Margin Notes



If you are looking for resources to give your students a behind-the-scenes view of the writing process, try Craft and Advice from Literary Hub and How I Wrote It from CBC Books. Both feature writers’ first-person accounts of their writing process and craft.

These would be a fantastic launching point for a craft and process study as an alternative to a more traditional form study. They can be incorporated into mini-lessons or used as invitations for students to reflect on and discuss their own writing processes. They are a powerful reminder that the writing process is not a linear one.



Pitchfork describes its 5-10-15-20 feature as “Talking to our favorite artists about the music of their lives, five years at a time.” Musicians identify the music they were listening to when they were 5, 10, 15, and so on and reflect on the impact it had on them.

This is such an interesting structure for personal writing and reflecting—it could be easily adapted for students to write their own histories using the same format. Students can use music or think about any other recurring influence over time: books, movies, tv shows, travel, friends, places they have lived, etc. Depending on their chosen focus, students might also play with the timeline. For example, they could reflect on each month across a year, select something to represent every grade in high school, or use elementary, middle, and high school to organize their ideas.

Using 5-10-15-20 is a really flexible way to incorporate personal writing.



What I Was Reading:

Why the USMNT Couldn’t Go Any Further by Eric Betts (Slate, Dec 3, 2022) is an analysis of the US men’s soccer team 3-1 loss to the Netherlands at the World Cup.

This paragraph caught my attention as an example of the way a writer can create flow within a paragraph by using details to narrow and widen the lens:

More importantly, though, the USMNT simply looked drained by the effort it expended to get through its group. While it grinded out its win against Iran, the Netherlands got to coast to victory against Qatar, and the difference showed. Every team wants to make it hard to play through midfield, but this time Adams, Yunus Musah, and Weston McKennie couldn’t summon the energy to brute-force their way through the Dutch marking by outsprinting them or winning the most important duels. Much of the game was played at a slow pace that favored the Netherlands, and the U.S. didn’t have the horsepower to push it and put the Dutch under stress. They finally managed it toward the end of the second half, but that was the only moment when it looked like a comeback from a 2-0 first-half deficit might be possible.

What Moves I Notice the Writer Making:

Breaking this paragraph apart sentence by sentence helped me see how the writer uses each sentence to shift the perspective by widening or narrowing it:

More importantly, though, the USMNT simply looked drained by the effort it expended to get through its group. (Wide lens: introduces the topic of the paragraph very broadly—the team was tired from the game it had played before its match with the Netherlands)

While it grinded out its win against Iran, the Netherlands got to coast to victory against Qatar, and the difference showed. (Narrows the lens: supports the introductory statement with details of the previous game and a comparison with the experience of the Netherlands)

Every team wants to make it hard to play through midfield, but this time Adams, Yunus Musah, and Weston McKennie couldn’t summon the energy to brute-force their way through the Dutch marking by outsprinting them or winning the most important duels. (Zooms in: specific examples of the team’s lack of energy)

Much of the game was played at a slow pace that favored the Netherlands, and the U.S. didn’t have the horsepower to push it and put the Dutch under stress. (Lens widens slightly: an analysis statement of the team’s overall play)

They finally managed it toward the end of the second half, but that was the only moment when it looked like a comeback from a 2-0 first-half deficit might be possible. (Zooms back in: offers a specific non-example but brings it back to the overall point)

Opportunities for Writers:

  • Use this as a model for experimenting with perspective and flow in a paragraph.
  • Revisit a paragraph in a draft and try using details to shift the perspective.
  • Find places in their reading where the writer uses a similar technique.
  • Notice and name other paragraph flow techniques they find in their reading.




I recently read Joy at Work by Marie Kondo and Scott Sonenshein, which suggests strategies for applying Kondo’s famous tidying method to our work environments, both physical and digital. One of the ways I have tidied my digital space is by unsubscribing to newsletters and email subscriptions that no longer “spark joy.” Over the years, I have subscribed to a number of education-related newsletters but find myself really reading only a few.

One of the newsletters that absolutely sparks joy for me is the Daily Poem. Every morning, a poem from the Paris Review archives is delivered to my inbox. This is a terrific resource for high school literacy teachers looking for contemporary poems to share with students. I love starting my day with a few minutes of poetry and have added many of the poems to my writer’s notebook to inspire my own writing. You can sign up for the Morning Poem using the Newsletter tab.

I know we often feel that we are inundated with emails, but newsletters that curate high-quality resources that we can use in our classrooms are timesavers in the long run.



The New York Times Magazine used the poem Small Kindnesses by Danusha Laméris as an invitation for teen readers to submit their personal responses to the question “What small kindnesses do you appreciate?” Danusha Laméris compiled some of the over 1300 responses into Small Kindnesses: A Collaborative Poem by Teenagers From Around the World.

