10 Educators I’ve Never Met that I Need in order to Teach

(inspired Ocean Vong’s “ The 10 Books I Needed to Write my Novel”)

I’m trying to write my Book Love Foundation grant application, and they asked me about what books/people/magazines I’ve been learning from. I couldn’t fit this all into the word limit of the application, but I thought that others might find these educators to be as career changing as I have.

1. The Leaders of #Disrupt Texts

Finding the #DisruptTexts group was a turning point for my thinking and teaching. Tricia Ebarvia, Dr. Kim Parker, Julia Torres, and Lorena Germán consistently use their time and energy to provide exceptional professional development for educators on what it means to be an anti-racist teacher. I particularly appreciate how the leaders of this group always push their thinking. For example, Tricia Ebarvia writes about her evolving ideas about the texts we use in the classroom in her article “Why Diverse Texts Are Not Enough.” Her evolving ideas have taught me that my thinking can’t stand still. I need to keep learning.

Also, I recently purchased Lorena Germán’s The Anti-Racist Teacher: Reading Instruction Workbook, and it is forcing me to work through my practice; I highly recommend it.

I hope the other women in this group will find publishing deals in the future (I believe Tricia Ebarvia is currently writing a book!), so I can continue to learn from them and support their contributions to my learning. I also admire how these women actively tag and lift up other educators. All of them reliably and consistently credit those who push their thinking.

2. Penny Kittle

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My whole journey started when a special education consultant put Book  Love into my hands. After I read it, I found energy and passion for my job that had been missing for quite a few years. I’ve seen Kittle speak twice at the Reading for the Love of It conference in Toronto, and I wish I could go to her upcoming session with Tricia Ebarvia.

3. The Leaders of #ClearTheAir

Through the leaders of #DisruptTexts, I found #ClearTheAir and all the branches of #ClearTheAir. These groups offer exceptionally moderated slow chats and book clubs. A lot of my progress on what it means to be anti-racist has been thanks to these folks. Last summer, I participated in a book chat about Matthew Kay’s book Not Light, But Fire. #ClearTheAir gave me the chance to ask questions while I processed the book. They also challenged my thinking- again on their personal time. I haven’t been able to participate in all the chats, but I go back and read the books that the group has looked, and then I follow the threads to help me through my thinking.

4. Matthew R. Kay

I already mentioned Kay above, but I can’t say enough about his book Not Light, But Fire. Julia Torres from #DisruptTexts recommended it to me when I asked her for advice about keeping students safe during discussions about race. Through Kay, I’ve learned that “safe” doesn’t mean apolitical and that we need to feel safe to feel uncomfortable. Kay is also an amazing resource for how to have conversations in your classroom period. Kay taught me that you can’t just decide to have discussions about race and make it happen without careful planning and practice. Our conversational toolbox and techniques need to be practiced from day one of the school year. Kay has also been responsive on Twitter, and I’ve had the opportunity to ask him questions, an opportunity that I’m very grateful for.

5. Kelly Gallagher

Kelly Gallagher taught me to teach reading and writing, not assign reading and writing tasks. All of his books are marked up and dogeared. The other day I tore my room apart trying to find Write Like This, but I suspect that I’ve leant it to someone, and I’m probably never getting back! At the 2019 Reading for the Love of It conference I saw Gallagher speak, and I admired the way he shared his thinking that was still in progress. He isn’t afraid to adjust and change his ideas as he finds new information.

6. Vicki Vinton

Vicki Vinton’s books What Readers Really Do and Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading have fundamentally changed my reading instruction. I see my students as problem-solvers for their own reading now. Instead of answering questions that I have generated about a particular text, students learn to navigate the twists and turns of texts through the tracing of patterns and the generation of their own questions. Everytime we talk about a text now, my students have the opportunity to create meaning without the interference of questions and lectures that ask students to see only what I see. And let me tell you, this way is infinity more fun than my old way.

7. Rebekah O’Dell and Allison Marchetti

Rebekah O’Dell and Allison Marchetti’s books, Beyond Literary Analysis and Writing with Mentors, are a deep dive into the idea of mentor texts. Their books have helped me to provide students with a range of mentors which encourage student to make intentional choices in their own writing. O’Dell and Marchetti also run a website called “Moving Writers,” which consistently provides new ideas and mentor texts for teachers’ consideration. Ever since I picked up their book, I look forward to reading my students’ writing assignments because there is nothing the “same” or “boring” about them. Each piece is an original blend of craft moves that students have learned from their writing mentors.

