Margin Notes

The Rule of Three (because three becomes a thing)


I have written about Katie Wood Ray’s advice to “read like teachers of writing” and my habit of recording examples of writer’s craft I find in my reading that I want to use as mentors in writing workshops with students and teachers.  I believe this lens also means that we read the world as though it is one big source of mentor texts.  I am always on the look-out for forms of writing or organizing structures that students could try out and when I find a group of at least three similar texts, I think that is the magic number for an inquiry.  Three makes it a “thing.” Three (or more) similar texts allow students to answer the question, “What do you notice about the way these texts are written?” and find commonalities across the samples.  Groupings of texts widen the opportunities for writers to look at the text and ask themselves what elements they might like to incorporate into their own writing.




What I Am Reading

All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team by Christina Soontornvat tells the harrowing tale of what happened to the Wild Boars soccer team in Mae Sai, Thailand in June 2018. It is “a unique account of the amazing Thai cave rescue told in a heart-racing, you-are-there style that blends suspense, science, and cultural insight.” (amazon)

This is how the first chapter opens:

opening paragraphs of a book

What Moves I Notice the Author Making:

  • The use of very short paragraphs
  • The use of onomatopoeia  (tap-tap, twee!, thump…)
  • A short title that captures the mood
  • The use of “the rule of three” – in this case, three sentences that start in a similar fashion.

Possibilities for Writers:

As a shared writing activity (or a quick write), invite students to emulate this author’s craft moves…

On the _______________________________ of ____________________, it sounds like a typical Saturday morning: 

The _________________of _________________________________________.

The _________________of _________________________________________. 

The _________________of _________________________________________. 

Here is a class’s shared writing version:

In the woods in the middle of nowhere, it sounds like a typical Saturday morning: 

The crunch of leaves under your feet. 

The crack of branches as you push your way through the underbrush. 

The sharp ring of the gunshot echoing through the woods. 

Try it out!



With many teachers moving to teaching using the workshop model, and with an emphasis on choice to give voice and autonomy to the writers in our classrooms, we are frequently asked, “How do you teach mini-lessons in workshop when students are writing in many different genres and forms?”. Studying craft and process are two ways in which you can organize mini lessons that are not genre dependent.

Here is an example of a craft study:

Yesterday as I was preparing to book talk Heroine by Mindy McGinnis, I was refreshing my memory of the book by reading the back cover, which includes:

“I am not a wasted person. I am not prowling the streets. I am not an addict. I am a girl spinning her locker combination. I am a girl who got a B on her math test. I am a girl who has two holes on the inside of her arm, but they do not tell the whole story of me.”

I was struck by the use of what Jennifer Serravallo calls “Tell What It’s Not (to Say What It Is)” and I was thinking what a great mentor text this excerpt would be for students.  Following the advice from THE RULE OF THREE (BECAUSE THREE BECOMES A THING), which states, “Three makes it a ‘thing’. Three (or more) similar texts allow students to answer the question, “What do you notice about the way these texts are written?” and find commonalities across the samples.  Groupings of texts widen the opportunities for writers to look at the text and ask themselves what elements they might like to incorporate into their own writing.  So, I asked myself where else I have seen this strategy used, and I remembered the following two pieces:

Excerpt from Hunger by Roxanne Gay: “The story of my body is not a story of triumph. This is not a weight-loss memoir. There will be no picture of a thin version of me, my slender body emblazoned across this book’s cover, with me standing in one leg of my former, fatter self’s jeans. This is not a book that will offer motivation. I don’t have any powerful insight into what it takes to overcome an unruly body and unruly appetites. Mine is not a success story. Mine is, simply, a true story.”

Excerpt from An Open Letter to Those Who Want to Liberate Me From Wearing My Hijab by Amira B. Kunbargi: “I don’t need your life jacket. I am not drowning in dogmatism or ideological idiocy. Nor am I prisoner to a patriarchal rampart. I am not brainwashed, backward, or bound. You don’t need to rescue me so stop trying to save me. I don’t need saving. What I need is respect.”

Studying craft in a variety of genres (in this case fiction, memoir, open letter) allows students to see how craft moves work across genres and helps them envision where, when, and for what purpose they may use the craft move being studied. For more ideas on studying craft in your writing workshop, check out the Craft Studio section of Margin Notes.

Atomic (Reading) Habits Part 3


This is the third post in a series of reflections on what Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones by James Clear tells us about creating Atomic Habitsenvironments where students develop lifelong reading habits. You can read the previous posts here and here.

According to Clear there are four laws of behavior change. The first three laws—make it obvious, make it attractive, make it easy—increase the odds that we will perform a behavior. The fourth law—make it satisfying—increases the odds that we will perform that habit again and again:

“We are more likely to increase a behavior when the experience is satisfying. This is entirely logical. Feelings of pleasure—even minor ones like washing your hands with soap that smells nice and lathers well—are signals that tell the brain: ‘This feels good. Do this again, next time.’ Pleasure teaches your brain that a behavior is worth remembering and repeating.”

“…The Cardinal Rule of Change: What is rewarded is repeated. What is punished is avoided. You learn what to do in the future based on what you were rewarded for doing (or punished for doing) in the past. Positive emotions cultivate habits. Negative emotions destroy them.”

“The vital thing in getting a habit to stick is to feel successful—even if it’s in a small way. The feeling of success is a signal that your habit paid off and that the work was worth the effort.”

“…the identity itself becomes the reinforcer. You do it because it’s who you are and it feels good to be you. The more the habit becomes part of your life, the less you need outside encouragement to follow through.”

“The most effective form of motivation is progress. When we get a signal that we are moving forward, we become more motivated to continue down that path.”

