Skip to main content Skip to main content

Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

Writing Workshop: Using Mentor Texts and Graphic Organizers

View Transcript

Andrew Spinali has students work on sequencing techniques to help them develop theme in their writing.

Teacher: Andrew Spinali

School: Parker Middle School, Reading, MA

Grade: 7

Discipline: ELA

Lesson Topic: Developing theme in writing

Lesson Month: June

Number of Students: 20

Featured Lesson’s Student Goals:

  • Content objectives – Recognize how a theme develops and builds over the course of a text and apply that knowledge to personal essays
  • Literacy/language objectives – Practice how to develop a theme throughout a cohesive piece of writing (includes identifying and analyzing theme and creating a sequencing frame to help organize and develop theme)
  • Engagement/interaction objectives – Work on development of self-realization, values, and beliefs; provide thoughtful, honest peer feedback on writing and work together to collaborate on ideas and continue to develop a greater sense of empathy and community

Standards Addressed:

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts

    With some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on how well purpose and audience have been addressed.
    Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text.

Instruction details:

The Unit
This 10-day unit was centered on a personal essay called “This I Believe.” The goal was for students to publish a final essay with a well-developed theme. They were asked to support their statements with important moments in their lives and used the book The Giver by Lois Lowry as a model. The unit was taught in June and was considered the culminating capstone project for the year.

Before the Video
Students read and analyzed The Giver. The purpose was to identify how a central idea, or theme, drives a text, and to identify deeper themes, such as free will. Students had already written early drafts of the essay and begun revision. They also had read aloud and dissected a mentor text with a well-developed theme (written by a previous student).

During the Video
Students used Mr. Spinali’s example of sequencing The Giver to sequence their own writing before continuing to revise it.

After the Video
Mr. Spinali asked students to identify the writing skills they felt they needed to improve. Mr. Spinali used this feedback to create “mini-lessons” for the students. As they progressed through the mini-lessons, they continued to revise their writing. When the writing was final, it was added to students’ portfolios (which had been in development throughout the year) and published to a private website for fellow students, parents, and Mr. Spinali’s team of colleagues.

Teacher Prep
To prepare for this lesson, Mr. Spinali worked with a team of teachers to review each student’s work and to choose a mentor text.

Prior Knowledge
To participate in this lesson, students needed to have learned about self-awareness; known what it means to analyze a writer’s intention and craft (regardless of type of writing); been able to read like a writer rather than a reader (i.e., take a step back to notice the components of the craft, such as similes, structure, etc.); and known how to dissect a text.

Differentiated Instruction
Mr. Spinali used the sequencing activity to help students get a visual sense of how main ideas interact with details. By walking around the classroom and listening to group discussion, he was able to determine students’ understanding—who needed more help, and who was ready to move on to the next level.

Group Interaction
In this lesson, students discussed the mentor text in groups created at random. They shared their stories in “writers workshops” with other students, which allowed for peer review. Throughout the school year, Mr. Spinali focused on peer feedback (as did his team teachers across all disciplines). He guided students in how to give thoughtful, kind, and specific feedback through modeling and observation (e.g., a T-chart of “what I see, what I hear”) and incorporated peer review regularly to support the “writers workshop” culture of his classroom.

Resources and Tools

  • Sequencing Frame anchor chart
  • Mentor text sample of “This I Believe” essay
  • Kaizena app
  • Ning community website
  • Smart Board and projector
  • Whiteboard
  • Laptops
  • Writing journals


Formative Assessment
During the lesson, Mr. Spinali walked around the room to review students’ sequencing charts and confer with them to determine understanding. He skimmed what students were doing to see the structure of their writing and identify any red flags and kept a running checklist in mind of what students were struggling with. Throughout the unit, he provided feedback on student drafts. (He used Google Drive, which allows for constant review of work, comparison of drafts, comments, and notation of resolution. An additional application, Kaizena, allowed for audio comments, which enabled students to hear Mr. Spinali’s tone of voice in the feedback.)

Student Self-Assessment
At the end of this lesson, students were given a list of writing skills and asked to evaluate their own writing to determine which of these skills they should continue to work on throughout the revision process. (They provide this information on an index card.) Mr. Spinali identified the four to five most common areas in need of improvement and designed “mini-lessons” to address them. He created a passport-like document to list the categories. When students felt they were ready to progress, they shared their revisions with Mr. Spinali. If he agreed, the students received a stamp on their passport and could move forward to tackle the next skill.

Summative Assessment
At the end of the unit, Mr. Spinali graded students’ final essays and provided feedback based on alignment to the Common Core and his expectations of students. The feedback was formative in nature, as Mr. Spinali advised students on how to continue to improve their writing.

Impact of Assessment
Although Mr. Spinali plans all aspect of his lessons, he continually modifies them based on students’ performance. The next time Mr. Spinali teaches this lesson, he plans to have students submit their sequencing frames for review (rather than skim them while walking around the room).

Ongoing Assessment
At the beginning of each school year, Mr. Spinali’s interdisciplinary team of teachers chose three students to represent the entire group and tracked their writing across all classrooms. Each student represented a common struggle (e.g., providing evidence to explain ideas, word choice, sense). The team analyzed the three students’ work every two months to create a “writing trends report.” These trends guided future instruction.

Series Directory

Reading & Writing in the Disciplines


Produced by WGBH Educational Foundation. 2015.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-906-4