Then, as I was training to be a literacy coach at Lesley University four years into my teaching career, an Interactive Edit was modeled to me and my fellow literacy coaches in training. Our professor put a beautiful sentence up on the board from a book we had all read called The Tiger Rising, and she asked us the ever-powerful question of, "What do you notice?" At first, I thought it was a trick, and I was looking for the error that she must have sneakily inserted. I think this was a natural reaction from my elementary school days of repetitive DOL year, after year, after year. But then, I realized her question was genuine, and I let myself actually enjoy the sentence, think about it, analyze it, and imagine what Kate DiCamillo was thinking as she wrote it. Once we started listing what we noticed, we couldn't stop: we noticed word choice, the type of sentence it was, what type of punctuation and capitalization it contained, we commented on which words were which parts of speech, on words with prefixes, suffixes, and Greek & Latin roots, we talked about words that had homophones, and what the sentence would have been like if a specific element had been changed. All of a sudden, I had learned more about grammar in fifteen minutes of analyzing one sentence than I had my entire life. Not to mention, the experience had been enjoyable to me as a learner. That was the day I knew Interactive Edit would be part of how I taught grammar. A missing piece to a Balanced Literacy framework I already loved.
Next, I started reading Jeff Anderson's book Mechanically Inclined where chapter two, "Moving from Correct-Alls to Mentor Texts" continued to evolve how I saw grammar instruction. In the chapter opening it states, "Yet as far back as 1936, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) found that the formal teaching of grammar and mechanics had little effect on students' writing and, in fact, had deleterious effects when it displaced writing time. Other teachers who know these methods don't work have fallen into haphazardly mentioning mechanics or, fearful of teaching grammar and mechanics out of context, teaching them only during the editing phase of the writing process" (15). As I read that passage, I thought, "That's me!" He also makes the point of, "With what we know about the brain absorbing information visually, is it a sane educational strategy to have kids stare at something so wrong for the first ten minutes of class every day? Etching wrongness into my students' visual stores was not what I wanted" (16). How profound is this thought? Why are we using DOL to show kids how to do it wrong? A sentence with ten errors is so far away from "real writing." Instead, let's use mentor sentences from books students are reading and authors they respect to etch beautiful writing into their brains. Anderson credits Vicki Spandel for the phrase, "sentence stalking" and talks in the chapter about how he became a sentence stalker, constantly reading for the purpose of finding worthy mentor sentences to use. Although sentence stalking is the same as what I originally learned to be "interactive edit," I knew my students would love the term "sentence stalking." This is where it all began, and I've never turned back from this form of teaching grammar since.
If you're wondering how to implement sentence stalking into your classroom, it's really quite simple:
Step One: Go through your class interactive read alouds or class novels all students in your class are exposed to and select sentences that will give your students a lot to talk about. The sentences could focus in on something you're noticing students are struggling with in their writing, such as using correct homophones, for example. That's a subtle way of reinforcing the proper use of homophones while also getting students to notice and analyze other pieces of the sentence as well.
Step Two: Model to students how to "sentence stalk." Begin with think alouds and give students a couple examples of what you notice about the sentence, and then have them turn to a partner and jot down three more things they notice together. This is a great way to get the process started.
Step Three: Once you're confident that students have become more proficient at sentence stalking, use it as a bell ringer activity and have the sentence up on the board as they're walking into class. Students should know that it's the routine to grab their notebooks, jot the sentence down, and write down as many things as they notice about the sentence.
Step Four: Continue to make the process interactive by having students share out what they notice in small groups or partners and then sharing out as a whole class. Take time (one-two minutes) to quickly teach a new concept to students if something comes up in a sentence that students haven't noticed before.
Step Five: Make anchor charts of common grammar concepts that come up. A few of my favorites for the purpose of sentence stalking are below. Another great option is to purchase the Student Writing Companion in my TpT store so students can have a quick reference to a variety of grammar concepts.
So now that I know what I know, I'm so excited to see what else I can learn and try with my students as I continue to tweak this teaching strategy. Below are six reasons why I think using mentor sentences to sentence stalk is the way to go.
1. Through mentor sentences, you can intrigue students and subconsciously get them interested in books. A single sentence can cause students to wonder and predict what it means in the context of a story.
2. Sentences in real writing and real books are messy. They don’t always fit a perfect mold like sentences on a grammar worksheet or workbook. Students can memorize a predictable pattern on a grammar worksheet, but by using mentor sentences, students are going to internalize, transfer, and apply these grammar concepts in their own writing.
3. Mentor sentences expose students to quality writing and inspire them to try out techniques used by their favorite authors in their writing.
4. Instead of standing up in front of the class and lecturing about grammar rules and telling students, “It’s just the way it is” in reference to memorizing grammar rules, you can stand up in front of the class and say, “Let’s look at what R.J. Palacio, Kate DiCamillo, or Lois Lowry does in this sentence.”
5. Looking at mentor sentences from several books/authors proves to students that grammar rules are applied in a similar fashion in order for writers to communicate effectively with readers.
6. When we appreciate the way authors craft sentences together and take the time to study how and why they write, we, as writers, will intentionally and automatically think more like the authors we study.
If you think teaching grammar through mentor sentences is a road you'd like to go down on your grammar teaching journey, definitely check out the six week unit I have listed below to teach six different grammar rules. It includes directions on exactly how to teach each lesson, student handouts, and even answer keys.