Margin Notes



The New York Times Learning Network is always a go-to source for lesson ideas and mentor texts. They have just announced the winners of the 100-Word Personal Narrative contest.  These tiny memoirs are based on the NYT column, Tiny Love Stories. The Learning Network has created this step-by-step guide for teachers that includes mentor texts. The winning tiny memoirs are excellent student-written models for a mini-study on mini-memoirs or to generate ideas for longer memoirs and personal narratives by having students start with writing small to see where their thinking and writing take them.



Hands, written by Torrey Maldonado, is a story that every teacher must read and have in their classroom library. When my colleague returned from NCTE with a signed copy, I was elated. I placed it on my book stack with the promise to get to it right away. But life happened and obligatory reads took over. My advance reader copy got buried in my stack waiting for me to find the time it deserved. On this languid Sunday afternoon, my advance reader copy, no longer advanced, found its way into my hands and it did not leave them until I finished this story written from the heart.

Trevor’s experience with his family and friends and finding himself through that turmoil will speak to every student in every classroom. Hands sheds light on the quiet strength of the student falling asleep during class who feels like they are in an impossible situation and doing their best to hold it all together. Trevor Junior’s current reality is a mirror for students that need hope that they too can respond to their challenges in ways that empowers them. His experience speaks to the capacity of human connection and that we can seek advice and help from those in our lives who will help us make the right choices, from our “F.R.I.E.N.D.S” as described by the acronym in the author’s note:

“Fight for me

Respect me

Involve me

Encourage me

Nourish me

Develop me

Stand by me.”

I love how Maldonado ingeniously threads how hands can be used to in many ways throughout each chapter: to express ourselves, to interact with the world around us, to create, to care for others, to communicate our love for others, to fight, to hurt and harm others. This aligns beautifully with Maldonado’s exploration of the different implications of the word promise throughout the story and how it too can be used to give hope but also make us feel hopeless. How fitting is it that Maldonado’s inscription on the inside cover is a promise of the impact of educators, “Our world is in your hands.” I hope you get your hands on a copy today!



What I was reading:

The “What’s the Difference?” and “__________ vs __________” posts from Mental Floss are excellent examples of a unique take on descriptive and explanatory writing. Some recent examples are:

Calzone vs. Stromboli: What’s the Difference?

Em Dash vs. En Dash v., Hyphen: What’s the Difference?

What’s the Difference Between a Sound and a Noise?

What’s the Difference Between Hard and Soft Water?

What Moves I Notice the Writers Making:

As I read these four texts, I can identify many of the qualities of effective description and explanation:

  • Explaining how something came to be: “Calzones originated in Naples as a portable alternative to pizza. The name translates to ‘pants leg’ because customers can enjoy the doughy package while walking around rather than sitting down to eat pizza with a knife and fork.”
  • Explaining how something works: “Groundwater sourced near porous rocks, for example, will contain more minerals, while water from glaciers has almost none. If your water picks up calcium and magnesium in large amounts en route to your tap, it’s considered hard water.”
  • Describing the relationship between the two subjects: “While all noise is sound, not all sound is unwanted noise. It can also be subjective. If you love heavy metal, that’s pleasant sound. If you hate it, it’s noise.”
  • Using details supported by research and/or outside sources: “According to Bon Appetit, the biggest factor separating strombolis from calzones is how they’re assembled.”
  • Including a classification system: “According to the US Geological Survey, anything below 60 mg/L is soft, up to 120 mg/L is moderately hard, 121 to 180 mg/L is the hard stuff.”
  • Incorporating figures or data: “…but if the calcium is over 100 parts per million (ppm), you’re likely to notice something seems a little off.”

I also noticed several craft moves that are not specific to descriptive and explanatory writing:

  • Starting with similarities to introduce differences: “Strombolis and calzones are pizzeria staples for a reason—they consist of many of the same ingredients as a pizza and can easily be assembled using dough scraps and leftover toppings.”
  • Organizing information with subheadings that group details: “Em Dash vs. En Dash” “En Dash vs. Hyphens”
  • Providing a variety of examples: “This includes compound words like old-fashioned and left-handed; longer phrases like merry-go-round and run-of-the-mill; and numbers like twenty-seven and two-thirds.”
  • Incorporating a bullet list of examples: “You should opt for a hyphen over a dash in these situations as well:
    • To signal that a word is continued on the next line.
    • To signal that a word is being spelled out, letter by letter.”
  • Beginning by connecting with what readers probably already know or believe about the topic: “Few people say, ‘That’s a lovely noise,’ for example, or ‘What’s all that sound?’ If those present as clunky to your ear, you’re halfway toward figuring out the difference between the two words and when to use each.”
  • Introducing a topic with a question: “So what exactly is ‘hard’ water, and how does it actually differ from ‘soft’ water? Also, what counts for just plain water?”
  • Closing by circling back to previous examples: “If you love heavy metal, that’s pleasant sound. If you hate it, it’s noise.”
  • Defining technical or subject-specific vocabulary: “As its name suggests, an em dash is roughly the length of the letter M, while an en dash more closely matches an N. A hyphen is shorter still.”

