Are you at a school where not everyone knows about the resources at WritingFix and the Writing Lesson of the Month Network?  If so, why not share the following WritingFix Scavenger Hunt with your K-12 Colleagues.  I designed this activity for a school who asked for a self-guided way to explore the many grade-specific resources at the website.  The activity is designed to take about an hour, through searching, talking about, and sharing unique finds with your colleagues.  It really focuses on the variety of MENTOR TEXTS that can be used when teaching writing.

Click here to open/print this scavenger hunt!

You might consider showing this document to your principals, especially if you have an upcoming collaboration day or professional development.  Enjoy! 


I spent a great afternoon yesterday, working with a group of sixth graders in Reno.  As part of my expository project (to be finished this June), I am gathering expository samples from 6th-8th graders.  Four weeks ago, I had this group of sixty sixth graders write an expository sample inspired by this prompt: If you could switch places with someone else, who would you switch with and why?

The students' samples were assessed by two of my favorite state scorers (my wife and our friend, Campbell), using the rubrics that are applied to our eighth grade writing test.  Yesterday, I returned to the sixth graders where we looked at the rubrics, we predicted what score we think we each earned, then we analyzed our actual scores.

I had them graph their own scores, using a tool (see below) created by some very wise fifth grade teachers a few years back.  These sixth graders began understanding where their skills as writers specifically shine, and they began understanding how they could set some personal goals based on their weaker traits.

Click here to access this data sheet from WritingFix.

It was great fun watching students "map their data out," and listening to them ask questions about what it would take to move a specific score higher.

With the rubrics in hand, they then set two very specific goals for specific writing skills they will work harder on to increase their score (even if just by a half a point) for the next expository prompt we will be practicing with.  We're going to have a little contest for the 5 or 6 writers who successfully raise their scores the most by following the goals they chose for themselves..

I return to them on March 24th to begin pre-writing for their next prompt.  Before they write, each student will be required to look over the two goals they set.

Gotta love intelligent uses of data in the classroom.  It really can motivate learners.


I was so inspired by Gretchen Bernabei's collection of high-scoring student essays in her book, Sparklers, that two years ago, I began my own project based on the book's theme: what can we learn from essays by students that score well?  Here's a quick history lesson of that project and access to the final set of Sparkler below my brief history.

In Nevada, we urge both our fourth and fifth grade teachers to use the six practice prompts we've designated for them.  Even though on-demand prompt writing isn't the most authentic type of writing instruction we can provide our students, it's necessary in order for our students to understand how the fifth grade writing test will assigned to them and assessed. 

I strongly urge against "cramming" for the test in the weeks before the exam happens (in January), but plenty of local administrators still spend December having their teachers assign a practice prompt a week.  Sigh.  This does little more than exhaust and turn kids off of writing.  You've got to start prepping much earlier, and you've got to spread it out to keep students interested in it!

I urge fourth and fifth grade teachers to designate three months out of the school year to narrative.  For a week, students should work on a practice prompt, learning pre-writing and revision skills as they go.  Then for three weeks after that, the teacher should teach an authentic narrative writing lesson so as to solidify those prewriting and revision skills in students' tool boxes.  Fifth grade should put their three months of narrative practice and learning in the Fall.  Fourth should do it in the Spring.

At WritingFix, we post great materials to help teachers assign and assess these practice prompts.  One of the tools we post to make sure teaching happens (not just assessing) during the practice prompts is our own set of Nevada Sparklers.  I wanted there to be at least four sparkling samples for teachers to use during pre-writing and revision; I wanted these "Sparklers" to be on the same prompts we had our students practice to in Nevada.

I took over two years, but we now have 4 "Sparklers" for all 6 of our designated practice prompts.  The final set was just added this last week as part of my narrative project; it was four fourth grade.  Earlier on this blog, I posted the video I sent to the class of fourth graders I worked with to obtain these samples; I also posted a very sweet sample from a student--Kaya--who didn't get chosen as a Sparkler, but wrote a sweet little piece about me.  I hope you saw both those posts!

The prompt the final set of Sparklers is based on was: If you could give a special gift or award to a deserving person, what would it be and why? Share reasons and details as you compose your answer.

The final set of Sparklers is now posted at our newly-revised  Narrative Homepage.  They look like this:
Click here to access/print all four Sparklers from our last set!

Next up: Sparklers for our brand new 6th grade Expository Prompts!  The work never ends!  Have a great week!

Finally, because I anticipated the participants would ask--especially if I showed them excerpts from two chapter books first--, I showed how analyzing mentor texts could impact primary writers' drafts too. 

An amazing text!
My mentor text of choice for our third activity: All the Places to Love by Patricia MacLachlan.  This beautiful picture book will always make my top ten list of bext mentor texts you can use.  It's both the story of special places and special days, and students can always be asked to write about those topics.  After students have a draft on one of those topics, put it away for a while!  In the gap, read and re-read All the Places to Love several times.  Read it first "As a reader," which means read it to comprehend and enjoy it.  Next, read it "With a Writer's Eyes," which means read it to analyze the writer's skills.  There are so many skills MacLachlan uses that it's hard to pinpoint the best three to put on  my analysis post-it:

In the actual Olympics, often the gap between the gold medal winner and the bronze medal winner is just a fraction of a second.  When analyzing MacLachlan's skills against each other, it feels like they're mostly equal skills, but you've got to challenge your writers--even the young ones--to decide on one of those skills that they feel really shines the most. 

