If You Teach Writing, You’ll Want to Read This…

I love when I stumble upon a great book. I equally love when I discover an amazing lesson to use in my classroom. Often an idea for a lesson will be pieced together from something I discovered on the internet, something I read in a book, something a colleague shared with me, or it will simply come as a result of quiet contemplation (usually found whilst standing in a hot shower). When I have that Ah-ha moment, the result is instant elation and the urge to return to my classroom as soon as possible to try it out.

It’s like getting a new recipe where all the ingredients sound delicious, you can almost taste it, but until you get in the kitchen and make it, you can’t decide if it will be a keeper, a dish that you’ll put in the rotation for years to come.

Cooking—and teaching—require a bit of trial and error. The first time you attempt a new recipe, you follow it to the T, but then you decide that next time you make it, you’ll add shallots, or perhaps decrease the amount of cayenne, you’ll substitute chicken for beef, or double the amount of sauce it calls for. Eventually the recipe becomes your own, suited best to the tastes of your family.

A few years ago, I heard about a book called Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. I can’t recall exactly where I stumbled upon it, but I believe it was mentioned in one of the many teaching texts I’ve read by Kelly Gallagher. When it comes to educational philosophy, that guy would be one of my main gurus. For as long as I’ve been teaching writing, I have been on the mentor-text train. I love when students have a published text that they get to use as a model for their own writing. If you aren’t familiar with Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, it is essentially a non-fiction, memoir-style text told through a series of humorous vignettes that are categorized alphabetically. In addition to the vignettes, Rosenthal includes other text features like charts, graphs, pictures, and see also footnotes.


I immediately started using Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life as a writing assignment in my creative writing class. After thoroughly examining the book with my students (a document camera is great for this), each student picks two letters of the alphabet at random. From the two, I allow them to choose one they will use for their Encyclopedia entries. The assignment is to write five vignettes for that letter and to model their writing after Rosenthal’s style. My students love this assignment for many reasons: the shorter entries, the fun and quirky writing style, the abandonment of the rules, and the challenge of working with a single letter.

As a teacher, you know a book is good if it gets stolen.

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life is one of those books I’ve had to replace. If you’ve never read it, it’s worth checking out, and not just for its teaching potential.

Over the summer, I was on one of my favorite websites: Amazon.com. Scrolling through the recommended items based on my purchasing history, I came across Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal. At first, I didn’t want to order it as it was only available in hard copy. Being cheap, I thought I could wait and buy it when it was in paperback.

I could not wait. I tried, I really did. (#NerdGirlProblems)


Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal got devoured. I read it, I loved it, and I got not one, not two, but THREE lesson ideas from it. Like Thanksgiving turkey leftovers that provide you with ammunition for a week’s worth of delicious meals, I had hit the jackpot.

Lesson idea one is similar to the idea from Encyclopedia. Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal is categorized by subjects rather than alphabetically: social studies, geography, music, language arts. Many of the text features are the same as Encyclopedia, but some are new. Textbook uses an interactive texting feature that is so much fun. It also includes a pre-assessment, midterm, and final exam. My creative writing students were able to pick this year whether they would complete the Encyclopedia assignment or the Textbook assignment. We brainstormed different subject categories like Psychology, Mythology, and even P.E. Students were still writing five vignettes, but if they chose to take on Textbook, I allowed them to select the subject matter.

One student decided to use Culinary Arts as her category. She wrote a vignette inspired by each of her friends and the food that she associates with him or her, including their recipes. For one recipe she says it calls for two cloves of garlic, but then adds, “Let’s be honest, you know you’ll add more.” In another recipe, she incorporates watching a favorite movie as part of the cooking directions, while in another, one fat, loving cat gets added to a pile of catnip during the creation of Mac n’ Cheese. And that was just one student’s assignment. Each was unique, a pleasure to read and grade. (That’s right, I enjoyed grading them.)

In Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal, you are invited to text your idea for an “Amy Rental.” Rosenthal suggests that she has always wanted to have a reason to run to her room, pack a suitcase, and jump on a plane. So if you, the reader, would like her to come to where you live, say to help you host a dinner party, you can text your idea for how you might utilize her and see if it gets her packing. As my students know, I regularly invite authors into my classroom to speak to them about writing. One of my students came over to my desk with Textbook in his hand. “Did you see this?” he asked me. “You should text her and see if she’ll come to our class.”

We’re still waiting to find out if she picks us.


Lesson idea number two came from Textbook’s Science section. Rosenthal includes “The Short, Collective Biography Experiment.” The idea behind this experiment is that people gather around a table and come up with statements that are collectively true for all members. One person acts as the note-taker and in the end, a short, collective biography is written.

It seems so simple, I wonder why I never thought of it. Since we were in the beginning of the school year, my students were still getting to know each other. I have my desks arranged in six groups of six, but I allowed students to pick their own seats initially, so of course, students sat by people they knew. With five feeder middle schools, many of the students do not know one another. The first thing I did was number students off and mix up the groups. Then I told them to introduce themselves and determine a note-taker. Once that was done, I explained they needed to converse and find collective truths for their group, trying to be as specific and narrow as possible. “Don’t just say we all have a sibling. See if you all have an older sibling, a sister, a younger brother, or a sibling who annoys you.” Avoid the obvious: We are all in fifth period honors English. They talked; I circulated the room and pointed out places they had written something lame.

Then I stopped them and I read to them the example from Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal. I told them they would be writing their own collective biography and that they should use the example for inspiration. Now they started to get more creative.  

I distributed copies of the example for each group and they began drafting their collective biographies. In the end, they did recite them, in unison, as Rosenthal suggests imagining she and her cohorts doing.

Let me just list a few of the things this lesson does: addresses speaking, listening, and writing standards; requires very few resources; engages all students; includes elements of social and emotional learning; builds classroom community; tricks students into learning while simultaneously having fun; and teaches them that they have more in common with one another than they might initially think.

As a teacher, I love eavesdropping on kids when they are in groups, especially when they are so engrossed that they don’t realize you are there. I would have shot milk out of my nose had I been drinking it when I heard one boy ask his group, “Have you all been hit by your mom with an object?” Or the one boy who had been grouped with all girls and as I looked at their list I saw, “we have all worn tights.” Later on, I heard him telling them that while he would agree to having tights on the list because, well, football… he was not going to admit to EVER having watched Hannah Montana.

Meanwhile, another girl asked me, “Wait, are we going to read these together to the class?” When I told her yes, she said, “I’m so excited for this!” (Me too.)

Lesson number three is for a poem and it’s found at the end of Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal. While I’ve not done this yet, I intend to. Throughout the poem, Rosenthal uses last lines from a variety of texts—including her own—and cites them via footnotes. For example, she includes the ending of Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life (“I was here, you see. I was”) as well as ending lines from Our Town, The Tale of Despereaux, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (among others). These last lines are woven throughout her poem much in the same way song lyrics are incorporated into a lullaby weave (another awesome writing assignment that teens really enjoy).

Wouldn’t it be fun to ask students to log the last lines of the books that they read throughout the year and then use this as a culminating writing assignment come May or June? Or the last lines from their all-time favorite books throughout their lives? Or ask each student to contribute the last line of the independent book that they are reading at that time to a “last-line bank” and then let students pull from them as they write their own individual poems? Think how engaging it would be to see how different students used the same line in various contexts. What if a last line could inspire a student to check out a book they hadn’t previously considered reading? (Hey, one can dream, right?)

Whether you teach elementary, middle, or high school—you could adapt these lesson ideas and use them in your classroom. Make the recipe your own, and then share with me how it went.

Happy Teaching and Bon Appétit!


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