My Experience with Mentor Sentences

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This is a year of adjustments.  There is new leadership in our school – our principal is the same, but one of our assistant principals is new.  Plus, I’ve decided to make some changes in my classes as well.  With all of that, I’ve had a slow time getting into the groove this year.  (Hence the lack of a blog post in August!)

I read a couple of books over the summer.  Most specifically, Readicide by Kelly Gallagher, The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller, and Mechanically Inclined by Jeff Anderson.  These books inspired me to try new tactics this year.  The first (inspired by the Gallagher and Miller books) is to foster a culture of reading in my classroom.  I’ll tell you about that in a future post.

The second change I wanted to make (prompted by the Anderson book) was to incorporate mentor sentences as a part of grammar instruction.  I made this plan to have a theme for every day:  Mentor Sentence Monday, Tinker Tuesday, Word Day Wednesday, Three-Things Thursday, and Frivolous Friday.

Frivolous Friday just means that I can choose whatever I want to do that day – whatever my kids and I need at the end of the week.  Grammar review, free reading time, writing instruction, or just a continuation of what we’ve been doing the rest of the week.

On Three-Things Thursday, students have a three-question assignment.  Usually it’s a review of things we’ve covered up to that point in the week, but sometimes I’ll ask about the kids’ free-read books, or I’ll ask a question that prepares them to think about something we’re about to cover in class.

Word Day Wednesday is a continuation of what I’ve been doing for a number of years.  My honors classes have always had vocabulary lessons on Wednesdays – one of them actually named it Word Day Wednesday – and I started structured vocabulary with my regular 7th and 8th grade classes last year.  I don’t love the way I do it, but I was changing too many other things to change that this year.

Mentor Sentence Monday is where I would present students with a well-written sentence that exemplified the grammatical concept I wanted to teach that week.  The idea is that instead of a poorly-written sentence that kids had to correct, the Mentor Sentence is a good example to imitate.  I’d look through the books or stories we’re reading in each class to find the sentences, so that the sentences were authentic for kids.  I had students write the Mentor Sentence in their notebooks, and then we’d break it down with the grammar I wanted to teach – subject verb agreement with compound subjects or inverted sentences, for example.  Then on Tinker Tuesday, we’d tinker with the sentences – change them in some way to make them more personal to the students, or just make an improvement, but keep the same basic sentence structure.

But here’s the thing.  I’m hating Mentor Sentence Monday and Tinker Tuesday.  I’m taking way too much time to look through the students’ reading to find an appropriate Mentor Sentence.  And then, I don’t feel like I’m teaching the grammar as well or as efficiently as I did before I used Mentor Sentences.  I’m spending more time but doing a worse job!  Not okay.  I gave it a good month, but now I’m getting rid of it.  At least with this grade level at this time of year, I think I need to be more didactic in my approach.  After we get through all the grammar standards for the year (which usually happens by March), then maybe we’ll try mentor sentences again to make their writing stronger.

If you’ve used Mentor Sentences for grammar instruction, I’d love to hear about it.  Maybe you’ve got some tricks I haven’t thought of that would make it work better for me.


A look forward to the coming year

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Ahh, summer vacation.  Sinking my toes in the sand, lying out in the sun, and ignoring every school-related thought that tickles my brain.

Haha.  Not really.  In truth, I’m taking a class for my Master’s program, rethinking lessons and units, planning some professional development for my school, and preparing to do some research with a professor at the university.  While some days it feels overwhelming and I wish I could just Stop Thinking Already, these things are actually fun for me.

My ideas for the coming school year include tweaking (again) how I teach grammar (I’m investigating mentor sentences), and working on developing a culture of reading in my classroom.  Related not only to my classes but to the teaching profession in general is the research I’ll be doing with my university colleague.

I’m not going to say too much about any of that now.  It’s summer vacation, people!  I’m going to go relax and enjoy!  But I’ll be back in August with my plans and ideas.

Reflection: Teaching Grammar & Vocabulary



In November, I wrote about ideas on how I was planning to change up my grammar instruction.  And in January I discussed vocabulary instruction.  Here are my thoughts on how these things went.


Using No Red Ink was a great idea, and next year I expect I’ll use it more.  This year I focused just on teaching the standards through NRI and then once we completed the standards, I stopped direct instruction and tried to emphasize the lessons through the teaching of writing.  But I think that a lot of kids — seventh graders especially, but even several eighth graders — could use more and more practice.  Even review of basic parts of speech, run-ons and fragments, and plurals and possessives could be beneficial for kids.  Plus, it would give students something to work on whenever they finish early or when my lesson doesn’t take quite as long as I’d hoped.  It worked pretty well, I think, to have a rhythm of grammar every Monday, then practice on Tuesday, and perhaps review on Friday.  But, as I started getting away from the grammar instruction, the rhythm fell apart.  That’s not to say that more flexibility is a bad thing.  It has been nice these last few months to be able to spend more time on reading and writing.  But my seventh graders this year could probably have benefitted from more structure all throughout the year.  To try to add NRI back in now, with three weeks left in the year, would feel crazy.  But if they’d been doing it weekly all along, it would be okay.


