Mentor Texts: Finding the Bounty in a Book Chapter

books with stickies

Some books are so well-crafted that each chapter has the strength to stand alone. Books like The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, Wonder by R.J. Palacio, Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse or Maniac McGee by Jerry Spinelli offer up chapters like jewels for reading and writing teachers.

One of my goals this summer was to read with an eye toward sharing shorter pieces of text. The #bookaday challenge pushed me to read more all summer long.  As a result of summer reading, I always return to school with a long list of books to recommend to my middle grade students.  This summer, however, when I sat down to read I always had a package of Post-it flags nearby (I even carry the flags in my purse if I am reading in the wild with a book!). My goal — to flag great short mentor texts — has helped me focus on the richness of individuals chapters.

I just finished reading Marjorie Agosin’s poetic I Lived on Butterfly Hill. The novel tells the story of eleven-year-old Celeste Marconi who lives in the seaside town of Valparaiso, Chile. Set during the violent rise of the dictator Pinochet, the book details Celeste’s escape to North America for two years and her parents exile into hiding. The author, whose own family escaped Chile, provides rich detail about life during upheaval.

Looking at my copy of I Lived on Butterfly Hill I see a host of multi-colored flags marking mentor sentences and chapters. Early chapters in the book vividly describe the beauty of a Chilean seaside town. In later chapters, author Agosin details the austere snowy winters of coastal Maine. The chapters can be explored individually for figurative language, cultural flavor and story arc. For more complexity, readers can compare the chapters to understand the importance of perspective and carefully chosen descriptive language.

At the start of summer I began a list of great mentor chapters.  One of the nice things about zooming in on chapters is the view it offers across texts. For example, earlier in the summer I read 90 Miles to Havana by Enrique Flores-Galbis. Inspired by the author’s own experience fleeing Cuba, 90 Miles to Havana tells the story of three bothers evacuated during Operation Pedro Pan in 1961. Here too I marked excellent stand-alone chapters to share as mentor texts. But now, I will offer a couple of those chapters in concert with chapters from I Lived on Butterfly Hill as a means to examine hardship and survival from different yet similar perspectives.

My summer reading offered several outstanding chapters about flight and survival so I will add chapters from Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan — as one main character flees the Nazis — and even chapters from Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool since the main characters are both fleeing personal loss when the book begins. A focus on chapters can yield a bounty of mentor texts and the means for building thematic short text collections.

Lesson Design: A View from the Student’s Seat


Yesterday I had coffee with two reading teacher friends.  Both women are creative, dedicated teachers who love to talk books. In the midst of the conversation, I shared a reading/writing workshop idea I am developing for the start of the year. I was brimming with creative ways to engage students in descriptive writing using mentor texts.

“Why are they writing this piece?” Sally asked.

I stopped and rattled off my objectives, “It’s a great opportunity for close reading, to explore figurative language, meaning through grammar, share summer experiences, etc.”

“But why should they care? What is THEIR purpose?” Sally asked again.

I realized that I was so focused on my bright ideas that I stopped looking at the all important question: Why should the students engage and invest in this effort?

Lesson planning must start with the WHY. In Shades of Meaning, Donna Santman talks about her early years of teaching as a swing from one skill instruction to another. Experience helped her design a framework that begins with guiding principles. For example, “The world is complex and we can use reading to develop the ability to see connections between seemingly contradictory ideas.”  Lesson planning must begin with the end goal — how will this work help the student grow as a reader, a thinker, a communicator? Will the student own and invest in the work?

To be honest, lesson planning in the summer doesn’t feel as personal because student faces don’t pop in my head as I plan — I am not thinking about how Maria or Camille or Marco will approach the work.  I can’t wait to attach faces to the work and make it more personal. But for now, I will start with guiding principles that give each student purpose. I will remember to always view things from the student’s seat.

The Beauty of a Sentence


I recently finished reading Jeff Anderson’s wonderful Mechanically Inclined.  He offers a smart, systematic approach to introducing grammar and usage into writer’s workshop. For me, one of the true gems of the book is a focus on mentor sentences.

A sentence can say so much. In countless fiction books, one sentence often crystalizes an idea to drive home the author’s point. I often tell my students when I read a gorgeous sentence, I go back to look at the words, at the construction because even though I know all the words…I would not have thought to string them together in that fashion. Great writers are artists and we need to appreciate their art. But equally important, students need to study mentor sentences so they can grow as writers.

For the past month I have been collecting sentences to share with my students. With some sentences I have a lesson idea in mind. With other sentences I am eager for the students to help me uncover what makes the line memorable. Sometimes, I will share a string of two or three sentences because the magic is in how the sentences work together.

As Anderson points out, looking at a sentence takes a short amount of time but the rewards can be bountiful.  Good mentor sentences help students examine author’s craft. Why did the author use a comma? Why that particular adjective? After all, good writers use grammar and style to speak to the reader. The construction of a sentence is at the heart of meaning.

My students will start looking at sentences the first week.  My mentor sentences will lead to students finding their own powerful sentences to share with the rest of us. Then, students can use these guides to polish their own writing.