8. Sara K. Ahmed

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Sara K. Ahmed’s book Being the Change:Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension was a beneficial and practical read for me. Ahmed outlines her thinking by grounding it in lessons that you can use in your classroom tomorrow. Ahmed has also been generous with her time and answered my questions on Twitter when I was first thinking through how to use her lessons in my classroom. Her book has had an impact on the way I start my year with my students, and as a result, it has an impact all year long.


Through the other two hashtags that I mentioned above, I found #THEBOOKCHAT run by Scott Bayer and Joel Garza. Currently, #THEBOOKCHAT is working with #ClearTheAir to run a slow chat on Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to be an Anti-Racist. I’ve only been tracking with them for a year, but they’ve introduced me to so many books that I would have missed. After their discussions, they often provide resources for people who wish to use the books with their students. When I asked Garza about his use of Octavia Butler’s short story “Blood Child,” he emailed me a copy of the story. A story that my students are currently raving about because they are fascinated by it. 

10. #TeachLivingPoets

Melissa Smith runs #TeachLivingPoets, and she is responsible for introducing me to so many exciting poets. She moderates chats about poems and offers a ton of resources for using poetry in the classroom. I went from feeling obligated to include a couple of poems a year, to using poetry extensively throughout my course. #TeachLivingPoets has helped me to fall head over heels in love with words again.


The Novel Unit: Part 1

I have a colleague who consistently asks me questions that I can never answer on the spot. The answers come to me hours later, sometimes in the middle of the night. Today, he asked me how I would teach a novel. We only had two minutes to talk, and he knows me well enough by now that he didn’t expect me to answer right way, probably assuming that he would be subjected to one of my long rambling emails that may or may not go directly into his clutter box.  However, this is the first time I’ve fully developed my thinking about teaching a class novel, so I’ve turned my response into a multi-part blog post, which may or may not ramble.

There isn’t an easy formula for teaching a novel unit. In fact, the very teaching of the “novel unit” can cause some controversy in some English teacher circles with some being adamantly for it and others against it. My position is that students need to read books that are challenging, books that are at the right level and books that are “vacation books.” The only way this can be done is by providing a variety of reading opportunities where students are provided different levels of guidance and choice. So students should read independently, in small groups, AND as a class. There is no “or.” I think they need them all, which means that I need to dramatically shift the way I approach reading in my classroom.

Before I can address how I would approach a class novel, I need first to explain what I wouldn’t do. I’d like to remind everyone here that this is my best thinking about this right now. I realize that many people may approach this very differently and my post is not meant as a criticism, it is merely a reflection of what I want my students to be able to do when they are reading. My priority when teaching reading is to help readers love books and access them with a deep understanding without needing direct guidance. In short, I want them to read,  decide what they think about what they read on their own,  talk to other people about what they read and then decide if those conversations have shifted their thinking. What I don’t want them thinking about is what I, as their teacher, want them to notice in a book. I don’t want them to believe that my interpretation is the only interpretation that is worth investigating.

When I’m deciding what I want my students to learn, I have to be able to decide how I will know if they have learned it. In the past, my students’ ability to understand and interpret a novel was usually assessed through a literary essay. This is not how I would do this anymore.  Before anyone sends me an angry email, I am not advocating for the removal of the literary essay from the English classroom.  Literary essays are complex in terms of both form and content, so I would need to teach this genre of the essay using mentor texts which would be challenging to do while I am also teaching them the art of analysis and interpretation.  Students must be used to thinking and talking about texts in complex ways before they can begin to write about them. The real goal of a literary essay is to see the students’ thinking about what they’ve read, but if we already know what the content of their essay is going to be or should be is there really any thinking for them to do or have we done it all for them?

Another reason I recommend separating the literary essay from the novel unit is that when we teach both at the same time, the thinking suffers and the writing suffers.   This is because we are so concerned with having students analyze a book in essay form that we decide to control everything about the evaluation. We control the topics. We control the structure. We control the writing process. Both analysis and writing are creative acts so when we remove the creativity what we are left with is boring formulaic papers. And this isn’t good for anyone- not the students who have to write them, nor the teachers who have to read them.

Rather than combine the literary essay with the novel unit, I would leave this type of essay to closer to the end of the course when students have read enough to pick a text that moves them to want to write and think deeply.  This, of course, means that students have to read — a lot.

