Summer Mentor Text Countdown Week 5 – Mentor Sentences to Boost Student Writing

As you saw two weeks ago with our post about using mentor texts for Notebook Time, mentor texts can be large or small.  Even a tiny mentor text can have spectacular results for student writing. Mentor sentences can be a great way for both you and your students to wade into the waters of mentor text study!

This week in our mentor text countdown – a pre-launch blog party of sorts for our book Writing with Mentors, which will be released September 3 and is available for pre-order now! – Allison shows 5 rich mentor sentences that will have your students writing more sophisticated analysis!

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5 Mentor Sentences to Help Students Write Better Analysis

Photo by Alan Cleaver via Flickr

If you haven’t checked out Rebekah’s series on analysis, stop what you’re doing and go read about her brilliant work with her IB students! I’ve never been more excited to teach analysis than after reading her thoughtful blog series.

I’m going to piggyback on her posts and share something that I have found useful in the teaching of analysis with my ninth graders: using mentor sentences to help them articulate their thinking about a text.
Like Rebekah, I, too, am searching for ways to make literary analysis a richer experience for my young writers. While my students are working on a fairly traditional literary analysis of a poem right now, I have been able to complicate the simplistic formula they have been trained to use for far too long (5 paragraphs, claim as last sentence in introduction, sentences that start with the phrase “This quote shows that…” and so forth ) by sharing ways that professional writers have written about themes, symbols, and diction.
Below are five sentences culled from New York Times book and poetry reviews that students can easily adapt to their own writing.
Mentor Sentences for Writing about Theme:
1. Art — its creation, its importance, its impact on identity and freedom — is perhaps the central theme of “I’ll Give You the Sun.” The book celebrates art’s capacity to heal, but it also shows us how we excavate meaning from the art we cherish, and how we find reflections of ourselves within it.
From New York Times review of I’ll Give you the Sun by Jandy Nelson
2. One of the great themes that threads its way through Toni Morrison’s work like a haunting melody is the hold that time past exerts over time present. In larger historical terms, it is the horror of slavery and its echoing legacy that her characters struggle with. In personal terms, it is an emotional wound or loss — and the fear of suffering such pain again — that inhibits her women and men, making them wary of the very sort of love and intimacy that might heal and complete them.

From New York Times review of Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child

Mentor Sentence for Writing a Brief Summary of Text:
3. After reading Pam Muñoz Ryan’s enchanting new novel, you’ll never think of a harmonica the same way again. In “Echo,” a harmonica travels across years and over continents and seas to touch the lives of three embattled, music-obsessed children — and, quite possibly, save a life.
From New York Times review of Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan’s
Mentor Sentence for Writing About Symbols:
4. “No one could give it back/ because it was gone,” he writes, and the “it” could refer not only to the gun but also to something larger: his youth, his innocence, and whatever else he left in Iraq along with his weapon.

From New York Times review of Kevin Powers’ new book of poems
Mentor Sentence for Writing About Diction:

5. The poem ends:

until they come before you

like dead things, saddled with flesh,

and you above them, wounded and dominant.

The key word here is “dominant,” which is Glück’s way of pointing out the covert will to power in the traditional Romantic nature poem (to see ourselves reflected in nature is to make nature our servant).

From a New York Times review of Louise Gluck’s Metamorphoses

A SCENARIO
In addition to helping students avoid formulaic writing, these mentor sentences can also help students write about complicated ideas more clearly. For example, one of my students is writing about the poem “First Love” by Carl Linder. Here is a sentence from the rough draft of his first body paragraph:
The poem contains symbols that show the ups and downs of life. Linder stated,  “and I could read / every crack and ripple / in that patch of asphalt” (5-7), was Carl Linder saying that he understood life. The asphalt was the crazy life of high school kids, and most kids can’t understand life then, but he understood. He knew how to get around the rough patches and stay in the good.
The student wants to discuss the symbolism of the asphalt, but he struggles to do so in a clear, succinct manner. If this writer were your student,  you might show him in a conference how others have written about symbols — pulling the sentence from the review of Powers’ work — and then help him “put the first words down” so he is able to continue on his own. Putting the first words down might look like this:
“I could read / every crack and ripple / in that patch of asphalt,” Linder writes, and the “asphalt” could refer not only to…
Noticing that your student wrote “Linder stated,” in his original draft, you might take a moment to point out that writers use the literary present (“he writes”) when writing about literature as if the events in the text are happening now. You might also point out that writers often make suggestions (“and the “it” could refer not only…”) about the meaning behind a symbol rather than asserting what a poet means (“…was Carl Linder saying that he…”).
One great mentor sentence can go a long way in a conference with a student writer struggling to articulate his thinking.
What are your favorite mentor sentences to use to teach different aspects of student writing? If you share them with us, we will happily load them into our Mentor Text Dropbox for all readers to use! Respond in the comments below, connect with us on Facebook, or tweet us @allisonmarchetti @rebekahodell1.
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