Margin Notes



Two years, ago I was planning a workshop for teachers on using an inquiry approach toward genre studies in writers workshop. I wanted the participating teachers to explore mentor texts through the lens of the question “How is this written?” Unfortunately, we only had 90 minutes together, so our reading time would be limited. My solution was to use flash fiction. Because, by definition, the pieces would be short, we would be able to read and discuss several of them in the time available. When I started looking for examples, I discovered they were everywhere, including on the cups and bags at Chipotle.

I recently discovered that flash fiction has a cousin, flash nonfiction (aka the flash essay). Spry Literary Journal offers this definition: “Flash nonfiction, just like flash fiction, is a story shrunk into miniature form. It’s a single story, a moment, or a scene shaped and compressed into a small capsule.”

Using flash nonfiction as mentor texts is a way of supporting writers in examining craft in a larger variety of examples than they might typically be able to when reading only longform essays. This can also be helpful during mini-lessons because students can see the craft move in the context of the whole text and not simply an excerpt.

Invite students to write their own flash essays as a fresh alternative to the traditional memoir or personal essay. You might challenge them to revise a longer piece down to its essence or ask them to create a flash essay that will eventually be developed into a longer, more detailed text.

There are many possibilities for incorporating flash nonfiction into the readers and writers workshop. Here are some sites/resources to get you started:

Brevity Magazine

The Writers Alliance of Gainesville

Hippocampus Magazine

The Artifice

Teachers & Writers Magazine



The open letter is a form of writing that offers nearly unlimited possibilities for writers. Typically addressed to a specific reader or group, but intended to be read by a wider and more public audience, the open letter can be crafted as a memoir, a persuasive piece, social commentary, or a small moment/slice of life. The open letter can be serious and formal, or it can be personal and humorous in that “you’re laughing because you’ve been there” way.

Regardless of the approach, the open letter requires some intentional writer’s moves when it comes to addressing the audience. The open letter directly addresses the named reader or group, but it must be written to engage the public audience.

McSweeney’s features a column called Open Letters to People or Entities who are Unlikely to Respond. Some of my favorite open letters are:

An Open Letter to Coastal Living Magazine

An Open Letter to the Immigration Officer Who Confused Me for a Criminal

An Open Letter to those Who Want to Liberate Me from My Hijab

An Open Letter to Collegiate Basketball Benchwarmers

An Open Letter to the Box of Loose Cables in My Closet

I’ve also found some excellent examples on HuffPost:

Open Letter to the Lazy Mom in the Grocery Store

An Open Letter to My Adolescent Daughter

An Open Letter to Teenagers from a Toddler Mom

Your students might also enjoy My Open Letter to Open Letters Everywhere (Odyssey) as a humorous reminder to keep it real and avoid open letter clichés.



NotYourPrincessIn #NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women edited by Lisa Carleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale, Isabella Fillspipe (Oglala Lakota) writes a letter titled “Dear Past Self.” The letter acknowledges hardships, speaks personal truths, and provides inspiration and words of encouragement. Fillspipe gives herself permission to express her anger and sadness while also empowering herself to move beyond those feelings and love herself. The letter is written in a way that it could be for anyone, but whatever history and personal experiences Isabella holds are woven into the power of the words. The artwork and self-portrait make the letter even more personal and beautiful.

Dear Past Self

This letter could be used as a mentor text for students to write their own “Dear Past Self” letters in their Writer’s Notebook, as part of a multi-genre portfolio, or as a piece of narrative or persuasive writing.

If you would like to pull in other mentor texts with a similar style, The Player’s Tribune has a column titled “Letter To My Younger Self” with a collection of letters:

Try This Tomorrow: Incidental Comics


Grant Snider’s website Incidental Comics is one of my favorite sources of inspiration, quick-write ideas, and book-love celebrations.

The combination of words and images in comics such as Fall Evening and Sunrises make wonderful models for writers to observe their worlds closely and create similar texts. There are also many wordless comics, including Making a Point and A Sketch for Autumn.

On this site, you’ll also find fantastic comics about reading and writing. Some of my favorites are My Library, Books Are, Please Do Not Leave Children Unattended in the Library, and What to Put in Your Notebook.

I also highly recommend Grant Snider’s book, The Shape of Ideas. It is a colorful and insightful celebration of the process of creation.

Try This Tomorrow: Book Spine Poetry


If you’re looking for a fun way to get students making poetry, and at the same time get new titles into their hands, try using book spine poetry. This is an easy activity that makes us all poets. Just scan your bookshelf for interesting titles. Each title will make up a line of your poem. Arrange the titles so that they run together as a poem. Stack them in a pile and take a picture!

Here is a link to some 2018 book spine poetry winning poems (with the youngest category being 5-8 year olds!).

And here are some of ours:

Here is a link to our post from last year that includes a link to real world mentor texts of book spine poetry from 2015 when the Toronto Library and the Kansas City library used spine book poetry to trash talk when their baseball teams were both vying for a spot in the World Series

Posting these on class twitter and Instagram accounts is a great way to share the book spine poetry created in your classroom.

Try This Tomorrow: How-To Writing


In Why They Can’t Write, John Warner describes the five-paragraph essay as “an artificial construct, a way to contain and control variables and keep students from wandering too far off track. All they need are the ideas to fill in the blanks. It is very rare to see a five-paragraph essay in the wild; one finds them only in the captivity of the classroom.” He goes on to say that “by steering students toward the five-paragraph essay we are denying them the chance to practice real writing by confronting the choices writers must navigate.”