Possibilities for Writers:

This type of “What’s the Difference Writing” combines elements of explanatory and descriptive writing. It invites students to write about a topic of interest that allows they to share their insider knowledge or to write to satisfy their curiosity about a “What’s the difference?” topic they’ve been wondering about. The __________ vs. __________ structure can be used as a framework for students compare two texts on a similar subject or theme, two perspectives, or two pieces of writing in the same form or by the same author.



I must admit, as a middle school teacher, I was hesitant to read this title out loud, however this cheeky title is a great read. Readers will love how the author, Huda Fahmy, writes about growing up and moving to a small town in Dearborn Michigan. As a Muslim teen, Huda knew exactly who she was in her old town, but in her new town, she feels lost. Huda is trying to figure out what every teen is essentially trying to figure out: their identity. With essential themes of micro aggressions and stereotypes, family and friendships, Huda retells her high school experience.

The story centers around her upbringing in a family of five girls and two loving parents who have high expectations of her. Huda finds every moment to make us all laugh at her awkward high school moments. Students will be able to relate to the idea that fitting in is hard and knowing who your true friends are is not always easy to figure out. Along the way she tries a variety of friend groups to see where she belongs. It takes an incident in the Principal’s office with her mother to make her come to terms with who she wants to be. I enjoyed this graphic novel in one sitting, and I highly recommend it for your classroom library.

Tina Kelly teaches language arts at George Street Middle School. She has over 25 years of experience with middle schoolers and loves nothing more than recommending and sharing great literature. Inspired by Nancie Atwell, she believes in the philosophy of the Readers Workshop and the importance of giving students the choice to read what they want.




Have you seen the New York Times Learning Network 2022-23 Student Contest Calendar?  Their writing contests are open to students ages 13 to 19 who are in middle school or high school around the world. Each contest listed on the calendar is accompanied by a selection of resources for teachers and students and past winning entries that can be used as mentor texts.

There are still several contests open for the 2022-23 school year and summer!



Jeff Zentner’s In the Wild Light is a coming-of-age story that follows Cash Pruitt and his friend Delaney Doyle as they prepare to leave their tiny Tennessee town. Growing up in Sawyer, Tennessee, has come with its challenges for the teens, both of whom lost mothers to the opioid crisis that ravaged their community, and both coming from financially disadvantaged backgrounds. But, when the pair make the scientific discovery of the decade, they each receive a scholarship to the prestigious Middleton Academy in Connecticut. This leaves Cash with a difficult decision – leave behind the town he loves and his dying Papaw or let Delaney, his best friend in the world, leave Sawyer without him.

This book would be a great addition to any high school classroom library. Zentner is able to masterfully capture the complexity of tragedy and loss, the confusion that comes with first loves, and the comfort of home. This book explores themes of belonging, relationships and resilience which will resonate with many students.  It should also be noted that this book has some profanity, explores issues of drug addiction and has one scene depicting a sexual assault.

Matt Whipple is a BEd student at the University of New Brunswick. He can often be found adventuring outdoors or coaching youth sports.



What I Was Reading:

In The Women’s National Team Taught Canada How to Be a Soccer Country, Harley Rustad, whose sister played for Canada from 1999-2008, analyzes the impact of the women’s national team on Canadian soccer fandom.

This paragraph is about Canada’s reaction to the team’s gold-medal win at the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo:

Canada won gold. In soccer. I cried. I watched Sinclair—who was nineteen during that breakout 2002 tournament—celebrate nearly two decades later with an Olympic gold medal. I wasn’t alone. While more than 4.4 million Canadians watched at home on the CBC, no fans were in the stadium that night in Tokyo, that second summer of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some might have seen that victory as anticlimactic: to win gold without a crowd watching and screaming. But, in a way, it was perfect: the exuberance and exaltations of the team weren’t muffled by the screams of a jubilant horde. We screamed at home, we cried at home. They screamed on the field, they cried on the field—and we heard it all.

