Monday, September 1, 2014

Mentor Sentences: Teaching Language as an Art

We are very fortunate to have an amazing art teacher at our school, Shana Gutterman. There are many reasons why she is amazing, but one of the most easily noticeable is that she gets all of the kids to create impressive artwork. I have been able to observe her teaching process, and she often uses a "mentor piece" (I don't know if she calls it that though) to inspire the students.
image used with permission: Shana Gutterman
For example, in this lesson students look at self-portraits created by Van Gogh and Rembrandt, with attention drawn to what makes those mentor pieces exceptional. Then, they are invited to create their own self-portraits, using the same technique used by the masters. 

Many teachers of writing also use mentor texts to inspire students' writing. I have some favorite mentor texts that I use for certain types of writing, and sharing quality examples is always part of my process for teaching writing. However, I became more interested last year in the idea of using mentor sentences for the teaching of writing conventions, as well as writing style. 

I tried having students search for wonderful sentences during their reading, but it didn't catch on. I don't think I set it up properly, and the idea just didn't make sense to 4th and 5th graders. But the idea still had a grip on my mind. So when I discovered this video of Jivey using mentor sentences to teach grammar and writing to her 4th grade students, I purchased her mentor sentence lessons, and I began using the lessons and notebooks on the first day of school this year.

What I like about this approach:

  • I love that it focuses on what is right instead of what is wrong with writing.
  • I like that it is a holistic approach that explicitly connects grammar to writing and, specifically, to sentence structure.
  • I like that the notebooks give students some practice with note-taking, as well as handwriting. Last year, with the iPads, my students got very little handwriting practice, and I felt that they needed a bit more of that. 
  • I love the way that this elevates grammar lessons to the critical-thinking exercises that they truly are instead of the memorization of series of rules.
What I am wondering/worrying about:
  • I am spending a lot of time right now on the daily mentor sentence activities. I am always worried about the best use of time. I am hopeful that, with practice, the process will become more routine and will take less time. 
  • Some students are struggling, which is ok. This is thinking-intensive, and I find that thinking is stressful for many students. They look for a work-around such as one student who, for Monday's "invitation to notice" what makes the sentence exceptional wrote, "I don't think this should be a mentor sentence." 
  • I am wondering if it is too much whole-class, frontal teaching. Again, I hope that with more practice, it will become quicker and more student-centered. 
  • I am wondering how to reinforce the practice of particular concepts for students who need more work. I have been looking at different tools, and I think that noredink holds great potential. You easily create assignments and quizzes focusing on specific concepts. Students are guided with hints as needed, and teachers can easily see who has mastered the skill. I am excited to start using this.

2 comments:

Monica Aldridge said...

I like the approach you are using to teach your students better writing skills. I believe that all ages will benefit from "mentor text". It sounds like a really great idea and I know that you will achieve your goal.

jivey said...

I just found your post! I'm glad there are things that are working well- I hope that you are finding it is getting better for you...? It does take more time for them to "get it" at the beginning of the year, just as it does for lots of other things too, but I promise if you stick with it, your kids will start working faster and they will start amazing you with what they come up with! Thank you for sharing about mentor sentences with others!
~Jivey