Mentor Texts and Writing

slice-of-life2 I am participating in #SOL18. Thanks to the twowritingteachers blog team for providing this space to write, read, and respond to each other’s writing. It has been a wonderful routine to begin with writing each day and to gather new ideas  for structures, craft, and topics.

Today I decided to write about my favorite topic – teaching writing with mentor texts – by using the third person to explain my thinking.

“If you are teaching the qualities ( traits) of good writing, all you need are some picture books,” says Lynne Dorfman. “They have vivid vocabulary—word choice is so important, because they only have 28 to 32 pages to get the job done,” Dorfman says. Teachers can read them aloud in one sitting, but also return to them throughout the year as a model for good writing. Students, too, can easily return to picture book mentor texts independently to study and imitate. Eventually, they will even find their own mentor authors and mentor texts.

Chapter books are great for helping students improve their reading skills, but trying to get students to develop their writing skills by imitating a Harry Potter book, for example, isn’t going to work as well as picture books. Lynne recommends using picture books as “mentor texts” to help students cultivate a mentality of “I can do that!”  She once heard Shelley Harwayne tell an anecdote about Paul McCartney. While accepting an award, Sir Paul talked about his mentors. He particularly talked about Buddy Holly who only used three chords to play most of his songs. McCartney thought to himself, “I can do that!” And so began an incredible career in the music industry.  In fact, McCartney’s and Lennon’s first 40 songs were influenced by Holly’s style. Lynne has always found that story to be very powerful and has used it almost as a mantra when working with young writers.

“You’re not alone as a teacher-writer when you have these wonderful authors and mentor texts. They stand with you as if you have these authors in your classroom with you helping you teach writing to children.”  Lynne is especially fond of children’s literature. “They are wonderful stories with life lessons that act as social signposts, guiding us and providing direction,” she says. She estimates that her picture book collection numbers more than 3,000 books and is still growing.  In fact, just this morning Lynne asked her husband to help her shop for another bookcase. “I love books! They’re my favorite thing to buy. I do read on a Kindle occasionally, but there’s nothing like curling up with a book.”

Lynne would like to write a book about an everyday hero. She would like to research a woman to write about – someone like Anne Carroll Moore or Marie Curie (picture books already exist for both). She’s making a list of possibilities and hopes to have something in time for Carolyn Yoder’s nonfiction workshop at Highlights Foundation in August 2019. Lynne believes that students need not only mentor texts for writing, but also mentors in general for living.

Writing is her favorite pastime. She loves to read, too, but she thinks best with a pen in her hand. “Writing is really a part of what it means to be human—to be able to write your thoughts and feelings down and send them out into the world, kind of like a prayer, hoping that someone will hear you. It validates who you are and what you’re about. Every day we wake up with a clean page to write on, and we write the story of our lives.”


Where do you find your peace of mind?



slice-of-life2I am participating in #SOL18. Thanks to the twowritingteachers blog team for creating this space to write, read, and respond to each other’s writing.

Last evening we had dinner with my goddaughter Alex and her fiance Steve. I was eager to see Alex since her shower is coming up in early April. We are having it at The Gables, a wonderful restaurant near their home and near Longwood Gardens. After a lunch and celebration we are going to head to the Gardens to take pictures of Alex and all her guests (My husband will be the photographer).

A great meal and great conversation. Alex and I were talking about how to achieve mindfulness and a sense of tranquility. For Alex, it’s when she’s riding. Being one with the horse – it is all she thinks about and is able to free herself of any other thoughts. For Alex, it’s a special part of any day.  I nodded, remembering times at the stables when I would sit on the low stone wall just outside the barn’s courtyard at the end of a day. As purple dusk filled in the spaces between the trees, I sat very still and just breathed in and out. Sometimes, I heard an owl call. Sometimes, I watched the flicker of fireflies. My mind was strangely empty of problems, and pressing issues seemed to evaporate into the night air.

Today, I find that same peace in long walks at Longwood Gardens. I will start going once a week now, arriving when the grounds are open to the public and fairly empty – it is not crowded then, especially on week days. As the days grow warmer, I’ll hike through the meadows, across the meadow bridge to the old Webb farmhouse where an art gallery awaits me inside. Birds will be plentiful, and the colors of the gardens will change almost every other month. I’ll breathe in and out, walk, and sometimes pause to sit on a bench and write or sketch in my notebook. That’s peaceful, too. Longwood meadow

The quietude and solitude of a walk – alone, with my husband, or with a friend – is good for my heart (literally and figuratively) and for my soul. I bring you the beauty of the garden today through my photo collection, soon to grow larger as we head out to Longwood for an afternoon walk.