What Moves I Notice the Author Making:

  • The first thing I noticed about this paragraph is that it includes an intentional variety of sentence types and lengths to create interest, rhythm, and flow. For example, the opening three very short sentences are followed by a much longer sentence.
  • The writer uses a wide range of punctuation for effect, including the em dash to set off details about captain Christine Sinclair in order to provide background for the reader.
  • The pairing of the related sentences beginning with “Some might have seen…” and “But, in a way…” is reinforced by repeating the same technique of using a colon to introduce detail in both sentences.
  • Similarly, the repetition of the structure “We screamed at home, we cried at home. They screamed on the field, they cried on the field…” underscores the sense of solidarity between the team and their fans being described.

Possibilities for Writers:

  • Notice and name other interesting craft moves in this passage.
  • Watch for interesting sentences varieties and structures in texts they are reading.
  • Identify other paragraph organization and structure techniques they find in their reading.
  • Find places in their reading where the writer uses repetition for effect.
  • Revise a draft in their writer’s notebook by incorporating some of the craft moves you notice in this excerpt.
  • Use this as a model for experimenting with rhythm and flow in a paragraph.



Part ghost story part epic adventure novel The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home will haunt you & have you in stitches. Not because she put wax on your stairs while you were sleeping Edward, but for other. more novel appropriate, reasons.

I’m not going to lie to you, it’s gnarly. There are a lot of animal guts – more than you’d expect from an old lady but that’s the thing with our antagonist (and she certainly does antagonize), she’s unexpected. How did this old woman get into your home? Why is she still here? How does she watch you (and she certainly does watch you) without eyes? To find out this & more you’ve got to read the book.

The novel is written entirely from the perspective of The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home & details her childhood and unrelentingly long life. It’s got everything: doomed young love, doomed middle aged love, doomed old woman love. It’s got people using their trauma to propel them forward and it’s got people letting their trauma propel them to revenge! It’s equal parts vicious & voracious. It is not a novel for the weak of heart (because of the animal guts.) but it is a brilliant and well-crafted piece of literature for anyone looking for something a touch macabre.

Esther Soucoup is a BEd Student at the University of New Brunswick. They’ve been involved in several local theater productions, most recently being Ask You Like it produced by Bard in the Barracks. Esther has become friends with her Faceless old Woman because she talks to her cat at 4am while they’re sleeping, which stops the cat from destroying everything they own. It doesn’t stop the old lady… but baby steps. Baby steps…



Betsy Potash, in her interview on Cult of Pedagogy, describes hexagonal thinking by saying that “while hexagonal thinking is not new in the world of business and innovation, it’s just making its way into the classroom. It’s a method for considering the connections between ideas and finding the nuances in those connections. If you’re looking for a fresh framework for discussion and critical thinking, this may be just the thing.” Her interview describes how to explain and use hexagonal thinking in both online and face-to-face settings.

Check out her description of the setup, the procedure, and the assessment of using hexagonal thinking. She even offers some ideas of variations and additions to this activity.

Helpful Links and Models:

Try hexagonal thinking in your class to make thinking visible!


Image credit



Salahudin and Noor are teenagers growing up in the desert town of Juniper, California, who dream of escaping their working-class lives. Salahudin’s parents immigrated from Pakistan before he was born, purchasing a run-down motel with the hope of a fresh start. Noor immigrates from Pakistan after an earthquake kills her parents, where she and Salahudin become best friends, both labelled outsiders by their young classmates. As they grow up, their bond intensifies until unrequited love causes the friendship to dissolve, just as Salahudin’s family life, and Noor’s academic future, fall apart. A sequence of tragedies, followed by bad decisions, forces Salahudin and Noor to face each other and learn to define themselves in an unfair world. Through the themes of love, family and forgiveness, and the use of alternating perspectives, Salahudin and Noor in the present and Salahudin’s mother in the past, Sabaa Tahir showcases that fear and love connect us all.

Tahir highlights the injustices faced by people of colour, in addition to the everyday struggles they face. Her writing makes the reader rage along with Salahudin and Noor as they face racism and injustices no one should have to endure. You will want to reach into this book and comfort the characters; make them feel safe. Not only does Tahir capture the effects of generational trauma on young people, but she also captures the intricacies of family. Sometimes those who care for us the most have no blood relation, and who you consider family is for the individual to decide.

This book should be in every High School English classroom, and I would even go as far as to suggest its use for book clubs. Its target audience is mature students, grade eleven or twelve, as it deals with physical and sexual abuse, trauma, addiction, Islamophobia, and parental death. Students will see themselves in Salahudin and Noor, regardless of their skin colour, religion, or family dynamic. Fears associated with an unknown future, and disappointing those closest to you, are familiar to us all, regardless of background. I would not hesitate to give this book to any student who enjoyed The Hate U Give or They Both Die at the End.

Tanya Senechal is a Pre-Service Teacher completing her Education degree at the University of New Brunswick. She is an avid reader of YA fiction and YA fantasy who sometimes reads passages aloud for her cat, Nebula.