How I used mentor sentences for 6th graders and saw tremendous growth! | Mentoring in the Middle

How I used mentor sentences for 6th graders and saw tremendous growth!

Hi, my name is Mikey and I'm going to tell you my story....
Does that make your hair stand on end?  I cringe inside when I see upper elementary and middle school students start their writing like this.

What are Mentor sentences?
Mentor sentences are well-written sentences from books (I use ones from popular books kids are familiar with) that students can imitate.  They provide well-crafted examples from published authors, and if you take the time, you can explore the craft and mechanics of what makes them so strong.

When I tried mentor sentences with my 6th-grade students, I was floored by what a difference it made in their writing!  They sparked students' creativity and gave them inspiration to experiment with different writing styles and techniques.

How to start using Mentor sentences
I always started by talking about books.  What makes you want to keep reading a book?  Does the first sentence have to grab you?  The first few?

Those "grab-you" sentences are the ones you want to imitate.  Use them as your guide.

And then I share a few mentor sentences examples with them.

From Restart by Gordon Korman:

I remember falling.
    At least I think I do.  Or maybe that's just because I know I fell.

I start asking questions.  What do you think happened to this person?  Did he or she just fall down or was this somehow a "big" fall?  As they begin to infer, students realize how many different ways this story could go!
From If I Stay by Gayle Forman:

Everyone thinks it was because of the snow.  And in a way, I suppose that's true.

Again, questions about the mentor text examples.  What do you think happened?  When someone mentions that it was "because" of the snow, what does that make you think happened?  Could you start a story that was "because" of something?

One of my favorite examples for 5th and 6th graders is from Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper (this is actually from the second chapter.)

I can't talk.  I can't walk.  I can't feed myself or take myself to the bathroom. Big bummer.

Students' eyes widen as they hear those lines.  Their brains are working, trying to figure out how they can reconfigure those mentor sentences into something of their own.

Next steps
As a class (or you could do this in small groups) we explore the sentences, looking at the parts of speech and talking about what "grabbed" us.  In the previous case, students love that the sentences are so short.  Periods create a different impression than commas do!

Scaffold their first tries so they aren't overwhelmed.  I give my students something that looks like a Mad Lib, with keywords deleted.  

I let students share some of their ideas.  It doesn't just help them, but it gives the other students ideas about the wide range of possibilities available to them!

Set them free to create their own sentences
The final step is to take away the scaffolding and let them write in that style for a minute or two.  Again, I let them share what they've written.  As a writing community, we give each other feedback.

As other students give feedback, you see ideas take shape.  And not just with the person sharing.  As you glance around the room, other students are erasing, rewriting, and narrowing their word choices, too.

I had a large whiteboard in the back of my room, so I encouraged students to put their sentences there so that others could use them for ideas.

From then on, the goal was just to provide writing time for students to keep going.

The beauty of using mentor sentences is that they work for fiction and nonfiction texts!  Use them before you have students begin writing informational or argumentative passages, too.

Cover of Mentor sentences product showing a student writing
Don't have the time to research good sentences for your students to use?  I've got it made for you, so if you don't have the time right now, use this product

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