Books for Social Justice: Leaving Home

slice-of-life2I am participating in #SOL18. Thanks to the twowritingteachers blog team for creating this space to write, read, and respond.

Islandborn, a new immigration story by Junot Diaz, is the story of a little girl who learns about her birthplace from family and friends. Although the story does not reveal the name of the island, readers can conclude that the story is about the history of the Dominican Republic.  The wonderful illustrations by Leo Espinosa reveal the diversity of the people who live there.  Through the stories she is told, Lola discovers why her family had to leave the beautiful island when she was just a baby. The stories spark Lola’s imagination, and in her mind, she travels back to the island home that she never got to experience and know.


This picture book explains why some families are forced to leave their homes and try to rebuild in a strange, new land. It describes the dictatorship of Trujillo as a “monster that fell upon the land,” depicting Trujillo as a green-colored bat.  This age-appropriate book will open classroom conversations about immigration – why people leave a home and country they love, often leaving everything behind, to search for a new home. As Lola becomes immersed in the stories – sometimes joyous, sometimes painful and heartbreaking, she realizes what her abuela’s words really mean: “Just because you don’t remember a place doesn’t mean it’s not in you.” Islandborn


For secondary students, read In the Time of the Butterflies, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, and Before We Were Free all written by Julia Alvarez.



Other Children’s Books to Explore Immigration Themes:
My Name is Sangoel by Karen Williams
My Name is Yoon by Helen Recorvits
The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi
One Green Apple by Eve Bunting
Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say
I’m New Here by Ann Sibley O’Brie
A Piece of Home by Jeri Watts
Lailah’s Lunchbox: A Ramadan Story by Reem Faruqi
Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation by Edwidge Danticat
The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Snow, snow….go away. Don’t come back another day!

slice-of-life2I am participating in #SOL18. Thanks to the twowritingteacher blog team for providing the space to write and grow!

It is pretty. It is a winter wonderland. Fairy-like. Magical. Tranquil. But it is also exhausting. Chilling. Annoying. I should have been leading a professional development day with fourth and fifth grade teachers on Wednesday. Not at home, preparing to help my husband shovel and set up for another possible power outage due to wet, heavy snow.

My friend Nancy wrote a piece on facebook about a robin who greeted her on her doorstep yesterday morning before the snow fell fast and furious. She said the bird looked up at her, almost imploring Nancy to invite her inside.

Here, our robins look confused. I was glad to see them this morning, and I hope the snow melts quickly in the next two to three days to reveal some grass and garden soil. My husband is outside right now, feeding the birds while I do the breakfast dishes. The Welsh Corgis followed him outside, leaping like bunny rabbits through the deep snow.

This is the fourth time we are filling feeders since early yesterday morning. Cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, blue jays, woodpeckers, grackles, mourning doves, and pigeons busily feasted throughout the stormy afternoon and into the early evening. They’re all back this morning.  Isn’t anyone else in my Dresher neighborhood feeding the birds?

Bird feeder March snow storm


Things to do if you are a Daffodil

slice-of-life2I am participating in #SOL18. Thanks to the twowritingteachers blog team for providing this space to write, read, and respond to others.

Today, I used Things to Do by Elaine Magliaro, a gift from Rose Cappelli, as my mentor text to write this list poem.  Rose and I have often used How to Be by Lisa Brown and the list poems from Falling Down the Page edited by Georgia Heard to create poems of advice.  Poems like the one below can be used as part of an informational project and are great to introduce or conclude a more formal report or essay. The list poem format for “Things to Do” and “How to Be” poems will help students write across the curriculum. Try it out to write about world leaders, animals, plants, biomes (such as Mojave Desert or rain forest), weather events (such as a Nor’easter or hurricane), and just about anything you are studying – magnets, windmills, fairytales, political systems, planets, etc..Things to Do poems

Things to do if you are a daffodil…

Sleep in a bulb below the earth’s surface.

Be an early bloomer! Love to be first!

Push your tip above the ground in the early days of March.

Grow and grow until you are almost twenty inches high.

Show off a beautiful bloom on your leafless stem.

Smile at the warm, yellow sun.

Greet the garden crocuses – they may be your only company for awhile.

Be resistant of the cold weather of a Pennsylvania spring.

Flower for six weeks or more.

During the fall and winter, rebuild your bulb.