Here are some of the beauties I found in my reading so far this summer:

“I had heard of Billie Holiday, the jazz and blues singer, but I’d never really listened to her sing. Her voice mixed with the music like molasses with warm butter.”                                                                                                Jack, Navigating Early (p. 63)

“Humans have so many words, more than they truly need.”                      Ivan, The One and Only Ivan (p.143)

“The energy inside the factory was palpable. Machinery clacked and wheezed. Wheels and cogs married.”                                                           Echo (p59)

“Had father not been holding him, he too might have floated away on the wind, like a dandelion’s white-seeded parachutes.”                            Friedrich, Echo (p.58)

“Hirohito tried to show no change in his face, but he was changing on the inside, where people change when they’re sad or angry.”                Delphine, One Crazy Summer (p. 123)

“The long grass of the dunes tossed its brown seed heads. The smaller pebbles, the ones that were almost sand, skittered across the beach.”  Circus Mirandus (p. 33-34)

“You’d see the shiny, crow-black hair that hung smooth as paper from the top of her head to the bottoms of her earlobes. And you’d see the petite — pixieish, Miss Mallory called the — features of her face.”                                 A Tangle of Knots (p. 13-14)

“At the beginning of summer it always feels like there’s so much time ahead: whole empty calendar pages of sunshine, warm sea breezes, midnight thunderstorms, and running barefoot in the grass.”                   Lily, A Handful of Stars (p. 96)

Now, finding great mentor sentences is like discovering sea glass on an early morning beach walk. I know I have found something shining that I can’t wait to show to others.

Happy sentence hunting!

His Own Bookshelf: One Student’s Quiet Goal

shelf of books

Some lessons in life strike so deep and so true that it is easy to return to the moment.  A couple of years ago I had a student (let’s call him Jonah) who loved books.  Jonah wanted to be part of any conversation about books. He asked friends for recommendations, listened eagerly whenever anyone talked books and kept a “to read” list that was pages long.

In addition to being a book lover, Jonah was a well-liked classmate — always sensitive and encouraging with everyone in the room. It was impossible not to like Jonah.

Our classroom library is fairly large (1,500 books or so) and students are encouraged to read away.  The classroom library belongs to the students and the guidelines for library management are reset with each year’s class. During Jonah’s year the students agreed that to ensure everyone had a chance to read the hottest titles in the classroom, we establish a “three books at a time” limit.  Most of my 100 or so students had at least two or three books checked out regularly. It was wonderful to see the classroom library so well used.

Of course there were always exceptions to the book limit.  If we were heading into a holiday break, students could grab extra books and if a student read quickly everyone was fine with that student checking out the next three or four books in a series.

As the school year progressed, Jonah kept checking out more and more books.  He always assured classmates that he was bringing a couple back the next day but he just had to start the book in his hand. No one objected.

Late in the year I pulled Jonah aside and noted he had a fair number of books out. Fortunately, Jonah’s classmates had filed out of the room before he responded.

In a quiet voice, Jonah said, “Ms. Sanderson I know I have a number of books checked out. I have a small shelf at home next to my bed and it is so exciting to look over and see my own bookshelf filled…I have always wanted my own little collection and having these books all together makes me so happy. I have never had my own books.”

“I will be sure to bring books back tomorrow. Part of me feels bad for keeping these books since I have already read some of them,” Jonah added with his head down.

Jonah is a reader, a true reader and he had never had his own books. For him, happiness is a small shelf filled with books next to his bed. Being a reader is part of his self-definition.

As I look around my own house I know that the things I collect – the things I hold dear – say a lot about who I am and what I value. At twelve, Jonah made a statement loud and clear about what he values.

I told Jonah to leave the books right where they were. I told him the books had found a rightful home and my personal library was filled with gift books too. That afternoon I went to the bookstore and replaced the titles that had now become part of Jonah’s library.

It makes me happy to think about Jonah and his bookshelf. It makes me appreciate the books stacked on my own bedside table. Thanks in part to Jonah I will never take books for granted…isn’t that a gift?

Nesting: Building a Reader Friendly Environment

August is a good month to think about cozy reading spots.  At least once a day I find myself seeking out the perfect spot for reading a book. If the day is not too oppressive here in Northern Virginia I often head to the screen porch.  A comfy chair and a glass of iced tea provide the backdrop for countless happy reading moments at home.

Students need a cozy spot for reading too. During the first week of school last year I shared Amy Hest’s The Reader with my middle school students. Lauren Castillo’s lovely illustrations show a boy and his dog packing up for a snowy adventure outside that culminates with the two friends sharing a book in the ideal wintry locale. I ask my students to talk and write about their favorite reading spots. Some students are quick to name a place or two but others have never found a spot to call home.

Right now I am giving a lot of thought to my classroom environment.  With 120+ sixth graders sharing the classroom daily I need to give careful thought to creating a space that breeds freedom and work at the same time.

There are certain non-negotiables in the classroom space.  First, the classroom needs to have a reading corner. I do not care how old the students are…they need a reading corner. This location is a gathering place — an open space to read, lounge and move around.

IMG_0865 Since this picture was taken, the classroom reading corner has grown to include more comfortable chairs and a greater area. The space needs to accommodate 25 or so students when we gather.

The room also needs a place where students can look for or share book recommendations at the drop of a hat.  There is always a wall open for book suggestions. Students share books in blog posts, book talks and shelf talkers but it is important they own the wall space for talking about books too.

IMG_0875Most importantly, comfortable reading spots are in the eye of the beholder. My students can make themselves at home anywhere they want in the room.  As students squeeze into small corners, lay across desks or grab a pillow to find a solitary space, they are designing their own reading moments.

IMG_0082 IMG_0578

For the next few weeks I will have fun hunting for new chairs, big pillows and throw rugs to help feather our classroom nest. Yes, I will need more desks this year as our student population grows but reading will continue to reign in this middle school classroom.

Nancie Atwell talks about the reading zone as a place where students “left our classroom behind and lived vicariously in their books.”  Getting into the reading zone can be tough in the confines of a 45 minute period amid a fast-paced middle school day. My goal is to help ease the path to reading by giving students the freedom to move about, own their space and read away!