Collaborative poems are a novel and creative way to curate students’ ideas and make their thinking visible. You might try compiling collaborative poems by:

  • inviting students to read Small Kindnesses and respond with their own small kindness or to the first line of the poem, “I’ve been thinking about…”
  • using another short text as an invitation to share thinking after a quickwrite
  • asking students to each share the line they are most proud of from their writing at the end of a craft or form study
  • collecting students’ favorite sentences from their independent reading


We’d love to hear your suggestions for collaborative poems in the comments!



Grub Street’s Best of New York series has gotten me thinking about the many ways students could use this “absolute best’ structure in their own writing to describe a topic they are knowledgeable and passionate about.

Some of my favorite examples are:

The Absolute Best Ice Cream Sandwiches in New York City

The Absolute Best Veggie Burgers in New York City

The Absolute Best Pancakes in New York City

These absolute best lists combine description, analysis, and persuasion. I can see students creating their own lists of the absolute best books they read during the year, teams in the WNBA, episodes of Star Trek, cookie recipes…the possibilities are endless!



What I Was Reading:

I have been slowly reading through One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder by Brian Doyle. This compilation of some of the best of Doyle’s writing, celebrates the wonder we can find in everyday moments when we stop, look, and listen. I’m trying to read only a few essays at a time and follow Doyle’s lead by using them as an invitation to look for the wonder (and the possibilities for writing) in my own surroundings.

“The Old Typewriter in the Basement” is one of my favorites from this collection. Written as a response to a question about how he became a writer, Doyle celebrates the impact of his father’s writing career on his own.

What Moves I Notice the Writer Making:

  • The first thing I notice is that “The Old Typewriter in the Basement” is a mash-up of first-person essay, memoir, and poem.
  • Doyle uses repetition as he lists his reasons for becoming a writer by introducing each new idea with “Because.” At first, the responses come quickly, with each new sentence starting with because. As he progresses, elaborating more on each memory, the pattern changes and “Because” appears at the beginning of each new stanza.
  • The central focus is the typewriter, but Doyle uses his relationship with it to reveal details about his father: “Because his typewriter was a tall older model that he loved and kept using even when sleek electric typewriters came into vogue and tried to vibrate their way onto his desk.”
  • Doyle fills this piece with images such as “you could listen to it like a song,” and “you could see by the pattern of wear which letters he used more than others” that help us imagine the scenes through his childhood eyes and ears.

Possibilities for Writers:

  • Use the same structure as a model for your own writing. Begin with a why question and answer it with a list of reasons starting with “Because…”
  • Experiment with the technique of repetition to embed a list into another type of writing.
  • Use an object as a springboard for describing someone.
  • Try combining the elements of more than one form into a single piece of writing.
  • Read this text as a writer to notice and name other interesting craft moves and discuss how they impact you as a reader. Try some of them in your own writing.



Stephen King’s forward to Castle Rock Kitchen: Wicked Good Recipes from the World of Stephen King by Theresa Carle-Sanders is delightful. This paragraph in particular caught my attention:

When I think of Maine cuisine, I think of red hot dogs in spongy Nissen rolls, slow-baked beans (with a big chunk of pork fat thrown in), steamed fresh peas with bacon, whoopie pies plus macaroni and cheese (often with lobster bits, if there were some left over). I think of creamed salt cod on mashed potatoes—a favorite of my toothless grandfather—and haddock baked in milk, which was the only fish my brother would eat. I hated it; to this day I can see those fishy fillets floating in boiled milk with little tendrils of butter floating around in the pan. Ugh.

King uses an array of punctuation to add variety and complexity to his sentences, making this excerpt a terrific mentor text for a punctuation exploration. Students can notice and name the punctuation moves King makes by following this adaption of Project Zero’s Parts, Purposes, Complexities thinking routine:

  • Record each of the four sentences on a large piece of paper with enough space around each one for groups of students to capture their thinking. (I know sentence #4 only contains one word and one period, but there is a lot to discuss about this intentional stylist choice.)
  • Ask students in small groups to discuss the sentences one at a time and capture their thinking about these invitations:
    • What are the parts of this sentence? What are its individual pieces or components?
    • What is the purpose of each of these parts? What does each part contribute to the sentence?
    • How does the punctuation support the complexity of this sentence? How does the punctuation connect the individual parts to the whole?

Once groups have finished discussing and annotating the sentences, invite them into a whole-class discussion to share their noticings about Stephen King’s punctuation use.

Close by giving students time to try out some of these punctuation moves in their writer’s notebooks by drafting their own “When I think of __________, I think of __________” paragraphs.



What I Was Reading:

Many English language Arts teachers are familiar with Mari Andrew’s illustrated memoirs Am I There Yet? and My Inner Sky and all the mentor text and quickwrite possibilities they offer. If you don’t already know, she also publishes a fantastic weekly newsletter called Out of the Blue.

In a recent issue, A day in the life (Or, moments in the life), Andrew explains that she is fascinated by the minutiae of other people’s days: “It astounds me how close I can be with a friend, only to stop dead in my tracks 10 years into our friendship and audibly realize, ‘I have no idea what you eat for lunch every day.’” She shares captured moments across a week to give readers a glimpse into her own life.

