Category Archives: Mentor Texts

Pairing Poetry & Nonfiction

One of my favorite literary pairings is that of a nonfiction piece and a poem. Opinion columns, argumentative essays, editorials, and biographies strike me so much more strongly when I connect them to a short, sweet, descriptive text like a poem.

Maybe it’s because I feel like the prose of Leonard Pitts, Jr. reads more like poetry. Maybe it’s because when I read Ta-Nehisi Coates I feel like I’m listening to a song. Maybe it’s because when I read Mary Karr or Tina Fey or Roxane Gay or Elizabeth Gilbert or Joan Didion I feel like I’m enjoying a piece of performance art rather than just reading “nonfiction.”

So, connecting nonfiction and poetry seems natural to me, which is perhaps why I so loved “Black Like Me” by Renee Watson. Watson, a prolific YA author who’s also an educator, reimagines John Howard Griffin’s original book into a combination essay/poem that feels like a cohesive narrative rather than two separate genres. I loved reading it alongside students this week and discussing how relevant this piece still is, although it’s describing a time fifty years in the past.

The pairing of a poem with an essay was a powerful one with which our students practiced intertextuality and close reading. I urge you to take a look at this text with your students, or try out the poem-nonfiction pairing of your choice…and consider sharing those pairings with us in the comments!

Shana Karnes works in Madison, Wisconsin alongside fabulous students, colleagues, and a professional learning community second to none. She works with teachers in the Greater Madison Writing Project and 9th through 12th graders in all content areas. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Moving Around the Bend

bendLike so many teachers blessed with a growth mindset, there are always several ideas bouncing around my head that, if realized, might temporarily satisfy my constant need to innovate my teaching practice. Hopefully, new moves and ideas lead me toward maximizing the delivery of instruction and the transfer of learning. Heading into the TCTELA convention back in January, my head was like a Dumbledore’s pensieve, ideas swirling like memories.

My sophomore classes had been building towards a persuasive essay major grade and their writing showed me that they needed some direct instruction centered on the elements of argument: claim, evidence, and commentary. Instead of focusing on the persuasive task from the outset, we worked hard on building arguments and then we “bent” our writing towards persuasion at the last moment.

Reflection on the genesis of this move points my thinking towards the argument writing that is so often the learning focus of my AP Lang classes and the learning progression of authentic writing instruction that focuses on the process rather than the end task.

Last year, I learned how writing can focus on specific, foundational elements that we practice over and over, gradually increasing the complexity of the task up to the point that the data tells us that the learners are ready to put their newly developed skills on display. In this philosophy, the publishing piece is merely a chance to showcase our writing prowess and highlight our growth as writers. I hear over an over that we should teach the skills, not the essay. We should teach the student, not the subject. This is my “how.”

Each lesson cycle circled through a routine that included deep dives into the skills we see demonstrated in mentor texts. At a recent campus professional learning session, I got to learn more about teacher clarity. Specifically, I can be more clear in designing the learning intentions if I understand the skill and teach to the level of the standard. It was an effort to approach our state standards, the TEKS, that helped me determine which parts of a mentor text we would magnify and dissect. Hopefully, that sentence level instruction will support our reading comprehension in addition to increasing the effectiveness of our writing.

Each lesson cycle blended reading and writing, providing multiple opportunities for both. I started each lesson by reading the mentor text aloud, and students only had one task: circle words you don’t know. After the brief read-aloud, we would take three minutes for a quick write connected to a big idea from the text.  Each quick write starts with “write about a time…” so that we tell real stories from our lives that we might be able to use as concrete evidence when we approach argument writing tasks at a later time. Before digging back into the mentor text, we would take a few moments to review the words we didn’t know and to look for the “big ideas” that we noticed while we were reading. I’m obsessed with readers seeing the “big ideas” in what they are reading because I believe it helps us recognize arguments, and maybe we can support our arguments with textual evidence if we make the connection.

After working through the mentor text, we would look at an argument prompt that forced us to take a position.  This was a chance for us to practice our argument writing every day for between ten and fifteen minutes, and we could share our ideas with other writers in the room so that we could give each other feedback.  We took a position and defended it every single day. At first, some of us struggled with the surface level skill of deciding on a position while others struggled with providing concrete evidence to support their claim. That’s one of the difficulties about writing instruction: we are all in different places. A class of twenty writers are going to be in twenty different places in their learning progression, and we have to be ready to teach to the standards while scaffolding for our writers who find themselves struggling. By lesson seven, the writers looked forward to flexing their argument muscles and eagerly dove into the writing tasks. We still encountered struggle, but our newfound skills gave us the confidence to attack those struggles without fear.