In our efforts to support students in developing lifelong reading habits, we have to ask ourselves how we can create the conditions for students to find intrinsic motivation to continue growing as readers?

Here’s what we know doesn’t work when it comes to motivating students to read: extrinsic rewards and accountability measures such as reading logs.

In No More Reading for Junk Barbara A. Marinak and Linda B. Gambrell highlight the perils of offering extrinsic rewards in an effort to motivate students to read:

The work that is perhaps the most informative on this issue is a study by Deci and his colleagues that suggests that if you reward a student who enjoys reading with an extrinsic reward (such as points, food, or money), the students may choose to read less frequently once the incentive is discontinued (Deci et al. 1991). The concern then is that extrinsic rewards may have a detrimental effect on the intrinsic motivation to read, particularly for those students who are already intrinsically motivated to read.

Interesting evidence also suggests that individuals are motivated by the reward itself (Deci 1975). For example, if we are paid to do a task such as reading, it may result in a decrease in our desire to read; however, being paid may be very effective in motivating an individual to make money. In other words, we tend to view the “reward” as desirable and valuable. Therefore, if we want to develop the intrinsic desire to read, books and extra time to read are probably the most effective rewards.

…research indicates that classroom environments that provide access to a variety of reading materials, reading activities that are relevant, and opportunities for student choice are more likely to nurture reading engagement and achievement (Anderman and Midgley 1992; Gambrell 2011; Guthrie, Wigfield, and VonSecker 2000).

Marinak and Gambrell refer to the classroom practices that nurture and sustain the development of motivation to read as the ARC of motivation:

  • afford access to a wide variety of print,
  • invite children into relevant reading experiences, and
  • afford as much choice as possible.

In “Can Reading Logs Ruin Reading for Kids,” journalist Erica Reicher acknowledges that reading logs are often used with the best of intentions—to encourage students to read: “The goal of these logs is to promote the habit of recreational reading, or at least to create the appearance of it. The basic idea seems to be this: If kids who read regularly gain significant benefits, then it should be mandated that all students read regularly so they, too, can enjoy those benefits.” Unfortunately, as the research on the negative impact of extrinsic rewards and punishments on motivation reveals, this strategy often has the opposite effect: “This research would suggest that reading logs have a similar effect on children’s reading habits, especially their desire to read for fun, making reading less of a pleasure and more of a chore. Imagine telling your child that she must draw pictures for at least 20 minutes daily—and also record how much time she spent drawing and how many different colors she used.”

According to Pernille Ripp, “We’re constantly asking kids to do something with their reading, and then wondering why they’re choosing to leave us and never picking up another book. They can’t wait to get out of school so that they don’t have to read.”

Teri S. Lesesne, author of Reading Ladders: Leading Students from Where They Are to Where We Want Them to Be, reminds us that motivating students to read is only a job half-done: “Once we connect students to books, we cannot abandon them. We need to provide them with some guidance to help them continue to develop as readers.” Lesesne suggests using reading ladders as a strategy for scaffolding students toward more challenging, independent reading:

Simply, a reading ladder is a series or set of books that are related in some way (e.g., thematically) and that demonstrate a slow, gradual development from simple to more complex. Ideally, the first rung of the reading ladder is a book that already has found a connection to the student. The second rung is a book that is almost identical to the first, thereby making it likely that the student will read it. At each successive rung, the books will be reminiscent of the ones that preceded them but are increasingly complex. Sometimes the books move from genre to genre; occasionally, the books remain within a genre. There are no hard-and-fast rules here. The intent is to move readers from their comfort zone to books that represent more diversity.

The reality, though, is that the only way to be this kind of book matchmaker for students, motivating them to incrementally challenge themselves to read texts of more complexity, is to know the readers in our classes and to have a wide familiarity with titles to recommend to them.

It’s important to note, however, that not all reading has to be hard for students. If we are motivated by things that bring us pleasure, it stands to reason that if reading is not a satisfying experience, it will not become habitual. That’s not to say reading must be easy, but it must bring a feeling of accomplishment to readers. As Kylene Beers has said on many occasions:




The Handmaid's TaleThirty-three years ago, Margaret Atwood introduced readers to the dystopian world of Gilead. Now, with the artwork of Renee Nault, this tale comes alive once again in The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel.

This story outlines the life of Offred, a handmaid in the new republic of Gilead, where declining fertility rates have forced the government to establish a society of suppression. As Offred struggles to adjust to her new role, she is plagued by memories of her past life and family. The restrictive rules of Gilead create biblically inspired handmaids to serve in each officer ranking’s home. The sole purpose of the handmaid is to conceive a child.

Initially written in the 80s as a satire, The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel offers a viewpoint that is still relevant in modern society. The art of Nault adds a whole new dimension to this piece of literature. Striking a remarkable balance between detail and depiction, Nault’s illustrations depict scenes with clarity: the Red Centre, a night out at Jezebel’s, scrabble with the Commander, and the salvaging.

The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel is 240 pages of full color illustrations that incorporate the major plot events of the original novel. Throughout the novel, Nault balances the pages with bold illustrations in both small panels and full page scenes that depict events significant to the story’s plot.

This is a wonderful genre of reading for students, which is inclusive of all reading abilities. While the illustrations are very detailed, they may not be suitable for all audiences. For example, some readers may find scenes such as the Wall disturbing. Overall, The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel is an effective choice for sharing powerful literature with students.

Erma Appleby is an English Language Arts teacher at Oromocto High School, in Oromocto, New Brunswick. She enjoys the discussion that literature can ignite and the role that it plays in our lives.