Bloom again and again each new spring.

Show off your trumpet-shaped corona surrounded by six floral leaves.

Symbolize rebirth and new beginnings.

Rejoice! Your beauty is unmatched by any other bloom!



Fun Facts:

If you are in England, people call daffodils Lent Lilies.

Though their botanical name is narcissus, they are sometimes called jonquils.

The first record of cultivated daffodils goes back to around 200 to 300 B.C.

In Wales, daffodils are the national flower!

A Welsh Legend tells us if you’re the first to spot a daffodil, you will come into wealth the next year.

There are at least 25 different daffodil species.

Daffodils are extremely cold resistant and make a good choice for novice gardeners almost anywhere in the United States.

Other early bloomers…


Getting Children to Talk About Books

Slice of Life2I am participating in #SOL18. Thanks to the twowritingteachers blog team for creating this safe space to write, read, and respond to other writers!

Here are some questions to guide book discussions, literature circles, and reading conferences. If students are leading small book discussions, they can choose the three to five questions they would like to use to stimulate discussion, or they can create their own questions.  Of course, not all the questions need to be asked. The important thing is to have a conversation in which students layer each other’s responses by adding details, disagreeing and explaining their thinking, making predictions, inferring, evaluating or rating, talking about author’s craft, or asking their own questions.

Did the story end the way you expected it to end? What clues did the author give to you?

What did you notice in this book?

Did you like the illustrations? Explain.

This story reminds me of . . . (Think about your own life)

Name one problem in the story and how it was solved.

Who was the most important character in this book? Why do you think so?

One thing I would add to the story would be . . . because . . .

The funniest part of this story was . . . because . . .

My favorite part of the story was…because….

Did your feelings about what you had read change as you were reading?  Explain.

Something that made me angry, sad, or uncomfortable was . . . It made me feel this way because . . .

If a friend asked you about this book, what would you say?

What is the author trying to tell us by writing this story?





A Walk in Longwood Gardens

slice-of-life2I am participating in the March #SOL18. Thanks to the twowritingteachers blog team for creating this space to write, read, and respond to other writers.

Yesterday, Ralph and I met our friend Tom, his daughter Emily and her husband Rick, and their daughter Daisy for a stroll at Longwood Gardens. It was a beautiful Sunday, and we wanted to take advantage of the decent weather with another Nor’easter expected to arrive this Tuesday into Wednesday. (They’ve got to be kidding, right?)20180318_135052

When we arrived, we had a hard time finding a place to park – Longwood was very busy! It was already 1:45 p.m. and everyone was hungry. We walked to the Terrace and – oh no! They were renovating the eatery; so a long line, not a lot of choice, and few tables available. But we all found something, even though as we stood in line, Terrace workers every now and then came with black strips of paper to cover some items such as grilled chicken Caesar salad – what I was hoping to purchase. So I settled for a yogurt and granola cup and a very small garden salad. Daisy munched on a chocolate chip cookie and Ralph had a salad and an Italian sandwich with several kinds of meats and cheese. Everyone found something to eat. We even found one empty picnic table that would fit six people. DSC_9644

Daisy was ready to leave. She wanted to go home until I mentioned that some cats live at Longwood and I had seen them in the conservatory more than once. I told her one cat looked like a lion with a full mane around his neck. He seemed to enjoy an occasional pet or scratch behind the ears from visitors. I was sure he was a Maine Coon cat. So we walked through the conservatory with Daisy whispering, “Maine Coon CatMeow, meow, meow” to entice the cats to appear. They never did.

Although we never saw any cats, we did see some gorgeous flowers – the winter “blues” were simply stunning!  Roses blooming, the silver room with cacti, rock benches, epiphytes hanging from the ceiling (purple orchids), a lovely olive tree (my favorite room), and a room and walkway with perfect orchids of every color.

We will come back in April – probably late April if the weather does not warm up soon – to see the fields of tulips. Longwood Gardens is a place to return to throughout the year to experience the beauty of each season with its colors and fragrances and smells. This summer I intend to create a Southwest garden like the one pictured below in the top left photo. At the rate the warmer weather is creeping into our part of Pennsylvania, I think it will be end June or beginning July before I can create one for our backyard!

A Reception at Highlights Foundation

I am pslice-of-life2articipating in #SOL18. Thanks to the twowritingteachers blog team for creating this wonderful space to write, read, and respond!