This unit asked writers to work hard and switch back and forth between reading and writing, blending literacy skills in a way that demanded significant effort from the students. The lessons were organized so that the students would have to move quickly between tasks, linking their reading and writing. This work is not easy and sometimes the students find gaps in their capabilities that cause them to react negatively. Teachers must balance high expectations with an awareness of students’ needs. They deserve it.  They crave it. They embraced the process.


Charles Moore is a father, teacher, writer, and obscure pod-caster. He’s starting to get his pool ready for warmer weather and kicked off the crawfish season in peak form. In May, he will receive his master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from the University of Houston.

Novels in Verse in the Senior English Classroom

I have always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with poetry. I know as an English teacher I shouldn’t admit this, but poetry has always been my least favourite genre to teach. While I loved to read poetry as a teenager, I loathed when we had to study it in class as I felt that all the analyzing destroyed it. Unfortunately, some of this mindset has followed me into my teaching career and I have often struggled to really love teaching poetry and I have found that this translated into the way my students have engaged with poetry, as well.

While trying to find a new connection with poetry in my classroom, I have found a few things that have helped. The first was spoken word poetry – the powerful performances of these talented poets sparked some of that old love I used to have for poetry in me and I found that it was easy to translate this excitement into my classes.

The second is what I want to talk about here – my discovery of the novel in verse. The first novel in verse I picked up was Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover when I was trying to find a book to recommend for a sports obsessed reluctant reader. I didn’t realize it was a novel in verse when I first opened it up, but from the moment I started to read it I was hooked. The combination of poetry with a narrative arc spoke to me and I realized that novels in verse could be an accessible pathway to poetry for not just myself, but for my students as well. Since then, I have integrated novels in verse into my classroom in many ways. Sometimes I have held book clubs where all of the novels students can choose to read are novels in verse where other times I have chosen to integrate just one or two titles along with prose novels and graphic novels.

Some of my favourite novels in verse I have used recently in my classes are the following. Some of these books deal with heavy topics (in particular October Mourning), so I would recommend reviewing them before using them with younger students.

Death Coming Up the Hill By Chris Crowe: I stumbled upon this one almost by accident and I am glad I did. It was in the bargain bin at a bookstore I was at and I am glad I discovered it. Death Coming Up the Hill is set during the Vietnam War and follows the story of 17 year old Ashe who is dealing with family issues during the backdrop of the war. The story follows Ashe as he tries to avoid being drafted for a war he does not believe in. This powerful novel in verse is even more impressive as it is written entirely in Haiku with every syllable in the novel representing a fallen solider who actually died during the war.

Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings by Margarita Engle: The poetry in this novel is completely compelling. Besides being a novel in verse, it is also a memoir of the author’s experiences growing up between two cultures. Set during the Cold War, we follow Margarita’s childhood as she struggles to reconcile her Cuban heritage with the American world she is growing up in.

October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard by Lesléa Newman: This is a hard read, but a powerful and important one. It may, however, be too much for some students. This novel in verse takes us to October 6, 1998 to tell the true story of when 21 year old Matthew Shepard is lured from a bar and beaten to death simply because he was gay. This novel in verse is tragic and powerful at the same time. 

If you had asked me several years ago if I would ever read a novel in verse, I am not sure that I would have said yes. These three novels in verse, along with several others have changed my opinion and have helped me become a more passionate poetry teacher.

If you want more recommended reads, check out my previous post on integrating authentic voices into our middle years classes.

Pam McMartin teaches Senior English and is the Senior Teacher Librarian at an independent school in Tsawwassen, British Columbia, Canada. She is reluctantly becoming more of a poetry fan the more she exposes herself to powerful, modern works. You can follow her on Twitter @psmcmartin

Narrative Writing: Teaching Diction and Imagery Through Shorter Mentor Texts

Writing is hard and encouraging students to write can be even more difficult! We have been focusing on teaching narrative techniques in our freshman English classes as a build up for their personal narrative. After reading 180 Days by Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle, our English team has created “laps” in which we teach different types of writing. With each new piece of writing we do, we ask them to build on the skills from the previous ones. To teach diction and imagery, we introduced our students to the last paragraph from The Road by Cormac McCarthy. The passage we chose is short, yet challenging for our students. It takes several reads to understand what it is about:

Part One: Comprehending the Text

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains.  You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow.  They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming.  Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not to be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

(McCarthy, 241)

We read and our students visualize the text, drawing pictures in their composition notebooks. They reread and circled unfamiliar words. In their pods, they used thesaurus.com & dictionary.com to find synonyms and added new details to their drawings to help them construct meaning from this text.