This is another area where I was really structured at the beginning of the year and then less so as we went on.  One issue was that the book I was using — Red Hot Root Words — had such short practice exercises for each lesson that it was hard to stretch it over two days like I’d originally planned.  I hope to find something for next year that either allows me to expand on that book or has more exercises so that I can spend more time each week on vocabulary.  I do like focusing on Greek and Latin roots because I think that’s really useful for students.

The Word Wizards will stay.  A lot of the kids claim to hate them, but the truth is that they are easy points for them and easy grading for me.  The Frayer Models were fun for a while, but they got really repetitive and I don’t think I’d want to do them all year for every unit.  Maybe once a quarter I could have kids do a Frayer over roots they’ve learned.

Lessons Learned

I think I’m on the right track with grammar and vocabulary instruction.  I just need to take it a step further.  If you’ve got a great vocabulary series you like, please share — especially if it focuses on Greek and Latin roots.

Reflection: PBL and Design Thinking


In October, I wrote about developing more Project Based Learning units or Design Thinking units.  While I still totally LOVE the idea of using more of these types of units in my classes, this year I felt like they really fell flat.  I was super-frustrated with myself because of it, but after some serious thinking, I realized there were a couple of reasons why the units didn’t work as well as I had hoped.  First, I was trying to do too much.  Second, I didn’t spend enough time developing the plan.  Third, the mix of kids wasn’t great for what I was trying to do.

Doing Too Much

If I had just kept with my original understanding of PBL, it probably would have worked out better.  But because our school as a whole was supposed to be working toward Design Thinking, I attempted to throw all those concepts into my units as well.  The problem is that while sure, the ideas can translate into a humanities-type course, it really seems intended more for science courses.  With everything else I was trying to do, my brain and my planning just couldn’t make that leap.  So I tried to include empathy and prototyping, when I should have just done what I already know to do.  My previous PBLs included those things, but without the names.  I think I tried to emphasize the specific DT design more than the true goals of connection, communication, revision, and collaboration.

Not Enough Time

When I developed my first PBL for the course I was taking, I spent nearly an entire semester working on it.  And it turned out AWESOME.  The next year, I spent a good part of the summer planning.  And it turned out REALLY WELL.  But this year, I made major changes to my previously awesome unit and tried to plan out two more.  These kinds of units just take a huge amount of effort to design well, and I didn’t give them the time they deserved or needed.  As a result, everything was just kind of yuck.  I didn’t enjoy facilitating them and I don’t think the kids got as much out of them.  In general, it was a big disappointment.

Mix of Kids

I’ve really struggled with my teaching this year overall.  I’ve felt like I’ve lost my touch.  But when I’m not overemotional about it, I realize that a lot of the kids I have this year don’t really function well in the student-directed environment that PBL needs.  Quite a few of my classes need a lot more leadership from me.  Admittedly, a lot of this goes back to the planning.  If I’d taken more time to plan things out, the students would have known better what to do, plus I would have had more energy to direct students when they were lost.  Even so, several of my classes just are too distractible to handle these big projects well.  Maybe smaller units could have worked better, but not the larger units I had planned.

The Lesson

I think it’s reasonable for me to design one big PBL per year.  Any more than that, and I just won’t do it well.  If I can re-use the units from previous years, that will be great — though that kind of goes against the idea of PBL because once the problem is solved, why have kids solve it again and again?  Still, I have to do what will keep me sane but still be good teaching.  Additionally, I need to be able to assess my students’ personalities and abilities early in the year and plan to do the big units during second semester.  Trying to do them earlier in the year was hard because I didn’t know the kids well enough yet to understand how much direction they were going to need.

While perhaps this wasn’t a good year for PBL as far as the students were concerned, I think at least I learned some things I can apply to future experiences.

Reflection: Flexible Seating



In September, I wrote about how I was considering flexible seating in my classroom.  I was hesitant to ditch my desks in favor of couches and stand-up desks.  I had heard only anecdotal evidence, not hard research, to support it.  Plus, my assistant principal warned me about the way The System works at our school: “If you get rid of the desks, there’s no guarantee you can get them back.”

Hm.  I needed to be careful here.

The physical education teacher was planning to write a grant to try to get some seating options that would allow students to move around more.  Seat cushions that make kids engage their core muscles.  Bands to put on the front legs of the desks or chairs for students to bounce their feet on.  Stools that wobble so kids can move without being distracting.  She asked if I was interested, and I was totally on board.

By adding these items, I give students options.  I did get the science teacher’s old desks, and I got brand new chairs which allow kids to rock a little bit and even tip back sometimes.  (I try not to let this drive me crazy, and I’m working on determining guidelines for tipping.)  Most of the students choose to sit in the regular desks and chairs, though sometimes they’ll move to the floor when I let them.  Other kids want a seat cushion every day, and several like the wobble stools.