Earlier this week I went back to read an e-mail from Highlights Foundation – an invitation to a reception for illustrator Shadra Strickland for her book illustrations in A Child’s Book of Prayers and Blessings: From Faiths and Cultures Around the World, a 2017 publication.  If you don’t know this book, it offers a collection of kid-friendly prayers that are stunningly arranged on pages filled with extraordinary images and colors.

I was busy and there were a thousand reasons not to make the trip, but I decided the diversion would do me some good. I contacted George Brown, who graciously told me to come and bring my husband. The almost three-hour trip was serene and easy to drive – little traffic, open roads, and beautiful countryside laced with snow. When we arrived, we walked into the great room filled with tables covered in coffee-colored tablecloths. Food and drink was everywhere. And stunning prints that had been framed and hung on the walls – all Shadra’s work.

The eating extravaganza included stuffed yellow and orange peppers, knockwurst wrapped in bacon, hot spinach and artichoke dip, shrimp and grits in tiny glass bowls, pulled pork sliders, cheeses, fruit, and a bowl of warm chocolate sauce for dipping marshmallows, strawberries, and pineapple slices. Servers circulated the room with hot hor d’ oeuvres.  My husband was happy!

2018-03-17 15.00.08

I knew I would buy several copies of the book along with beautiful note cards with Shadra’s paintings on them. I eyed the prints – I was in love with at least three of them, but they were numbered prints, and I couldn’t justify spending $500, even for a smaller one. Maybe in the near future I would consider it…

Alison Green Myers, a National Writing Project fellow and a faculty member at Highlights, introduced Shandra to the audience (approximately forty to fifty artists, writers, Highlights faculty, community members). She talked about a group of students who had viewed the artwork and were asked to offer one word to describe the illustrations – how the artwork made them feel. Some of their responses: love, faith, prayer, family, hope, wonder, beauty.

Shadra talked about her process – she worked in reduction linoleum cuts, a new process for her. Follow the link to read more.  A Child’s Book of Prayers and Blessings was the first time she had used a printmaking medium (difficult and time consuming), and she shared with us it would probably be her last!

She read some of the prayer/poems. Then we were able to purchase books and prints. Shadra, of course, signed. If you attend a Highlights workshop this spring, summer, and fall, you will most likely be welcomed by Shadra’s paintings that hang on the wall. It was worth the trip, a delightful way to spend the afternoon!




Learning Process & Craft

slice-of-life2Thanks to the twowritingteachers blog team for creating #SOL18. A wonderful place to meet new writers and old friends!

What do we call the writing “stuff” we teach? When we talk about strategies, what do we mean?  A strategy is a series of actionable steps that helps us to break down the work of a writer. It is generalizable, so we can use it across many pieces of writing, often, regardless of genre and format. A strategy is something we outgrow, and then it becomes a skill that we use automatically, without thinking about it at a conscious level.

Think of a strong emotion. Make a list of a couple of memories that connect to the emotion and pick one. Write the scene.

The big screened-in porch at my grandparents’ home in Coopersburg had emptied. My mom, my dad, my sisters, my aunt and uncle and all my cousins had made their way to their cars. Their arms were filled with food for sandwiches the next day and carefully wrapped slices of Grandma’s open-face apple pie.  Except Pixie and me. I was staying for the summer. The entire summer!  I stretched out on the hammock and pulled the light blanket up to my chin. The fireflies blinked on and off like tiny Christmas lights among the dark trees. It was very beautiful – the woods that stretched, dark and deep and quiet, all the way to the tiny creek an acre or so away.

      “Come in Lynnie,” my grandma called from the kitchen.

      “I want to sleep out here tonight,” I called back.

       “Come inside,” Grandma said. “Now.”

      “Oh, Dottie,” my grandfather chimed in. “She’ll be okay. Let her stay outside with Pixie. He placed a small rug on the floor next to the hammock and motioned for Pixie to lie down by the hammock. Pixie willingly obeyed. Her long tail thumped softly as she curled up, closed her eyes, and sighed.

       My grandma shook her head. Grandpa winked at me and closed the screen door. I grinned and breathed in the woodsy air. My grandfather understood me. I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep, a smile fixed on my face.

My process: I thought of several scenes and connected them to a strong emotion. I decided I wanted to write about a time I felt really happy….content. Then I decided where I would begin my story. I started my story purposefully in a spot where I could see the ending in my mind. So, knowing where to begin and end a story is important. I can revise to add more detail about the story problem – I had often asked to sleep outside with my dog for company, but the answer was always a firm no. This time was different – I finally got to sleep on the hammock with my grandfather’s help. My strategy: to vary sentence lengths by consciously breaking up some longer sentences into shorter ones and even using a few fragments. As a writer, I know that I tend to write very long sentences!

