tips on how to work expert language into our instruction.  I’m definitely going to work on the intentional use of expert language in my classroom.

First Week Impressions and Priorities

The first week of school is so important, so I’ve been thinking about how to make the most out of it–from the very first moment.

First Impressions

In just four days, I will stand outside my door, greeting students before they enter my classroom for the first time. As soon as they pass the threshold, they will make first impression judgments based on the way my classroom looks. Classroom arrangement is an extension of our educational philosophy. What2015-07-28 16.38.13 does my classroom say about what I believe? I hope it says…

  1. Reading and writing are important, encouraged, and fun.
  2. Talk is necessary.
  3. We are going to laugh.
  4. This is the students’ classroom.
  5. We will be doing in this class.

We Must Read

One of the saddest things students tell me every year is that they used to love reading but not now. This stems from a variety of reasons, but whatever the reason, I want to change the culture of reading in my students.

  1. Students will create a “Books I Want to Read” sheet in their class notebooks (we keep our writer’s notebook and reader’s notebook in one binder).
  2. Start with a book talk:  I’ll start with Gregory Galloway’s As Simple As Snow. From the very first sentence many students are hooked on this ASASbook. One former student recently admitted via Facebook that he “took” a copy because he loved it so much. I’ll consider that a win. Galloway has visited students in our county twice; mailed students additional clues (which I’ve kept copies for students); and created a website with supplemental material.  (Side note: Book talks happen every week in my class. The media staff and I alternate weeks so the students are hearing from a variety of voices about a wide range of books. Other great ideas can be found here: 6 Simple Ideas to Get Kids to Read.)
  3. Speed date—with books: I will have 5-7 titles at each station. Students will visit each station for about 3 minutes, writing down titles of interest. Keep in mind that if I have 165 students, I need to think about the number of titles and copies of books I need so that 7th period has just as much and just as good of choices as my first period.
  4. After they visit all the books, they will check out a book. We will not discuss their Lexile score nor the Lexile scores of the books. This is about getting students hooked on reading, about giving them choice, about encouraging a love of reading.  For a powerful conversation about students who don’t read on grade level, check out My Child is Not a Struggling Reader.
  5. Students will keep their reading logs on Goodreads. This will be new to many of my students, so I will have them log on in class.
  6. Freedom to abandon books:  What makes me think that students who are not in the habit of reading are going to select a book they love the first time? Or why would I want to discourage readers from trying a new genre by forcing them to stick with something they may not know if they like? Students need to know that it is okay to abandon a book, but also the help to find a book they will like.
  7. Time to read–immediately: If students don’t have time in class to get hooked into their book, they are less likely to read it at home. If it is as important as I believe, then I have to make time in my class for it.

Bonus Read:  Donalyn Miller always challenges me as a reader and an educator.  Her post Patron of the Arts is no different.  There is so much in this post that you must read, but here is a little snip-it: “Our teaching goals would be better served if we read the text first, enjoyed it as readers, and then reread the text for instructional purposes.”

Up on Deck

Our first unit is a memoir unit. These are the professional resources I’ve been reading to help me think through this unit.