The last time I taught ENG3U,  my students select their own texts and topics. Some wrote about Indian Horse by Richard Wagmese, some wrote about Secret Path by Gord Downy and Jeff Lemire, others wrote about poems that were weaved throughout the course. I’ve heard the argument that this isn’t “rigorous” enough. That all my students should be writing about a novel because it is more difficult. However, which is the more complex task? Having students write an essay about Great Expectations with the essay topics generated by the teacher, or asking students to generate their own topics based on their thinking about a particular text? It may be more difficult to write an essay about a book that is hundreds of pages, but I am more interested in increasing the complexity of the task by requiring students to notice and name the patterns and points of significance that they see in texts. I’m not interested in seeing my thinking regurgitated back to me.

As a result of allowing students to perform the analysis of their choice, I learned more about my students both in terms of their thinking and their writing. This had the added benefit of being a much more interesting task to evaluate. For example, I had a student write about the function of the songs in Secret Path and another wrote about the significance of the word “glory” in Indian Horse. Neither of these essays was based on topics I would have considered.

If you are interested in learning more about the thinking behind separating the teaching of analysis from the novel unit, I highly recommend Beyond Literary Analysis by Allison Marchetti and Rebecca O’Dell. It’s an amazingly helpful book with practical teaching points for different types of analysis papers. My copy is always lent out!

Now that I’ve explored what I wouldn’t do with my novel unit, my next post will focus on a specific text and genre in order to finally answer the question I was actually asked!

10 Mentors for Your Students’ Writing

As a new semester is about to begin, I thought I would post the passages that make wonderful mentors for writers or quickwrite inspirations for the first 10 minutes of class.

Writing this post has reminded me how important it is to find a teacher partner who is exploring similar ideas. Many of these passages have either been tested by or given to me by my mentor text search partner Toby VanHarten. Sharing what we find has been important for me because while I usually stick to fiction, Toby finds me fantastic non-fiction pieces. You can’t read everything on your own,  so find a reading buddy. It’s worth it.

If you have your own favourites, please add them to the comments. I can never have too many of these!

Also if you try any of them, please take pictures of your students’ work (with their permission), and send them to me (cmcourt@hwdsb.on.ca). I love reading the work that these passages inspire.

Passage #1 from Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

I was on fire.

It’s my earliest memory. I was three years old, and we were living in a trailer park in a southern Arizona town whose name I never knew. I was standing on a chair in front of the stove, wearing a pink dress my grandmother had bought for me. Pink was my favorite color. The dress’s skirt stuck out like a tutu, and I liked to spin around in front of the mirror, thinking I looked like a ballerina. But at that moment, I was wearing the dress to cook hot dogs, watching them swell and bob in the boiling water as the late-morning sunlight filtered in through the trailer’s small kitchenette window.

I could hear Mom in the next room singing while she worked on one of her paintings. Juju, our black mutt, was watching me. I stabbed one of the hot dogs with a fork and bent over and offered it to him. The wiener was hot, so Juju licked at it tentatively, but when I stood up and started stirring the hot dogs again, I felt a blaze of heat on my right side. I turned to see where it was coming from and realized my dress was on fire. Frozen with fear, I watched the yellow-white flames make a ragged brown line up the pink fabric of my skirt and climb my stomach. Then the flames leaped up, reaching my face.

I screamed. I smelled the burning and heard a horrible crackling as the fire singed my hair and eyelashes. Juju was barking. I screamed again.

Mom ran into the room.

“Mommy, help me!” I shrieked. I was still standing on the chair, swatting at the first with the fork I had been using to stir the hot dogs.

Mom ran out of the room and came back with one of the army-surplus blankets I hated because the wool was so scratchy. She threw the blanket around me to smother out the flames. Dad had gone off in the car, so Mom grabbed me and my younger brother, Brian, and hurried over to the trailer next to ours. The woman who lived there was hanging her laundry on the clothesline. She had clothespins in her mouth. Mom, in an unnaturally calm voice, explained what had happened and asked if we could please have a ride to the hospital. The woman dropped her clothespins and laundry right there in the dirt and, without saying anything, ran for her car.

Possible Uses:

Quickwrites about memories of injuries (I’d probably use the first time I broke my arm when my mom waved it up and down and asked “Do you think it’s broken?”)

