Friday, September 22, 2017

Use Mentor Sentences to Help Students Write Like Readers

This week we dug into writing with mentor sentences in order to become more intentional about reading like writers and writing like readers.  

The context: AP English 11 is in the middle of reading The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis in order to thoroughly understand the art, tools, and purposes of satire. Each day we come in with a journal recording 3 quotations from the assigned reading and why we found each interesting or effective. The assessment piece will be a new original letter from Screwtape to Wormwood, but the “patient” is a student at our international school in Okinawa, Japan, in 2017 rather than an adult in England in World War 2. 

Three days this week we also spent some time working with mentor sentences from the text. 

Wednesday the topic was using a variety of sentence lengths (especially the power of an occasional very short sentence).
  • Mentor sentences: When I speak of preserving this assumption in his mind, therefore, the last thing I mean you to do is to furnish him with arguments in its defense. There aren’t any. Your task is purely negative. Don’t let his thoughts come anywhere near it. Wrap a darkness about it, and in the center of the darkness let his sense of ownership-in-Time lie silent, uninspected, and operative. (113)
  • Discussion: We turned to pages 112-113 and explored the relative sentence lengths. A couple of them are 5-6 lines long in the book. Most are about 3. The shortest are the 2 adjacent in the section above—2 and 5 words. What’s the effect? What’s lost if those 2 short sentences are instead combined into the previous and following sentences? 
  • Try it: We’d started the class with a 5-minute quick-write exploring the topic on which we were thinking of doing our original letter. Now went back to our quick write and revised it to make one of the sentences really short.
  • Share it with your table group.

Thursday the topic was starting with appositive phrases.

  • Mentor sentences: The routine of adversity, the gradual decay of youthful loves and youthful hopes, the quiet despair (hardly felt as pain) of ever overcoming the chronic temptations with which we have again and again defeated them, the drabness which we create in their lives, and the inarticulate resentment with which we teach them to respond to it--all this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition. (153)
  • Discussion: We noticed that the main sentence—rather short—is at the end. Four times as long as the main sentence is the preceding accumulation of 5 parallel phrases that expand on “all this.” Lewis could have reversed the order: Many things provide admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition—the routine of adversity…. What is gained by putting the long list first? Well, for one thing, the reader feels worn out herself by the time she gets through the long, depressing list. Form reinforces meaning.
  • Try it: I started out asking students to find a sentence in yesterday’s quick write that they could revise to start with a series of appositive phrases. That proved too difficult. So I provided a sentence stem we could all relate to: “x, y, and z—all this was wearing on me by the end of last week.”
  • Share it with your table group.

Friday the topic was ending with appositive phrases.

  • Mentor sentences: Cowardice, alone of all the vices, is purely painful--horrible to anticipate, horrible to feel, horrible to remember; hatred has its pleasures. (160)
  • This, indeed, is probably one of the Enemy’s motives for creating a dangerous world--a world in which moral issues really come to the point. (160)
  • Discussion: How is the effect different from starting with the appositive(s) like we did yesterday?
  • Try it: The human foible I want to address in my satire is ___--the x, the y, the z OR The human foible I want to address in my satire is—how people….
  • Share it with your table group.
The best thing was hearing the students interacting, becoming a community of writers, when they shared their sentences in their table groups—“Wow, that was really good,”  “I need to try that!”, “That gave it punch.” We’ll be working on the original letters on Monday, and I think the students are looking forward to it. One asked yesterday, “Can we read everyone else’s letters when we’re done?” Of course. That’s what communities of writers do.

Note: I’m grateful to my peer coach from last year who challenged me to move from the “discussion” to the “try it” part, which I was seldom getting to. I’m grateful to this year’s peer coach who just by her presence on Wednesday and the success of that lesson challenged me to keep it up.

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