Part Two: Identifying Narrative Techniques

The students worked together highlighting and annotating their text for examples of the narrative techniques used by McCarthy in this final paragraph. This became their model to imitate with their own writing.

Part Three: Write and Revise

If there is one thing I have learned from writer’s workshop, it is the importance of writing alongside my students each step of the process. I was reminded of this during a session I attended at the Illinois Reading Conference a few weeks ago. The presenter called it “The Curse of Knowledge Bias,” when we already know how to do the work we expect of students and we forget the difficulties we faced learning it. By writing with my students, they saw me struggle and welcome their feedback to improve my writing.

My brainstorming model turned into first draft

For this piece, we brainstormed ideas and then turned them into writing. We anguished over what words to use, making sure to “show not tell,” incorporating imagery and strong word choices throughout our pieces. We offered each other feedback – both students and teachers – celebrating those lines that WOWed us, and offering constructive advice where needed. In the end, our students blew us away.

My final draft after students gave me feedback.

A Few Examples of Their Work

What mentor texts do you use to teach diction and imagery? How do you get students to add details to their writing and WOW you with their work?

Melissa Sethna has been a high school instructional coach for the past ten years. While coaching is her passion, she missed the students and is so grateful to have the opportunity to co-teach one freshman English class this year.

Real World Writing: A mini-unit using Chipotle as a mentor

I’m in Chipotle, munching the chips and reading the bag. I loved the essays from Aziz Ansari and Sarah Silverman over the past months. Today I notice something different. This essay was written by a high school student.

“Excuse me,” I approach the counter at Chipotle. “Can I have some bags?” I explain to the clerk that I work with teachers and want to use these bags in class. The teenager handed over a stack. I feel my heartbeat quicken, the way it does when a teaching idea starts forming. As a literacy coach, I couldn’t wait to share these with the teachers whom I was working. One of our favorite units of writing was born.

I’ve been training myself to read like a writer my whole life. I just didn’t always know it. I loved reading cereal boxes when I was a kid. I’d pour my milk and then pore over every word, reading riddles and puzzles, then on to the nutrition information. At doctor’s offices, I read Highlights. At the grocery store, I’d speed read Tiger Beat. I read everything.

It wasn’t until I was older that I realized how much all that reading impacted me as a writer. And it wasn’t until I was a Fellow in Ohio Writing Project’s Summer Institute that I had a name for it: “Reading Like a Writer,” a term I learned when reading Wondrous Words by Katie Wood Ray.

As we began to think about how to use these Chipotle bag essays with students, I came back to what I know is true about writing instruction, a rhythm gleaned from countless professional texts (Penny Kittle, Ralph Fletcher, Allison Marchetti & Rebekah O’Dell, to name a few). My OWP colleague Beth Rimer succinctly captures this rhythm when she talks about the ideal conditions for writing:

  • Modeling: writers need to see the possibilities for their own writing by looking at lots of examples. And as often as possible, I want those mentor texts to also exist in the real world (See Writing With Mentors for support around this).
  • Ideas: writers need support to find an idea. As Don Graves said, “Unlimited choice is no choice at all.” Instead, writers need strategies to find the ideas they might explore (My favorite way to nudge writers is with Linda Rief’s Quickwrites books).
  • Drafting: writers need time to write, to mess around, and to get feedback (Write Beside Them by Penny Kittle changed my teaching life).
  • Revision: writers need explicit instruction about ways they might make their writing better (I love Revision Decisions by Jeff Anderson as a way to focus my lessons).
  • Feedback: writers need feedback in lots of ways — from themselves, from each other, from an “expert” (Jenn Serravallo’s book about Writing Conferences is a great place to start rethinking how we give feedback).

Every single time I find a piece of writing in the world that I want to share with students, I come back to this. I use it to build our mini-lessons, to decide on instructional days, and to remind me of what writers need. It might look like this:

Day One – Notice. Gallery walk the Chipotle bags. Talk about what we notice the writers doing. Make a list of possibilities for our own writing.

Day Two – Generate ideas. Once we notice that these essays are all about small moments connected to food memories, we might create a moment map, or a quicklist, or a sketchnote.

Day Three – Start writing. Mess around. Get dirty. Know that this doesn’t have to be perfect. Resist the temptation to give students a template and instead remember that writers need time to let a draft take shape. Confer with the writers in the room, nudge and get to know what they’re working on.