As a mentor, I would use it to talk about how powerful short sentences and paragraphs can be. You can’t get much better than that first line! I would also use it to discuss how to write about single moments. The description of the tutu and the flames “climbing” her stomach also make for interesting craft moves for students to study.

Passage #2 from Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

To this day I hate secondhand cars. Almost everything that’s ever
gone wrong in my life I can trace back to a secondhand car.
Secondhand cars made me get detention for being late for
school. Secondhand cars left us hitchhiking on the side of the
freeway. A secondhand car was also the reason my mother got
married. If it hadn’t been for the Volkswagen that didn’t work, we
never would have looked for the mechanic who became the
husband who became the stepfather who became the man who
tortured us for years and put a bullet in the back of my mother’s
head – I’ll take the new car with the warranty every time.

Possible Uses:

As quickwrite inspiration, Toby told his students to choose something different than secondhand cars that they either love or hate. Using the technique of repetition and listing, students craft a similar paragraph explaining the reasons they love or hate their
chosen item. As a bonus, he suggests that they try to craft a final sentence similar to the one from Noah.

As a mentor text, I would point out the repetition of “secondhand car,” and also the climatic order of his examples. He starts with detention and ends with the attempted murder of his mother by his stepfather. I would also want to point out how he uses that last phrase to create humour after revealing trauma.

Passage #3 from A Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

Gets passed around like name-brand
T-shirts around here. Always too big.
Never ironed out.

Possible Uses:

As a quickwrite, students can write about grievances, feelings, or attitudes that they’ve inherited from family or friends.  Some students use this quickwrite to work out a current conflict they are experiencing.

As a mentor text, I think the amazing simile is pretty apparent, but I would want to point out why it’s so brilliant. There are multiple layers to it.  Students can examine how the t-shirt’s size and wrinkles relate to beef.

Passage #4 from Michael Redhill’s Bellvue Square

Only Nick can detect that I’m off. Beneath his shell, he’s a feeling boy. I go into his room at ten to turn out his lights.

“You okay, Mum?”

“Of course I’m okay.”

“Your face is white and shiny.”

“I had Filet-O-Fish for lunch.”

“You ate fish twice today?”

“I guess I did.”

“On purpose?”

“It’s lights out now, so let’s finish with the questions. Scooch”

He wriggles toward the foot of the bed and I pull his covers up.

“Can I ask you one more thing?”


“Do you have cancer?”

The question shocks us both. “Why on earth would you ask me that?”

“‘Cause you look sick.”

I kiss his forehead. “You’re a good boy.” I worry about what goes on in their heads when they’re alone. “Everything is fine. We’re all together. We’re safe as houses.”

“Some houses fall down,” he says.

Possible Uses:

As a quickwrite, students could record the dialogue of a conversation they’ve had, or may wish they could have. Students could also write about their parents, their childhood fears, or their own siblings who may ask startling questions.

As a mentor text, I love using this piece to show how dialogue works. Redhill only uses a speech tag once, but we can follow the speakers all the way through.  We examine this passage together and then come up with a list of suggestions to make dialogue work.

Passage #5 from Carmen Aguirre’s Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter

Lima kneed me in the gut.This city of cathedrals was full of people.Crowds jammed the cobblestone streets, and vendor sold shakes from stationary bicycles with blenders attached, whistling boleros as they pedalled.Flies landed on papayas as fast as the vendors could peel them, but they threw the fruit into blenders anyway, topping it with milk that had been sitting in the sun for hours.All around us there were people hawking jackets and gold chains and little trinkets. Beggar children missing arms and legs were pushed around on homemade skateboards by bigger children whose feet were black with dirt.The boys who passed by winked their eyes and made kissing sounds, murmuring “Mamita” in your ears.Everywhere you looked, even on the cathedral steps, there were couples making out.Church bells rang and nuns asked for donations.Music blasted from every store, and groups of yelling men pressed up against shop windows to watch a soccer game on T.V.Buses never stopped honking their horns.The air stank of sewers and diesel………

Possible Uses:

As a quickwrite, Toby had his students choose an exciting or busy place they have experienced (the first day of school, Canada’s Wonderland, a visit to a different country),  and they write with each sense, unconcerned with having each sentence connect with that before it.

As a mentor text, Toby says that it is terrific for descriptive writing and mood.  He points how she describes unrelated experiences that just seem to come at her (you can hear it, feel it, see it, smell it, and taste it) smacking her in the face and overwhelming her.