One of the best ways to move away from the fill-in-the-blanks writing that inevitably results from assigning five-paragraph essays and toward making students decision-makers about the best ways to organize their ideas to impact their audience is to provide them with models of what the kind of writing they are doing looks like in the world outside of school. Katie Wood Ray suggest in What You Know by Heart that teachers of writing read with two questions in mind: How is this written? How can my students write like this? The world is a mentor text and when we read it with these two questions in mind, we can see that the world is full of possibilities for writing curriculum. When we encourage students to read with these questions in mind, we are empowering them to find their own writing models so that they don’t feel the need to rely on prescriptive writing structures and formats. The New York Times Guides column is an example of something I found while reading with my writing-teacher lens activated. These examples show students that how-to writing doesn’t have to read like a list of steps introduced with first, then, next…instead, they combine images with text features such as subheadings, bulleted lists, and hyperlinks. For example:

-How to Be More Empathetic is organized into five categories set off with a bolded title. Within each, readers find sub-headings and bulleted lists of suggestions for taking action.

-How to Give a Great Gift demonstrates how to incorporate a question-answer structure.

-How to Read a Food Label uses bulleted lists to organize lots of detailed information so it is more manageable for the reader.

Students can read a selection of Guides on a variety of topics and generate a list of organizing strategies and craft moves they notice the writers using before they begin crafting their own versions. Their Guides can be based on an area of expertise they can teach to others about or a topic of curiosity they want to research first.

Try This Tomorrow: Inviting Students to Share Thinking About Books


One of the challenges we face in the literacy classroom is that the thinking about and understanding of text happens in our students’ heads, so we need to develop ways for students to make their thinking visible to us and their classmates (and often themselves because sharing our thinking about a text often leads to new and deeper thinking). Here are a few samples that students can use to share reactions to their independent reading that doesn’t require more time and effort than the reading itself:

-use By Heart and New Sentences as models for discussing a sentence or passage that resonated with you.

-write a “bite-sized” review similar to the ones these authors have written about their favorite short stories .

-instead of writing about The 25 Songs That Matter Right Now, list the books that mattered during the semester or year. Alternatively, identify the books that have mattered to you as a reader and explain how they have impacted your reading identity.

-look at these student responses to the question “What one song best encapsulates this era?” and select the song (or poem or image) that best encapsulates your book.

-prescribe a poem for a character in your book based on the models from Poetry Rx.

-describe your book based on its “significant digits” .



As teachers of reading, we know the importance and the power of book talks to increase the volume of our students’ reading. One type of book talk you may want to try is the Read-Alike Book Talk, where you take a book that has been flying off the shelf of your classroom library and share titles that have similar themes or characters or are of a similar genre.

Here are some read-alikes for One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus: one-of-us-is-lying

Like One of Us is Lying, these books make the reader ask, “What really happened?”

The CheerleadersThe Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas: Five years ago, five cheerleaders in a small town died in three separate incidents. One of those cheerleaders was Monica’s sister, and now she knows that what happened isn’t the tragic coincidence most people want to believe.


SadieSadie by Courtney Summers : Fleeing from home after her sister’s brutal murder, Sadie is a missing teenage girl on the run, possibly looking for the person she believes to have murdered her sister. When her story is picked up by a well-known radio personality, she becomes the subject of a popular podcast. But, can he find Sadie before it’s too late?


people kill peoplePeople Kill People by Ellen Hopkins: One gun. Six teenagers. Someone will shoot. And someone will die. Written in a combination of prose and verse, this book will keep you guessing until the very end.


two can keep a secretTwo Can Keep a Secret by Karen McManus: Ellery and her twin brother Ezra find themselves living in a small town made famous by the deaths of teenage girls, one of whom was their aunt. These crimes have never been solved. But now, Ellery is determined to uncover all of the answers—putting her own life in danger in the process…because someone wants to keep the town’s secrets hidden.

Try This Tomorrow: Poetry Rx


On the Paris Review website, you’ll find a regular column called Poetry Rx. Here is the description from the site:

“In our column Poetry Rx, readers write in with a specific emotion, and our resident poets—Sarah Kay, Kaveh Akbar, and Claire Schwartz—take turns prescribing the perfect poems to match. This week, Claire Schwartz is on the line.”

The letters are emotional and honest and the recommendations are fascinating. The recommending poet also includes a description of why they made the selection and bits of analysis of the poem are woven into the response.

Not only is this interesting reading and a terrific source of poem suggestions, it would also be an engaging activity for students to undertake. They can recommend a poem to a literary character, historical figure, person in the news, or even an inanimate object and provide the reasons for their choice modelled after the originals.

Try This Tomorrow- Taylor Mali’s Metaphor Dice


It’s all fun and games until someone writes a poem. Taylor Mali, who many teachers know from What Teachers Make, launched a KickStarter campaign to develop Metaphor Dice.

Each set of Metaphor Dice contains 12 dice: 4 red concept dice, 4 white adjective dice, and 4 blue object dice. Players are instructed to “Roll the dice until you formulate a metaphor that speaks to you, one that you think you could explore for a few minutes of writing.” There are options for playing alone and playing in a group.

We begin every literacy team meeting with a quick write and recently we decided to try out the dice. We each took a set, rolled once, and wrote for a few minutes off of the combination we got on the first try. Initially, I had no idea where time+backhanded bullseye would take me, but I ended up getting started on a piece of writing that I will return to because I ended up having lots to say. By stringing those three, seemingly unrelated words together, I found the seed of a writing piece that I probably would not have otherwise discovered.

Taylor Mali’s Metaphor Dice are a unique way to mine for writing idea and inspiration and to experiment with combinations of words.