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

BEEF
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?”

“What?”

“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

Frightened

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
saving
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.

In Praise of the Quick Write

Some of the most creative and thoughtful pieces of student writing I’ve seen have come from the ten-minute quick write I like to do at the beginning of class. I’ve had particular success with one in particular, so I thought I would share. The work you see below is all from students taking ENG 2P.

Kwame Alexander’s book The Crossover is a frequently read book in many of my classes, but it also has some great passages for quick writes. In her book “The Quickwrite Handbook,” Linda Rief recommends this passage from the novel:

“Mom, since you asked, I’ll tell you why I’m so angry”

Because Dad tried to dunk.

Because I want to win a championship.

Because I can’t win a championship if I’m sitting in this smelly hospital.

Because Dad told you he’d be here forever.

Because I thought forever was like Mars – far away.

Because it turns out forever is like the mall -right around the corner.

Because Jordan doesn’t talk basketball anymore.

Because Jordan cut my hair and didn’t care.

Because he’s always drinking Sweet Tea.

Because sometimes I get thirsty.

Because I don’t have anybody to talk to now.

Because CPR DOESN’T WORK!

Because my crossover should be better.

Because if it was better, then Dad wouldn’t have had the ball.

Because if Dad hadn’t had the ball, then he wouldn’t have tried to dunk.

Because if Dad hadn’t tried to dunk, then we wouldn’t be here.

Because I don’t want to be here.

Because the only thing that matters is swish.

Because our backboard is splintered.

We read it together and pointed out some of the “craft moves” the Alexander is making: repetition, listing, capital letters, italics, similes, etc.

Students are then challenged to imitate Alexander’s form, and I do the same thing in my journal while I project it with a document camera. Today was a unique experience because some students didn’t feel comfortable writing about emotions, so they wrote about other things like sports and school. It was wonderful to see them making the writing their own. Some of their writing was personal, but many of them agreed to share their work. This is what students at Sir John A. Macdonald and Sherwood produced in five minutes with no time for revision or planning:

This is some very thoughtful work created in a short amount of time. Students may come back to this and revise their work, or they may choose to use some of these craft moves in other pieces of writing. Either way, I think this is an excellent way to spend 10 minutes of every day.

As I find mentor texts that work, I’ll post them. Happy 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.

Mini-Lesson

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.

Share

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.