Passage#6  from James Wood’s The Nearest Thing to Life

Here he was, jumping off a boat into the Maine waters; here he was, as a child, larkily peeing from a cabin window with two young cousins; here he was, living in Italy and learning Italian by flirting; here he was, telling a great joke; here he was, an ebullient friend, laughing and filling the room with his presence.

Possible Uses:

As a quickwrite, Toby has his students write as if they were looking at pictures in a photo album or on social media, reflecting on someone’s life (or their own).

As a mentor text, the full-length passage is an excellent example of how to write about a single moment using listing effectively.  It also would work as a handy passage for teaching how to use semi-colons and commas in a list (boring I know, but better than a worksheet!)

Passage #7 Nikki Giovanni’s “Allowables

I killed a spider
Not a murderous brown recluse
Nor even a black widow
And if the truth were told this
Was only a small
Sort of papery spider
Who should have run
When I picked up the book
But she didn’t

And she scared me
And I smashed her

I don’t think
I’m allowed

To kill something

Because I am


Possible Uses:

As a quickwrite, I ask students to write about their own fears, or something they’ve done when they were afraid.

As a mentor text, we talk about how Giovanni is using her act of killing a spider to say something much bigger. This text would also be perfect for introducing Vicki Vinton’s Know/Wonder charts (see my earlier post about those here) so that students can discover the meaning in this poem on their own.

Passage #8 from  Anthony Swofford’s essay, “I was a Marine. I Don’t Want a Gun in my Classroom”

Before the United States Marine Corps allowed me to carry a live M-16 assault rifle, I went through hundreds of hours of firearms training. Classroom sessions devoted to nomenclature, maintenance and basic operation accounted for more than two weeks of study before I even set eyes on ammunition. For weeks, I carried an M-16 without a magazine — a dummy weapon, basically. I secured it with a padlock overnight while I slept in the barracks, and unlocked it each morning before chow.

Only at the shooting range was I allowed to check out magazines and ammo from the armory. The first day at the range I spent 12 hours disassembling, cleaning and reassembling the weapon. I had to do this blindfolded. I had to do this while a drill instructor hurried me, yelling that enemies were at the gate. I had to do this while fellow Marines wept nearby from doing hundreds of burpees as punishment for not being able to reassemble their weapons fast enough.

Possible Uses:

As a quickwrite, students could experiment with writing introductions to opinion pieces where they use their own experiences and knowledge to establish their authority.

As a mentor text, you might want to use the entire piece from the New York Times. Toby uses it to teach how you could start an opinion piece with a personal narrative ( a lot more engaging than- “I think school uniforms are a good idea for the following reasons…”). Swofford actually takes three paragraphs to get to his thesis. Three! Throw out those 5 paragraph essay models!

Passage #9 William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say”

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Possible Uses:

As a quickwrite, Toby had his students write to apologize for something they were sorry, but not really sorry, about. Later in the semester, he had a student write him a “This is Just to Say” apology for stealing one of his books. (These are the nerdy moments we live for!)

As a mentor text, Toby uses the poem to talk about structure and tone (sorry, not sorry).

Passage #10  Susan Marie Scavo’s “Food. Music. Memory.”

She says: Cupcakes. Brownies. Pies. She says:
Remember this. Bread. Stew. Sauce. She says:
All that time. She says: singing. All I taught
you. She says: Crayon. Alligator. By Scouts.
She says: Baseball. Soccer. Track. She says:
I was there. Remember?

I say: Shouting. Silence. Shouting. I say:
Remember this. Scotch. Vodka. Kahlua. I say:
Cupcake. Meatloaf. Sauce. I say: Singing. All
you would not tell me. I say: Crayon. Dancing.
Guitar. I say: Belt. Hairbrush. Hand. I say:
I was there. Remember?

Possible Uses:

As a quickwrite students can write about a relationship, event, or disagreement from two different perspectives.

As a mentor text, there is so much to work with here. Again I would recommend using Vinton’s Know/Wonder chart for this. Toby delayed giving his students the second half of the poem, and then really enjoyed their reactions as they were creating meaning for themselves. It is interesting to point out that words change meaning depending on how they are grouped.

Hopefully, these ten passages will get you started on what is a very rewarding and effective classroom routine. Stay tuned for additional posts about mentor texts, including one I’ve started about passages perfect for middle school.

