Monday, May 10, 2010

Using models with students

by Tara Seale

Recently, my 7th grade son wrote a news article related to the book he was reading in his English class. Unfortunately, he was not sure where to begin. With most students, the first sentence seems to be the hardest. I told him he should be sure to include when, where, what, why, and how, and he looked at me like I was crazy if I thought that was going to help him.
After further questioning, he told me he was writing about a chapter in which a sinkhole destroyed a building. He wrote down the facts, but his vocabulary and sentence structure were awkward and did not meet the "sound professional" requirement of the assignment.
We scanned our newspaper for articles about storms and other disasters in our state. He read like a writer and noticed how the authors began articles. He examined the difference in his sentence structure and the vocabulary used by the newspaper reporters. He revised what he had written to mimic the same sentence structure, tone, and vocabulary in the article we picked as a model. Once he had a guide, he rewrote his article. He used the same sentence format, but adjusted the sentences to reflect what he was writing about. My husband said that his sentences sounded like someone in college wrote them, and of course they did because the model he used was not written by a 7th grader. The words he pulled out of the articles were also not 7th grade words.
His simple, awkward article was at once transformed. He searched on the internet for pictures to include in his article and even added subtitles to explain the pictures. He formatted the beginning of the article to have a byline, much like the article in the newspaper. His end result was an article that he could not have achieved without the help of using a professional example. Writers trying to break into the profession of writing study the sentence structure and vocabulary of professional writers in order to develop into better writers, so I question why I do not do more of this in my own classroom.
My students use model sentences as guides, but probably not as extensively as they could.
For example, until I worked through this assignment with my son, it had never occurred to me to use a news article as a model for my students. I was so pleased with the differences in the drafts from the first, second, third, and finally his last attempt, that I plan to incorporate this assignment into my classroom. I started bookmarking online news articles, specifically disaster related articles. My students could craft news articles that relate the details and exploits of Odysseus or the snow and fire chapter in To Kill a Mockingbird.
It isn't an easy process though. After all of his re-writes, he hoped he would never have me as a teacher, but he was also impressed with himself at the same time.
You can read his article on his blog page:


kathleen jensen said...

You're so right! I find I'm looking for models all the time now- especially in what we read as models for how we write. We're finishing out the spring with my freshmen using House on Mango street as models for personal narrative writing. It has energized the teaching of the novel and their writing. Thanks for the reminder/encouragement to model.

SG said...

I'm wondering how closely you use models. I teach English and I'm thinking about the benefits of having my students mimic a sentence: to actually follow the grammar of a sentence word for word, basically plugging in their own words to make an original sentence. Do you know of any resource that might be helpful in this department?