Day Four-Five – Teach. Look at what writers have been struggling with and teach more. Look at what writers have been doing well and put that up on the document camera.

Day Six(ish) – Publish. Sometimes we just turn it in. Sometimes kids can print their essays on paper bags and then have a gallery walk, leaving post-it notes of feedback.

This isn’t always what writing looks like in our classrooms, but we try to build in these moments of authentic writing so that students have a chance to stretch important muscles. They build fluency and confidence. They have the chance to work through the writing process quickly, therefore getting to do it more often. They have an authentic audience and see that writing is all around them.

I recently worked with a 7th grade teacher whose students wrote Two Minutes On essays as one of their first experiences. The products were amazing. Students took risks, they wrote from the heart, and they stretched themselves.

If you’d like to try this mini-unit, you can find the mentor texts here. What real-world writing has inspired you and your students? Share in the comments!

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in Cincinnati, Ohio. She loves burrito bowls and is happiest when eating tortilla chips with her kiddos and husband. She works with teachers and students from grades K-12 and the scariest day this year was when she taught a group of adorable kindergartners a writing lesson.

A Picture Book for Your High Schoolers

Image result for the word collector

I’ve always been a little puzzled by my dichotomous love for both classic, canonical literature and…….unabashedly romantic, sometimes risque, always happily-ever-after……..romance novels.

But as I thought more about it, I realized that what I love about the classics is their lasting potency, the punch that their language and stories deliver, no matter when they’re read. And what I love about romance novels is watching the classic, timeless journey of a fall into love.

And, thanks to a coffee-fueled epiphany in my notebook, I realized that being a teacher of readers and writers was the perfect career for those two passions of mine: I love to see my students falling in love with reading and writing.

Last week, I read a new book to my daughters that struck me as the perfect illustration of that journey into love with words: The Word Collector by Peter H. Reynolds.

As I read, I was struck by what a perfect picture book this would be to share with my high schoolers. Not only is it chock-full of SAT vocabulary words (which, while that is a concept I loathe, I do admit is a lovely list of cool words), it shows the power and joy of language and all that it offers to both readers and writers.

If you have this book, I urge you to read it with your students. If you don’t, the video linked above does a great job telling the story as well. The possibilities for linguistic play and discovery as you study the text are endless, and endlessly enjoyable–and don’t we all need that kind of joy in our classrooms, as often as possible? Try this text out for one way to bring some sunshine into this dreary Friday.

Shana Karnes lives and works with teachers in Madison, Wisconsin. Her two daughters push her to discover new texts and sneak in the reading of grown-up ones as often as possible. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Text Talk: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, has been on my radar for years, but it burst into my classroom last year after Pernille Ripp’s Global Read Aloud inspired me to do a read aloud of Anderson’s text in my class. With some heavy groundwork laid for trigger warnings and difficult subject matter, the text spurred conversation, self reflection, and some seriously intense quick writes.

So, during my latest jaunt to Half Price Books, I was beyond tickled to see the graphic novel version of the text with illustrations by Emily Carroll. Though it’s been out for well over a year, I missed its release, and I’m so sorry I didn’t snag it sooner.

After some perusal, I find it to be an absolutely gorgeous visual text. It’s full of gripping images that convey not only the raw emotion of the pain and uncertainty Anderson’s main character Melinda experiences, but the formatting of the text itself is also a work of art.

Ways I Have Used Speak and Its Graphic Novel Version:

  • Character Analysis: Especially early in the book, the protagonist Melinda is a wealth of character development through thoughts, actions, dialogue, and mysterious backstory. Students (especially my freshmen) can relate to her struggles on the first day of high school and as the book progresses they see the reasons for her struggle as raw and real.
  • Prose as Poetry: The formatting of the graphic novel highlights specific words and phrases, literally drawing the depth of the text into a mentor for rhetorical analysis in a way that helps struggling students see the emphasis and emotions without quite so much inference. For some of my language learners, this is key to both understanding and engagement.
  • Narrative Mentor Text: As students transition from studying narrative to writing their own, this text serves as a mentor with clear and engaging voice, rich story lines, realistic dialogue, and relatable characters.

Have you used Speak as a mentor is your classroom? Have you read and enjoyed it yourself? Feel free to leave a comment below and share your enthusiasm for this awesome text!

Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and English 9, while also leading the fearless English department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout.  She now tries to live life based on the last pieces of advice her dad gave her – Be kind. Read good books. Feed the birds. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum

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