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Mini-lesson: Student Writing as Our Mentor for Sentences

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I read Learning by Teaching by Donald Murray this summer, and I finally understand the importance of using student writing as the main text in my writing class. While I’ve believed students can learn fromI lurked on this chat. Many positive examples of learning from student wrting. While I believe students can learn from reading one another’s work, and I’ve often asked them to read and give feedback — on drafts and published pieces — I’ve never thought to actually use the text to teach a concept. I don’t know why. I supposed I’ve always relied on mentor texts by The Pros for that.

I am changing my tune. Here’s a bit of a lesson that worked better than I could have imagined.

Objectives:  Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will write about their lives, and share their writing. They will recognize a wide variety of sentence structures. They will identifypatterns, devices, and/or figurative language and discuss its effectiveness in creating meaning. They willrevise their writing, formulate their own sentences, and apply their understanding to future writing assignments.

Lesson: Project the image, and ask students to write in their writer’s notebooks one sentence that answers the question. Remind them about what they know about various sentence structures and how punctuation works within a sentence.

“We can pack a sentence with a lot of information if we punctuate it correctly. Pay attention and see how you do. You can write any sentence, but try to not write a simple one.”

Give students about five minutes to write.

Next, ask for a couple of volunteers who are willing to write their sentences on the board. Be sure they understand that there is no judgment.


“We just want to talk about sentences.”

While two or three students write their sentences on the board, ask the other students in the class to read their sentences to each other.

One at a time, read the student sentences on the board. Ask:  “What do you notice?”

Talk through the various comments students make, noting parallels, punctuation, clauses, word choice, etc. Watch for teaching points.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Ethan-sentence.jpgEthan’s sentence on the left gave us a lot to talk about:  parallelism, use of semi-colons, colons, …

Next, ask students to return to their notebooks. “How can you make your sentence better?”

Allow time for revision (and time permitting, more sharing.)


Why this lesson works, especially for a writing lesson at the beginning of the year:  It’s just a sentence!

And sometimes we get a bonus gift like this one my class got from Edward:

“I am the guy who picks people up when I, myself, am down; I am the guy who cares so much over things so little; I am the missing piece to a puzzle that has been forgotten; I am now by a sad and quiet shell of my former self; I am Edward Campos.”

The class hushed. All eyes turned to Edward.

“Wow,” I said, “Thank you for sharing this writing today. You’ve made yourself vulnerable, and we value that.

“First of all, we need to know that you are okay. Will you explain a little more what you mean here?”

Edward explained that he used to be fun and outgoing. He felt strong and powerful. Then at the end of last year and over the summer he learned his friends weren’t really his friends so much. Now, he feels alone and like he’s not the person he used to be.

“Hey, everyone, how many of you have ever felt like Edward?

“Look around, my friend, do you see all those hands? Everyone here has been where you are. We understand. You have new friends here.”

Two girls at Edward’s table leaned forward and touched his arm. “We’ll be your friends,” they said smiling.

And he smiled back.

Of course, because I am me — and I never leave a teaching moment untapped — we talked about the structure of Edward’s sentence. And we talked about the word choice:  “Why ‘forgotten’ instead of ‘lost’?”

When we watch for teaching moments in student writing, we will find them. Every single time.

Follow up:  In class the next day we did some free-writing in our notebooks in response to the spoken word poem “Hands” by Sarah Kay. Before we wrote I reminded students to pay attention to their sentences. Then instead of sharing the whole of what we wrote with the class, we only shared our favorite sentence. I consider this valuable formative assessment.

Now, I will hold students accountable for crafting their sentences with care in their upcoming writing assignment.

“The words of the world want to make sentences,” said Gaston Bachelard. I say, “We have to help them.”

Please share your best tips on getting students to pay attention to their sentences.


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Amy Rasmussen teaches AP English Language and Composition at a large suburban high school in north Texas. She fosters a love of reading by offering choice through readers and writers workshop in her advanced English classes. Amy advocates for change in the traditional literature-based English course. Research shows that when teachers make all the choices about the books that students must read, many students begin to disengage with reading (Allington, Krashen, Miller). Few students actually read the assigned texts in high school English classes, and many come to dislike the classic literature we revere so much (Broz, Kittle, Pruzinski). Many teachers and administrators are changing this. They are moving to readers and writers workshop because they know when students read they are better thinkers and better writers. Amy is an engaging teacher and presenter, and she loves working with and supporting schools and districts as they make this move. Memberships and Organizations: National Council of Teachers of English Texas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts North Texas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts, President-Elect, 2015 North Star of Texas Writing Project, Teaching Consultant Find Amy on Twitter @AmyRass Host of the new #PoetryChat -- Join us the first Monday of the month at 8 pm ET

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