Margin Notes

Read Like a Teacher of Writing


The title of this post comes from one of my all-time favorite professional resources, What You Know by Heart by Katie Wood Ray.  It is the title of Chapter 6 where we are reminded:

“Every time we see writing, we are seeing examples of what’s possible in writing, and so we have to read the texts we encounter across our lives differently than other people.  We read these texts like teachers of writing.  We are on the lookout for interesting ways to approach the writing, interesting ways to craft sentences and paragraphs and whole texts, interesting ways to bring characters to life or make time move or get a point across.  When we read, we are always on the lookout—whether we intend to be or not—for interesting things we might teach our students how to do” (Wood Ray, 90).

In September, when I was setting up a new writer’s notebook, I created a space to record mentor text possibilities I find while I’m reading.  I am challenging myself to record them when I discover them so that I am only noticing but also naming the choices I see the writer making.  Plus, when I write them down, I know I can find them later when I am looking for them!  Here are four examples from my recent reading:

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

I first listened to this as an audio book narrated by the author and then purchased a paper copy because I knew I would want to use excerpts from it in workshops with teachers or in classrooms with students. The book opens with a richly detailed description of Jahren’s love for her father’s science laboratory, the time she spent exploring it while her father prepared for his classes, and their ritual of locking up and walking home in the cold winter evenings.  These opening pages beautifully weave vivid descriptions of places and people with reflections on family and childhood.  This would be a wonderful mentor text for students to examine how Jahren’s describes the physical spaces of her childhood as a way of organizing her recollections of that time in her life.


That Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib

I have been a fan of Hanif Abdurraquib since I discovered this remarkable essay about Biggie SmallsThey Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us is a stunning collection of essays—beautifully written, thought-provoking, honest, and reflective.  I could have recorded something from every essay that would make a powerful mentor for a writer.  One craft move I found myself particularly drawn to is the way Abdurraqib clarifies his thinking in “Serena Williams and the Policing of Imagined Arrogance.”  Three separate paragraphs start with a version of, “When I talk about _____, I need people to understand ______…”  To me, this language feels very personal and acts as a signal to the reader that says, “Pay attention to this because it’s going to help you understand my larger point.”  It also creates momentum in the essay as Abdurraqib builds his argument by slowing down and making sure everyone is clear before he moves on.

The Noise by Stephen Curry


The Player’s Tribune is a source I visit regularly for texts to use in workshops and classes.  When I saw “The Noise” by Stephen Curry, I immediately changed my plans for the writer’s notebook work I had planned to do with Sara Bamford’s classes at Fredericton High School and developed my workshop around this essay.  (Full disclosure here: Curry played basketball at my husband’s alma mater, Davidson College, so this decision received lots of endorsement at my house).  I was taken by Curry’s use of commas, dashes, and ellipses to slow the reader down and focus their attention on what he has to say.  I invited the students to pay attention to how the punctuation guided my reading aloud and then we took a deeper dive back in to take a closer look at punctuation and its effect on the reader.  Afterward, we all tried out Curry’s punctuation moves in out writer’s notebooks. The following day, Sara asked her students to find examples of similar uses of punctuation in their independent novels.

You can also watch Stephen Curry discussing this essay and reading an excerpt on the Tonight Show:


Lemongrass, Coconut and Sweet Potato Soup by Susan Jane White

During an intense cold snap, I was searching for soup recipes to counteract the freezing temperatures.  When I stumbled across this one, I knew I had also found a mentor text possibility. Not only was the soup excellent, but the way Sarah Jane White adds her voice and humor to what would otherwise be a basic list of step-by-step instructions can serve as a terrific model for writers working on “how-to” and explanatory writing.

Switching my lens to be more focused on not just reading like a writer but, more specifically, reading like a writing teacher has helped me notice and name the craft moves I see writers using.  Challenge yourself when you are reading to be on the lookout for possibilities for writers.  You’ll be amazed at how quickly your collection grows.  The world is filled with mentor texts from menus to movies to billboards to poetry.  When you share them with your students you’ll not only be surrounding them with real-world examples of craft moves they can try in their own writing, you’ll also be sharing your own life as a reader with them.

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