Can we talk about graphic organizers?

My writing process does not look anything like the one I used to require my students to use in class. When I write, I have multiple posts started. Some are just titles, some are a couple of paragraphs, and some are almost fully formed but not ready to make their entrance into the world. Sometimes a post takes me an hour to write, sometimes a week. My last post took a year from the initial idea to publishing. This particular post has been bothering me since Tuesday.

The way I plan a post often varies as well.  I might make a few point form notes in advance, but most often I start paragraphs with the ideas I want to cover and then quickly move on to the next one. When I’ve sketched that rough outline, I go back and fill it out, over and over again. Whole paragraphs get moved or deleted.  This is all just a part of my thinking.

So why have I denied my students this experience in the past? Why do I ask them to conform to a writing process that I do not even use myself?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how the graphic organizer often contributes to this limiting of process exploration and, as a consequence, thinking. Before anyone runs to the defense of the graphic organizer, I am not here to suggest they should be taken away; however, I would like to challenge when they are used.

I’ve used graphic organizers for essays, short stories, news reports, etc. One issue that has consistently cropped up when I use these organizers is that students often do not know how to transfer their work from the organizer to a draft copy. An organizer may have all the different paragraphs laid out, but when a student writes it out, they lump it all together into one giant paragraph. This is not the organizer’s fault. It’s not the student’s fault. It actually tells us a lot about the gap in the student’s learning. This type of error seems to communicate that the student does not know the function of a paragraph. This is a significant learning gap.

So now the question is how to fill in this gap, and another graphic organizer is not the answer. In fact, I would argue that giving out a graphic organizer too early in the reading-writing process may cause this problem. There is a difference between using an organizer to help students outline their ideas, and using an organizer to tell students how to organize their ideas. If we control their writing too early, students are never given the opportunity to think about the organization of their writing. We’ve already told them what should go in paragraph three, so why should they think about it? On the essay organizer it says that they need to start with a hook, so why would they consider using a personal narrative or an analogy to begin their introductions? We need to let go some of this control.

Before we give students a graphic organizer, there are some instructional questions that may help us to determine when and where to use it in our instructional cycle:

  • Have students been exposed to enough mentor texts in this particular genre?
  • Am I using the graphic organizer to replace instruction about the complexity of organization and structure? If I am, I need to slow down and increase my use of mentor texts before I start passing out the graphic organizers.
  • This graphic organizer is one way to visualize this text. What are some other visual representations students can use?
  • How can I help students draw/create their own organizers? If our goal is to create writers who select strategies independently, they need to be able to identify when they need an organizer and what that organizer should look like.
  • Is the graphic organizer overly scaffolded? I’m not going to lie. I’ve used a fill-in-the-blank essay organizer where all the transition words were already in place. I’m pretty sure none of my students learned how to move smoothly from one idea to the next when it was already done for them (in a very mechanical way at that).
  • Does this graphic organizer limit thinking? Some students may think better with the use of an organizer, while others may find it restrictive and limiting. We need to know which students need the scaffold, and when that scaffold is just going to get in the way.
  • Am I giving students a graphic organizer because I have given them a task on which they have little chance of succeeding? If so, the completion of a graphic organizer does not mean that they can now complete the task. This is another place where we need to slow down and fill in the gaps rather than using a strategy like a graphic organizer to place a very temporary band-aid on a problem that is not going away.

My thinking about this topic this week has reconfirmed that I need to slow down my writing instruction, while simultaneously increasing the number of mentor texts I use in class. I also need to dramatically increase the amount of practice writing I do with my students ( see a previous post “In Praise of the Quick Write” for ideas on this). Some of my students may need a graphic organizer, and I’ll help them decide which one at the right time, but I think I will have to recycle the stack overly prescriptive organizers in my filing cabinet.

News Articles, Mentor Texts, and the OSSLT

As a literacy coach, I am often asked about how to prepare students for the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test. In fact, at times (especially second semester) my job seems to be a flurry of last-minute preparations for students and teachers. When I work with teachers, we often talk about whether or not we are”teaching to the test.” I would like to say “no” because I believe that our instruction reflects our primary goal to generate confident readers and writers, but when I looked at my practice, I could not say this was true. My beliefs and my methods did not align.  This realization sent me on a reflection spiral where I re-evaluated my instruction and discovered some misconceptions about the OSSLT that were preventing me from preparing students adequately for the test and, more troublingly, distracting me from focusing on developing the skills of my student writers.