Once students have made that choice, the instruction becomes clear: "When you revise today, you need to try to add the 'gold medal skill' to your sentences."   You can see how that instruction has an impact on the following students' revised drafts about favorite places:

Click here to open/print these primary samples.

And that concludes the three activities I did at this year's Nevada Reading Week.  I can't wait for next year.  Perhaps, there'll be less snow a year from now!


The second activity I did last Friday at the Nevada Reading Week Conference was similar to the first activity, but we used a different mentor text: Marshfield Dreams: When I was a Kid by the great Ralph Fletcher.

I am not shy in saying that I believe this book (especially when you accompany it with Fletcher's How to Write Your Life Story) is the absolute best mentor text to have available when teaching narrative writing with elementary students. I make use of the text every time I work with a group of 4th or 5th graders.

Each chapter of the book is practically its own short story, capturing a real moment from Fletcher's boyhood.  Fletcher doesn't use lofty language like many other authors who write about boyhood; he writes with similes and verbs and adjectives that kids already know.  You don't teach vocabulary with this book; you teach students about skillful writing because this book is skillfully penned. 

On Friday, we read one of the shortest chapters from the book, which is called "First Pen."  It's about a gift that young Ralph received that meant a lot to him.  This chapter is so short, if you hand-wrote it out on Nevada's Writing Test Form, it would just fit.  To me, it's the perfect example of short, effective narrartive writing.

I can't legally post the entire chapter for you here, but I can show you two fourth grade samples that tried to imitate Fletcher's style as they wrote short narrative about important gifts they had received.  If you have a copy of Marshfield Dreams--or if you obtain one--spend some time comparing what these two fourth graders did with their writing that Ralph Fletcher also did!  Because they analyzed the writing (using the Post it below) they could do so much more than just impersonate the idea.

Click here to open/print these student samples!

Finally, below is the Post-it I designed to have the participants analyze and evaluate Fletcher's skills in the "First Pen" chapter!

I'll be posting my third and final activity from last Friday tomorrow!

Over the next few days, I will be posting the three activities I did during last week-end's Nevada Reading Week Conference.

Nevada's Ellen Fockler
 My dear colleague, Ellen Fockler, has faithfully coordinated this conference for...I don't know how many years now.  It started last Friday night, and despite an insane amount of snowfall in the hours that led up to the start time, it was usual.

When Ellen asks me to present year after year, I just can't say no; she's a Northern Nevada treasure, loved by our librarians, and as a guy who loves to share writing lessons inspired by mentor texts, NRW is a great place for me to share some of my newest wares.

This year's presentation, inspired by my work with our State Common Core Standards, was called "Reading with a Writer's Eye."  When we read a mentor text, we must first "Read it like a reader," which I explained means we read it to comprehend it.  Later--perhaps a few days, in fact--we can re-read the same text "with a writer's eyes," which means we look at its specific skills and writing tricks the author used to make the writing stand out.

To "read like a writer" requires us to arm our students with tools of analysis and evaluation; from my observations of reading and writing instruction--and this is not an insult, it's a fact--teachers mostly push students to the comprehension level or the application level.  I rarely see reading/writing instruction that pushes the students to analyze or evaluate what they're reading and writing.  Common Core State Standards are really going to surprise our teachers who think they're not that different from the current Nevada Standards.

And NRW presentation introduced some new tools that require readers to analyze and evaluate mentor texts, and then we saw how student writers--when they've learned to do this--can imitate the writing style in original pieces of writing.

We started with this chapter three excerpt from Blue Balliett's Chasing Vermeer:

The 5:38 southbound train went by Petra’s window exactly three second before it passed Calder’s.  In between, in shot by the Castiglione’s and then the Bixby’s—Petra had once calculated that it passed a house per second on Harper Avenue.  She liked the trains.  Looking out, she saw the bright shout of a red hat, a child in a purple jacket pressed against the window, a bald head just rising over the stiff rectangle of newspaper.  She’d noticed that colors sometimes left their shapes when things flashed by so fast.

After we discussed the context of the excerpt and all comprehended the writing, we used the following Post-it to analyze and evaluate it.  With partners, they re-read the text and decided which of the three skills listed on the Post-it stood out the strongest (gold medal), the second strongest (silver), and third strongest (bronze).  As the adults began disagreeing with one another's rankings, I knew they were achieving the analysis and evaluation level:

Of course, there's no right answer to the rankings; it's a very subjective task, as is responding to the style of any piece of writing.  When I use these analysis Post-its with students, I ask them to find the answer they believe in and--when they write for me--try to imitate the skills they believe were at the "Gold Medal" level.

It works.  It makes students more aware of the strength's of good writing.  You can see evidence of imitated skills in this piece by a fourth grader who was challenged to write about something that also moves fast--like the train in the mentor text:

Click the story above to see it in larger form!

When we analyze text, when we read with a writer's eyes, we can be influenced to write using the skills of our favorite authors.  This is made clear to me by Austin's sample!

Tomorrow, I'll be posting the second activity I did during my Friday night session at Ellen's Nevada Reading Week Conference.