Discovering a Writing Process that Works

One of my favorites things about the end of the school year—aside from summer vacation, of course—is the opportunity to reflect on another year gone by. And as I look back on this particular year, I see many bumps in the road: lessons gone awry, students I didn’t quite reach, and material I didn’t get a chance to cover. That said, I also see my students, and I think about the relationships I was able to build, the times we’ve learned and laughed together this year—and I feel lucky to be their teacher.

As I look back at this year and the last fifteen years—I think crystal is the traditional gift for a 15 year anniversary, right?—one truth stands out. When we give students choices in their reading and writing lives, our teaching becomes more powerful. Giving students choice, in other words, doesn’t relinquish teacher control so much as it empowers student learning.

When I first started teaching, the only writing that my students ever did was literary analysis. I spent those early years, and too many subsequent ones, teaching with a 4×4 type approach, described by Kelly Gallagher as 4 major works, one each quarter, and each followed by a major (literary analysis) essay. As Gallagher points out, such an approach simply doesn’t allow for the volume of reading and writing that students need to do in order to substantially improve as readers and writers.

I’d say it also doesn’t allow us to get to know our students very well, either.  Continue reading

Could You Please Repeat That? Showing Students the Effect of Repetition in Writing

Remember that Family Guy bit where Stewie is begging to get Lois’s attention by doing that lovable and annoying and relentless thing children do? “Lois! Lois! Lois! Lois! Lois! Mom! Mom! Mom! Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! Mama! Mama! Mama! Ma! Ma! Ma! Ma! Mum! Mum! Mum! Mum! Mummy! Mummy! Mumma! Mumma! Mumma!”

Of course, Lois replies, “WHAT?!”

Repetition is, no doubt, effective.

Stewie-Lois

Image via barfblog.com

I tell my students often that carefully and intentionally placed repetition can elevate your writing like that (*snaps fingers).

Something I’ve done that pushes students towards this type of intentional and elevated writing is to zoom in on the sentence level and examine the writer’s choices in repetition.

The upshot is that this is a two-birds, one stone approach. Students are required to both analyze the writing, which could tilt towards either literary or rhetorical analysis, and imitate the structure in their own writing.

Take for example these mentor sentences and passages:

I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you.

Continue reading

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.