What Moves I Notice the Author Making:

These captured “moments in the life” are much tmore han a snapshot of Mari Andrew’s daily and weekly routine. The entries also offer a glimpse in her personality because they include backstory, explanation, and commentary.

For example, from Monday 7am we discover that Mari Andrew was once an intern hospital chaplain and that she is still impacted by that experience.

When I was interning as a hospital chaplain, I learned that hearing is the last sense to go as people are dying. That stuck with me, and I took comfort that people can still hear and understand even as their consciousness has seemingly slipped away.

Using that logic, I assume that hearing is particularly meaningful during our transition times: between sleeping and waking, for example. I try to stimulate my hearing before any other sense in the morning, so I turn on a song immediately. I go between this sweet Spanish prayer to Mother Earth, or the Maha Mantra. I lie in bed while I’m listening and either have some kind of half-awake inspiration journey or fall back asleep.

When she picks up her dry cleaning and does some shopping on Wednesday at 2pm, Andrew reflects on how New York City might lose its well-loved neighborhood business if people continue relying on delivery services.

Pick up dry cleaning and a few things from the bodega. These two establishments are so well-loved in my neighborhood. Both of them are covered in postcards and photos from customers, with sweet words like “We’re moving but we will miss you so much!” Another example of how important our community relationships are, and how much we lose if we head toward a city that runs on delivery.

Overall, Mari Andrew is giving us insight into much more than her typical routine. She is also showing us what her routine reveals about her as a person.

Possibilities for Writers:

  • Using Mari Andrew as a mentor, writers can capture a week’s worth of “moments in the life” and include commentary on the action/activity.
  • Writers can follow this model for specific reflections such as moments in their reading or writing lives.
  • They can incorporate this method of documentation during an individual or group project.
  • Reading like writers, students can identify other craft moves and brainstorm addition possibilities for writing inspired by Mari Andrew.



What I Was Reading:

Taylor Jenkins Reid’s latest novel, Carrie Soto is Back, tells the story of retired tennis champion Carrie Soto who decides, while watching a young player tie her record for winning the most Grand Slams, that she will return to the game and reclaim her title.

In this scene, Carrie faces a challenger at the French Open:

Moretti strides onto the court in a white-and-navy-blue tennis dress, waving to the crowd. She blows kisses to the stands. She is sponsored by Nike, so it’s no surprise that she is covered in swooshes from head to toe. When she turns to look at me, she gives me a big smile.

I nod at her.

She starts strong after winning the toss. But I’m stronger.

15-love becomes 15-all. 30-love becomes 30-all. Deuces become ad-ins and then back to deuces and ad-outs.

Three hours in, we are now in the third set. 6-6.

The crowd is cheering. I look up at my father who is sitting elegantly behind a flower box.

It’s now my serve. I need to hold this one and break hers. And then I’m on to the quarterfinals.

I close my eyes. I can do this.

When I open my eyes again, I’m looking directly at Moretti. She hovers over the court. Her hips swaying side to side as she waits for my serve.

I breathe in and serve it straight down the middle. She returns it with a ground stroke to the center. I hit it back, deep into the far-right corner. She runs for it, fast and hard. There’s no way she’s gonna make it.

But then she does. And I can’t return it.

It’s fine. It’s fine. I can feel my knee twinging, but I have plenty more to go.

I look up at my father again in the player’s box. He catches my eye.

I can feel the hum in my bones, the lightness in my belly. I serve it again, this time, just at the line. She dives and misses it.

I hold my game and then begin my assault on her. By the time I get to match point, she’s exactly where I want her. I set her up so she’s on the far side of the court. I return it to her backhand and that’s it. She’s done.


What Moves I Notice the Author Making:

  • The way the writer plays with time by speeding up and slowing down the action really stands out to me in this passage.
  • After a scene-setting paragraph describing Carrie Soto’s opponent, the rest of the passage is organized into a series of short paragraphs—many are only a single line—that reads like a list.
  • The description of the first three hours of the match comprises only a few lines. Short sentences with a pattern of repetition (“15-love becomes 15-all. 30-love becomes 30-all.”) reveal the progression of the play.
  • At the third set, with a 6-6 tie, Jenkins Reid slows the action down and builds suspense by including detailed description of the narrator’s thoughts and observations, the serve, and the subsequent rally.
  • Jenkin Reid’s use of sentence break in the line “But then she does. And I can’t return it,” intentionally slows the reader’s pace by emphasizing the pause between the two thoughts. Separating one sentence into two is another interesting strategy for controlling the action in a scene. This also seems to be a pivot point in the passage as the details become more compressed and the action accelerates.

Possibilities for Writers:

  • Notice and name other interesting craft moves in this passage.
  • Watch for interesting pacing strategies in other texts you read.
  • Develop a scene and experiment with time by using some of the Taylor Jenkins Reid’s techniques.
  • Try organizing ideas into a series of short paragraphs to give your writing a list-like quality that conveys many details in a concise structure.
  • Revise a draft in your writer’s notebook by incorporating some of the craft moves you notice in this excerpt.