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Using Mentor Sentences to Drive Writing Instruction

My most difficult area to teach is writing; grammar, spelling, revising, editing.  I have struggled for 8 years to try and figure out what works for students.  The questions have included, How do I get the grammar to cross over into their writing?  How do I get students to revise their own pieces?  What is going to get students to pay attention and try new things when it comes to writing?

I have tried it all.  I have tried Ralph Fletcher’s Writer’s Notebooks.  The writing ideas were great, the reading was wonderful for my students, but the time it took was not conducive with my class schedule.  Razzle Dazzle Writing by Melissa Forney gave me some creative lessons and worksheets to provide students, but nothing was transferring into their writing.  Lucy Calkins and Gretchen Bernabei both made me the writing teaching I am today.  Their workshop lesson plans showed me how to talk to the students about their writing and helped me drive students to create and imagine themselves as writers.  But again, with reading as my FOCUS, their plans weren’t short enough to be included in my lessons this year.

Each of these wonderful writing teachers/authors have given me the opportunity to mold my language arts teaching style into what it is today, and I am grateful for the path that they have forged for me and my students.

BUT, the combination of Jeff Anderson’s Everyday Editing and Gretchen Bernabei’s Grammar Keepers gave me the quick tools to incorporate writing, revising, and grammar into my classroom.  And guess what?  It works!!!!

Books I have referenced
Books I have referenced

Inviting Students into a Mentor Process

Students are invited to notice a great mentor sentence chosen by the teacher.  I personally believe in using sentences that inspire greatness in character, growth mindset or a sentence from text they are currently reading.

Jeff Anderson lists 3 things that help him choose great mentor sentences..

  1. Connects to students’ world
  2. shows a clear pattern that is easy to observe, imitate, or break down
  3. models writer’s craft and effective writing

The students list the grammar, punctuation, sentence combinations, figurative language used in the sentence all on day 1. This process should take 5 minutes at the most.  I introduced my students to the ellipses this week.  They’ve seen it before, have read it in books before, but they weren’t sure what it meant for the reader or why the character may be using it.  It was a quick grammar lesson in under 5 minutes.

The next day students are invited to notice the different parts of speech.  This is NOT diagraming a sentence or the monotonous labeling.  I specifically ask students to locate the parts of speech that they KNOW; nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, conjunctions.  As a class, we go back and identify the other more unfamiliar parts of speech; articles, prepositions, some of the difficult adverbs and pronouns.  I let them know that the purpose for doing this is to understand how the mentor structured his/her sentence, and it will help us revise the next day.

Jeff Anderson says, ‘ This noticing- this effortless, joyful noticing that turned into using and celebrating- led me to the idea to make editing more inviting.”  The students are able to zoom in on one mentor sentence and notice qualities in this sentence that make it strong.

The next two days are revising and imitating.  Revising for my students is broken down into three parts…

  1. Take away the dull verbs and make them ‘juicy’ – thank you Lucy Calkins for helping me with that.
  2. Add adjectives and adverbs to help describe nouns and verbs- create a vivid image in the readers’ mind
  3. change the pronouns to specific nouns

As the students write, I do to.  I share my piece out before asking students to share out.  AS soon as one student breaks the ice, many other students follow suit.  I find greatness in each revision and point out what was great.  The students are shocked and surprised at first at how well they did and how easy it really was.

Finally, the last day is all about imitating; we call it “borrowing” in my classroom.  The students use the sentence pattern, the punctuation and use similar figurative language to write an original piece.  As they work on theirs, I am also working on mine to share out.  The sentences that I have seen and heard are sentences I never saw in my 4th grade writing class. You know, the ‘year of writing’.  I wish I would have done this back then.

Teacher work
Teacher work

Extension: What really gets them to actually use this in their papers.

Gretchen Bernabei says in her Grammer Keepers book, ‘Keepers don’t separate grammar from breathing or reading or writing. Students record the keepers in their journals, creating grammar they’re going to keep.”

So, how do we keep these lessons and NOT separate them?

  1. daily writing
  2. interactive dialogue with the student about what they notice, how they revised, share out imitations
  3. show the student their growth by keeping a data chart.  Where were they?  Where are they now?  A great resource is http://www.resources.corwin.com/bernabeigrammar

This has been a light bulb moment for me as a writing teacher. I loved teaching writing when I had 60 minutes to do so.  Writing has been a struggle once reading became my focus and writing was a 30 minute lesson.

For me, this method works.  For the students, this method works.

student work
student work

Mentor sentence strategies 011 Mentor sentence strategies 012

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