When you write a piece, think about how you stay focused the entire time. Imagine the sequence of steps you do. When you are developing strategies, you almost spy on yourself as a writer. Notice what other writers do in your favorite mentor texts. Always keep your eyes and ears open for new ideas. Ask yourself some questions.

  • What do you notice?
  • What do you see?
  • What are the authors thinking?
  • What did they do to make you pause and think?
  • How does it make you feel?
  • What do the people in the pictures feel?   OR  What do you think the readers will be able to visualize in their mind?

As you write, spy on yourself and ask these same questions. As you draft and revise, think about a strategy you want to use and how it will help your writing.

Parking Ticket Saga Finale

slice-of-life2Thanks to the two writing teachers blog team for creating this wonderful space for educators and other writers to hang out, read, write, respond, and learn. Always, there are so many new formats and ideas to explore!  #SOL18 provides us with a unique opportunity to grow as writers and establish friendships that last beyond the month of March!

Thursday morning after rush hour was over, my husband and I made the trek into Philadelphia to find the place where I could resolve the issue of my father’s parking tickets. The City of Philadelphia was granting amnesty until April 30th for tickets issued before 2013, or something like that.  Three tickets had been issued to my father in the late eighties – probably because my father had given his car (a used car – I don’t remember which one) to a “friend” to use.

We made our way down Ogontz Avenue, passing the corner of the 6900 block where my dad once had an insurance and real estate office, left on Stenton Avenue and right on Broad Street before getting to Park Avenue, the street where Mom and Dad had their first home. I waved as we passed my alma mater, Philadelphia High School for Girls, and a nod to Einstein Hospital, where I was born. A real trip down “Memory Lane”.

We turned left onto Vine and right on 10th Street. Chinatown!  Oh, when was the last time we ate at a really good Chinese restaurant?   Then I remembered….CinCin.  Sophisticated Chinese cuisine in Chestnut Hill, about twenty minutes from our house.  Maybe by the end of March it will warm up and we will walk “the Hill” and eat at CinCin.  Definitely something to look forward to, and I shared my thoughts with Ralph. “Let’s do it!” he replied.cin-cin-philly

Filbert – a left turn here onto a narrow street under construction. Looking on the left with scaffolding for safety due to construction on the right – where is this place? And then I spied it – the sign about parking tickets and amnesty. “Stop the car, Ralph!” I ordered while unbuckling my seat belt and swinging the shoulder strap of my pocketbook over my head and under my arm. I jumped out of the Rav, clutching a blue folder filled with papers.  “I will call or text,” I waved him on.

There was a line as soon as I entered the building. Each time, I heard a city employee say to a person ahead of me in the line, “Take this form and fill it out in there,* (pointing to an already-crowded room with rows of metal chairs. “It will be a two-hour wait.” My heart sank.  I looked at my watch…. eleven o’ clock. No way was I waiting for two hours about twenty-year-old parking tickets belonging to my dad!

My turn. “I am here with a death certificate. This form was sent to me, Martin’s daughter. Dad passed away 21 years ago.” The man nodded and told the woman next to him to handle it. She looked at the certificate and the form, then motioned to a woman who had just walked out of an inner office. “Take this one,” she said. I followed the lady into her office.

“The form says Martin M. Dorfman,” she said. “What is your father’s middle name?”

“Norman. His middle name was Norman. Someone typing the form did so incorrectly.”

“(Looking it up on the computer) But the records say M. for a middle initial.”

“(Trying to be patient) The forms are incorrect. My father’s middle name was Norman. Look at the death certificate.”

She motions to a man passing in the hallway. “Can you come in here a minute?” The whole story is repeated. And then…”When did he pass away?” the gentleman queries.

“November, 1997,” I  promptly answer.

“I didn’t ask you.” He asks the woman again who is scrutinizing my father’s death certificate. Five minutes pass. She confirms that my response is correct. “She’ll need to take the death certificate and make a copy for us.”  I know the law forbids you to make a copy of a death certificate, so I say to both of them, “Please keep this one. It’s an original.”  He asks me if I am sure. I nod. He says they will mail it back to me. I nod. As I’m walking out the door into the Philadelphia sunshine I mutter to myself, “I won’t hold my breath!”ParkAmnestyCoverPhoto