When I first got them, I had the kids take turns.  I’d write names on the board of who got the cushions or stools, and I’d rotate through the class list.  That way, students could try them and decide whether they liked them or not.  Eventually, I found that most students didn’t really feel a need for the seating options, and I stopped putting names on the board.  Now they just grab them when they want them.

For me, this works best.  I’d like to have more stools (the kids like these better than the cushions, but they are more expensive so I have only a couple), but they do a fairly good job with knowing what they like and behaving well with them.

Plus, I can keep my desks.

Have you had different experiences with flexible seating?  I’d love to hear your story!

Reflection: Relaxing Late Work Rules


In August, I wrote about how I decided to try a new tactic regarding late work.  Instead of stiff penalties for turning in work late, I decided to accept assignments for up to two weeks past the due date for full credit.  The only penalty would be on an “on-time homework grade,” which is 10 percent of the overall grade.

Here’s how it’s been going.

I was concerned that students would take advantage of this, just turning in work whenever they wanted, and I’d forever be grading assignments, never getting caught up because things just kept coming in.  However, that didn’t happen.  Students for the most part still turn in their work on time, and those that don’t are the same ones who never do.  Nevertheless, I don’t feel I’m enabling those habitual offenders by giving them more time.  I email home saying there is missing work, and I try to continue to remind them to get it done.  In some cases, this has helped students not to give up and say, “Well, it’s late and I’ll only get half credit, so I might as well not do it.”  In some cases, I think it’s actually helping students to complete work they otherwise wouldn’t have.

However, I don’t love the on-time homework grade.  Or rather, I like the idea of it, but putting it in the grade book every week is annoying to me.  It’s just one more thing for me to remember.

I’m not sure the change has really altered the habits of my habitual offenders, but I feel it has reduced the stress level in my classroom.  Especially for my high achievers, having that flex time helps them not to panic if they haven’t gotten something done.  Not only that, but it helps eliminate excuses from those students who don’t really want to do the work, but now can’t say, “Well, she won’t accept it now.”

I have a couple of ideas about how I might tweak this plan for next year.  I’ve considered eliminating all late penalties completely.  As long as they get the work to me so that I can score it before grades are due, I’ll accept it.  After all, as I mentioned, I really don’t have a lot of kids who abuse the flexibility.  Another idea I have is to keep a time limit (either at two weeks or reduced to one week) but just remove the grade penalty.  I’m not positive about which I’ll do.  Part of me thinks that kids need to learn to work to deadlines, but another part of me things that middle school kids have so much to learn, and I should focus on the content rather than the life lessons.  But life lessons are important, too!

As you can see, I’m conflicted.

But I’m glad I made a change.  I just have to decide how to alter it further to really mesh with what is important.

If you have ideas concerning my dilemma, please share in the comments!

Teaching Shakespeare

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My students with their masks, ready for Act 1, scene 5 — the masquerade party when Romeo and Juliet first meet.

Every year, my eighth graders dive into Romeo and Juliet.  Or perhaps a better metaphor is that I throw them into Lake Shakespeare, kicking and screaming.  They are reluctant.  They complain that they can’t understand it.

But we go slowly.  It usually takes me about five or six weeks to get through the play.  I’ve learned to assign each student to a character for the duration.  That helps the kids to keep all the names straight.  They don’t have to work so hard to remember the difference between Benvolio and Mercutio when they know that Kevin played Benvolio (who was always trying to make peace) and Mark played Mercutio (who talked a lot of nonsense and then died dramatically.)  Students fill out reading guides as we go through.  I start out giving them answers, but by Act 5, I’m encouraging them to figure out the answers on their own.  We discuss dramatic irony and why Shakespeare tells us the end of the play in the prologue.  We watch the crazy character shift in Lord Capulet and talk about what is that dude’s deal anyway.  We ponder why Shakespeare made the romance between the star-crossed lovers go so insanely fast – they’re engaged just hours after they meet – and whether the story would have worked if the two had known each other better.  We talk about responsibility.  Who is the most responsible for all the deaths that occur, and why?  Are we responsible only for ourselves, or are we responsible for others as well?  And we talk about Lake Shakespeare.  Should we continue to read the bard in school?  After reading articles on brain research, some are convinced that it’s worth it.  Others disagree.

My assistant principal didn’t really understand why I teach Shakespeare.  He hated it when he had to read it.  While he’d never tell me what to teach, I knew he disagreed with this particular content.  I argued brain research.  I gave examples of how ubiquitous in pop culture are references to the play.  He understood my reasons, but still, I think, wasn’t completely convinced until he observed my class as we read through Act 3, scene 1.  The students, armed with rulers, fought to the death, discussing the play and laughing the whole time, and showing that they were really, truly getting this stuff, with just a little help from me.  My AP later said he got more out of the play in that 45 minutes in my classroom than he ever did in high school.

Eighth grade is pretty early to read Romeo and Juliet.  Most kids don’t do it until at least their freshman year.  But I think my method works, and I think it’s worth it to have them push through really hard things at a young age.

How old were you when you first read Shakespeare?  Did you get it?  Did you like it?