There is a difference in how I’ve taught the news report in the past to prepare students for the test versus how I would teach the news report if I wanted my students actually to write for a newspaper. There really shouldn’t be a difference, but there is.

My number one instructional strategy for teaching students how to write any genre is mentor texts. If you are going to write a personal narrative, you should read personal narratives and scour them for techniques to use in your writing. If I’m going to write a blog about teaching, I should read other teachers’ blogs. Mentor texts need to be used for news articles as well.  In the past, I’ve heard this strategy rejected(and rejected it myself!) because news articles today do not look like the ones that EQAO wants on the OSSLT.  However, I think this a misconception about the way the test is evaluated.

When planning instruction for the news article, teachers often talk about the lead where students should put the who, what, where, when. Some teachers tell their students to start with the word “yesterday,” others insist they start with the date.  Some school plans involve making sure their students include at least two quotations in their news articles. Others insist that the quotations should go in paragraph 4 and 5. But here is the thing – none of this is reflected in the rubric used to score this section.

The evaluation tool requires students’ work to have a clear and consistent focus on the event, supporting details, and logical organization.  A consequence of not using mentor texts is that we artificially control the news article form.  For many of our students, this type of instruction leads them to write mechanically, which means that we aren’t teaching them to use”thoughtfully chosen” supporting ideas with  an organization that demonstrates a “thoughtful progression of ideas.” It is difficult to organize your ideas thoughtfully when you know your quotation must come in paragraph 5! The rubric itself provides students with quite a lot of organizational freedom.

So what do we do instead? We teach the news article form in all of its complexity.

Instead of using the sample articles that we wrote or the ones we pulled off the OSSLT website, we should flood the classroom with examples of real news articles: reports about sports, the weather, crime, tragedy, and good news stories. There are a variety of conventions and mini-genres under the umbrella of the news article. If we want our students to become better writers, we need them to see that the basic structure of the news article stays the same while the vocabulary and content shift depending on the purpose of the article.

And don’t forget about the reader! Students should think deeply about the type of reader their article may interest. What will that reader want to know? Can we assume they already have some background knowledge? How can we meet the needs of that reader with the way we write?

In our efforts to prepare students for this standardized test, we have controlled the form and developed artificial formulas for writing. If all of this leaves you concerned about your next lesson, feel free to try out my eight-day news article plan  for this semester, and let me know how it goes. Let’s shift our focus from “passing the test” to nurturing thoughtful students who can handle the complexity that comes with the act of writing.

Reading, Writing, and Creating Routines: Expecting More out of 75 minutes

For those who have been reading, you know that I’ve been reading a lot of work by Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle. Their most recent book, 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents is a great place to start with for those who haven’t explored their work. A colleague brought me a (signed!) copy from a conference she went to this summer, and I instantly lost it to my husband who is a grade 6/7 teacher.  I read and follow their work because it is practical, sustainable, and reproducible.

I experimented with their class timing strategies in Emily Lackie’s class while teaching descriptive place writing. This wonderful teacher (who is a bundle of positivity energy) actually allowed me to teach her ENG 2P class during the second week of school. The timing strategies used by Gallagher and Kittle worked wonders in the first class, but I struggled with it in the second class. I think I made a key mistake in my lesson, which I’ve outlined below for those of you also experimenting with this teaching method.

Lesson Outline and Notes:

Book Talk

The 2-3 minute book talk in Emily’s class was easy because she already had an independent reading program established, and because my wonderful principal last year bought sets of high-interest books for classroom libraries (Thanks Geeta!). I book talked Dear Martin, They Both Die at the End, Sold, Ghost Boys and Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter.  Normally I wouldn’t book talk all these at once, but it was their first time meeting me, so I wanted to them to know: I like books, and I want them to like books too.

Independent Reading

Thanks to the preplanning of their teacher and the new books, this 10 minutes was an easy sell in the first-period class. The last period class was a bit more of a challenge. I was met with sighs and groans and exclamations of “I hate reading!” My response of “You just haven’t found the right book yet” was met with rolled eyes. The temptation when met with this type of attitude towards reading is to let them read anything that is readily available in the classroom, but this only starts the “fake reading” cycle.  Teachers and librarians need to have an infinite amount of grit and patience as they try to “sell” books to students. I refuse to let students just grab whatever is available because I want them to be intentional about their reading choices. I’m not going to lie. This is difficult. Really difficult. Like, I sweated through my shirt difficult.

