Margin Notes



As we continue to build community in our classrooms by modeling our own reading identity, another easy way to make our reading lives visible is with this great bulletin board/classroom door/out in the hallway idea. Check out these displays by Mrs. Muise at Ridgeview Middle School and Ms. Bourgaize at Fredericton High School:

You can photocopy the cover of your book, write it on a piece of paper, display the books, or use a whiteboard: the point is that the students see you as a reader. It’s a conversational starting point; it’s authentic, and it’s a great way to share your reading life with your students. Making your reading life visible will inevitably lead to discussions about books you loved, abandoned, struggled to finish, new authors you discovered, genres you tried for the first time – all the reader-to-reader conversations we want to be having with our students.



file2-2For the first six weeks of school, teachers are often focused on building a community of readers and writers in their classrooms – this is a great investment that pays off dividends for the rest of the year.

A word of caution, hold off on getting your students to do their own shelfies until everyone has read a few books. This prevents some students from being embarrassed by their lack of reading over the summer. Remember, we want to grow their reading identity, not stunt it!

Take a look at the shelfies below from two middle school teachers at Ridgeview Middle School and one of our literacy coaches:



Every year I look forward to the announcement of the CBC Short Story Prize. When the longlist was announced (shout out to New Brunswick for making the list), I reviewed the interviews with some of the nominees. I love how each entry is described in five-ish words and my “reading like a teacher of writing brain” started thinking about ways students could use this strategy:

  • Describe the books you are currently reading in five-ish words
  • Summarize this text in five-ish words
  • Work with a group to consolidate your five-ish word summaries into ten-ish word summary
  • Explain the piece of writing you are currently working on in five-ish words

The “ish” gives students a bit of flexibility but challenging students to grasp the meaning of a full-length text in about five words requires them to be precise and deliberate in their choices. Try inviting your students to use five-ish word summaries or descriptions.

Try This Tomorrow: A Brief History of…


Here in New Brunswick, we have achievement standards for writing that outline the qualities of a variety of writing forms. We’ve been working hard to find examples of places where these forms live in the world outside of school. Where do readers encounter these kinds of writing? What do they look like out in the wild beyond the school walls?

One of the writing forms found in the Grades 6-12 standards for writing in the explanatory essay. This type of writing tells how something came to be or how something works. “A Brief History of…”  writing, is a version of the explanatory report that gives students an opportunity to explore a topic of interest and incorporate research.

This Brief History of the Waffle Iron from Smithsonian Magazine is a fantastic example for students to check out as a mentor text for “A Brief History of…” writing.

Just because the explanatory report is listed as a form of writing doesn’t mean we have to limit our students’ writing to printed text. Students can create their “A Brief History of…” as a podcast such as the A Brief History of Timekeeping episode from The Secret History of the Future or a video like The Secret History of Dogs (TED-Ed).

“A Brief History of…” writing incorporates explanation, analysis, cause-and-effect, and storytelling. If you’re looking for a unique take on the explanatory report, invite your students to create one.




As you are getting to know your students as readers and establishing a reading community within your classrooms, check out Jarrett Lerner’s artwork Kids Need Books of ALL Kinds ( and Grant Snider’s comic Books Are… ( These two graphics are sure to ignite many conversations around books, what they offer us, and why we need so many different kinds of them!

Here are three possibilities of how to use these in your classroom:

  1. Students could respond to the images in their Writer’s Notebooks and then share their ideas to grow their thinking.
  2. You could share how some of the different books you have read match up with some of the artwork and ask students to think about the same. This could be followed up with the questions:
    1. What did I learn about myself as a reader today?
    2. What did we learn about each other as readers?
  3. You could use Kelly Gallagher’s Say-Mean-Matter Questions to guide students through their written or spoken conversations about the texts:
    1. What does the text say?
    2. What does the text mean?
    3. Why does the text matter?

If you use these in your classroom or have other ideas on how to share them with students, please comment below or tag us on social media!

Building A Community of Readers


Here’s an easy activity from Cultivating Readers by Anne Elliott and Mary Lynch (bonus-they are also Canadian educators!) that some teachers are trying out to start the year. Basically, you cut out footprints (copies are available in the book) and write down what you read over the summer. You chat with your students about your footprints (sharing your reading identity) then you ask them, “What did you learn about me as a reader?” They can turn and talk (talk helps to grow their thinking), share with the class what they learned about you, write their answers on a piece of chart paper and voila-there’s a snapshot of your reading identity.

We love this one because it lets students practice talking and thinking without being vulnerable about their own reading lives (until we get to know each other), and it gives them the language and vocabulary to eventually start talking about their own reading identity, which is essential to them becoming life-long readers.

If you try this out, please share your thoughts and experiences!



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.