Quick Write

The philosophy behind the quick write is the same as the thinking behind independent reading. Practice. Students need opportunities to practice both reading and writing without being assessed. They may return to pieces from their quick writes for future assessments or evaluations, but only if they want to further develop a piece.

To get the maximum use out of quick write time, I’ve started to use really short mentor texts to model an idea or a craft move. Linda Rief’s The Quickwrite Handbook has been a lifesaver this semester. For Emily’s class we were looking at descriptive place writing, so we based our quick write on the poem “Cities” by Catherine P.  We discussed the point of view and descriptive phrases in the poem and then students were offered  choices for their writing:

  1.  Write down anything this poem brings to mind for you.
  2. Borrow any phrase or line, letting the line lead your thinking as you write.
  3. Instead of the city, describe the country or some other location that holds significance for you.
  4. Describe the city or any other place that lets the reader know how much you like or dislike the place from the way you describe it. (Rief 98)

As students wrote, I turned on my document camera and wrote too. I happened to be inspired to write about my son’s bedroom (I recently found uneaten toast in his bed when I went to wash his sheets, so I had a lot of writing material). Writing in front of the students is key here, but I will leave that for another post.


This is where I think my lesson went sideways. A “mini-lesson” should be mini right? Max 20 minutes. Mine went on for 50. In the past I wouldn’t have considered this a problem; I taught right to the bell! However, what happened was that I deprived students of the chance to actually try the craft moves I was showing them while the techniques were still fresh in their minds. Next time, I would split up the three mentor passages I used over a series of days so that students could have more time to practice. I might even use one to spark a quick write for the next day. So keeping that in mind, this is how I taught description in my 50 minute “mini-lesson.”

The 50 minutes that should have been 20 minutes

We watched the first 3 minutes of the opening scene for the movie I Am Legend.

After we watch the scene a few times (I paused it on a few key moments and had them both look and listen), I ask them “How would you write this opening scene?” Of course, this is a complex question to throw at students the first time they are experimenting with descriptive place writing so we answered the question together.

First, I had them describe the atmosphere of the setting, and they gave me words like “lonely, desolate, creepy, apocalyptic.” Then we talked about the words we would use to describe the city: “decrepit, abandoned, overgrown, eerie, haunted.”  This gave us the opportunity to talk about how important word choice can be. The word “empty” tells us some information, but “abandoned” tells us so much more.

I could have stopped here and had students experiment with writing an opening like this scene, but I pressed on – this time using a passage from JK. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone:

There were a hundred and forty-two staircases at Hogwarts: wide, sweeping ones; narrow, rickety ones; some that led somewhere different on a Friday; some with vanishing step halfway up that you had to remember to jump. Then there were doors that wouldn’t open unless you asked politely, or tickled them in exactly the right place, and doors that weren’t doors at all, but solid walls just pretending. It was also very hard to remember where everything was because it all seemed to move around a lot. The people in the portraits kept going to visit each other, and Harry was sure the coats of armour could walk.

I used this passage to show them how the author uses lists in order to help the reader understand how overwhelmed Harry felt when he first walked into Hogwarts.  We again discussed word choice, especially the word “rickety”- what a great word!

Once again, I could have (SHOULD have) stopped here and let them experiment, but I split them into groups and gave each group a different passage and asked them to highlight and underline the descriptive sections in the passages. They were able to point out the new things in the paragraphs that they discovered. The passage from the Hunger Games, for example, used a sentence fragment, so we talked about why the author used it. The passage from Coraline used the word “stunted” and students wanted a clearer idea about what that meant.

Overall, it went well. We talked about word choice, using lists for effect, similies, imagery, and sentence structure. But it was too much. I forgot to let them practice, and I doubt if all this information will transfer over to the next class.  They would have been better served if I allowed them to write a draft and then showed them subsequent craft moves that they could edit into their work.


When your lesson goes long, you miss the sharing of beautiful words. Normally during the last 3 minutes, I would share something I’d written or have students share a line or two from their own writing. I need to stick to my mini-lesson so this sharing can be done.

So there is one of my experiments with the Read, Write, Study, Create, Share model. I’m really going to work on the timing and implementation of my “mini-lessons”. 20 minutes max next time! Feel free to comment with your own experiences or suggestions.