English teachers have long employed mentor texts — pieces that can be studied and imitated as examples of great writing — in their writing lessons. In this Reader Idea, Emma Tsai, an English teacher at Episcopal High School in Houston, and a writer herself, tells us how she teaches with mentor sentences from The New York Times — bite-sized nuggets of excellent writing that her students learn to identify in real-world writing and then use in their own creative pieces.
We love the way she breaks down the sometimes overwhelming task of teaching writing into digestible bites. Students read an article of their choice, identify well-written sentences, and then imitate them in their own piece of writing. She says the results have been astonishing — especially for struggling writers. What makes this lesson work so well? It’s “the combination of seeing writing done well out there in the world, plus their writing and reading about something they already find interesting,” she says.
Best of all, these activities can be used by any teacher with any day’s Times.
Do you teach with The Times? Tell us about it here, or browse our full collection of Reader Ideas.
As an English teacher who is also a writer, I never stop looking for ways for my students to learn writing in an authentic way. I believe writing can be taught and learned, through not only practice but really approaching the craft formulaically until it becomes more natural. Learning to write well means reading strong writing, studying its structure and form, and copying it stylistically until a writer finds his or her own voice.
In my writing classes, I teach grammar principles over the course of a few weeks, which I teach through a PowerPoint presentation with examples of the principles in a few sentences. Then, I have my students use them immediately in a creative writing assignment. After a month or so of such lessons, I’ll focus on grammar in application by sending them to The New York Times website.
The Times is a great source of interesting content and well-written prose. As a publication that features many human interest stories, the newspaper also offers a wide array of topics that can intrigue students of multiple backgrounds and interests.
As a one-to-one laptop school, my students benefit from being able to use the web independently in class. I ask them to access The Times website and I direct them toward a particular article of interest to me, like “In Life’s Last Moments, Open a Window,” an Opinion piece written by a doctor about her hospice patients.
The first thing I do is offer a model of what they’ll do independently in the next few minutes. I identify three sentences that do something well.
For instance, a sentence with an interruption separated by em dashes:
When I re-entered the room, the reclining chair that the patient — a tall, angular man in his 80s — had been thrashing around in had been turned to face out onto the garden and the double doors were open wide.
A short punchy sentence:
All he had wanted was that view.
And a sentence with a strong verb:
All cancers have the power to ravage a body, but each assails in distinctive ways.
Other examples might include the use of independent and dependent clauses, gerunds, absolute phrases and participial phrases.
I then write my own sentences demonstrating each of those strong writing tactics on a completely separate topic.
The students’ task: From the Times website, I ask my students to pick an article of interest to them — either from the home page or by using the search feature to find an article on a particular topic they want to read about, like sports or animals. They then read the article with a highlighter and highlight sentences they feel are particularly well written.
Once they’ve done that, they have to repeat what they see — in at least three sentences — in a piece of creative writing of their own. This might mean adding an impactful introductory sentence, incorporating introductory clauses, varying sentence length, diversifying verb choice or anything else.
This activity teaches my students a number of lessons, whether they are conscious of it or not: that the news can interest them; that good writing can be found everywhere about nearly every kind of topic; that writing isn’t a mysterious, magical talent but can be learned and imitated; and that there are many different types of ways a writer can write well.
Here are a few examples of student-chosen mentor sentences followed by their own writing:
Model: But while his family has welcomed them back, hers is another matter.
Student sentence: But while I have finished packing for the trip, my sister is another matter.
History and philosophy alike counsel that the most practical course is to moderate class conflict, not by pretending it away, but through the self-assertion of the weaker classes and institutionalized recognition of their interests.
Not after long the football team continued to win, not through luck but through strength and togetherness shown by all the players on the team.
Then, below the chimneys, a pigeon cartwheels like a thrown firework through a broken window into the darkness beyond.
Last night it was super cold, like the climate on a high mountain in the winter.
After nearly a year on the run, a pair of star-crossed young lovers are back in the Afghan village where both their love affair and their problems began.
After eight hours of school work, I can finally go back to the comfort and safety of my home.
If I desired it, it was mine as if by birthright, for the simple reason that English was my native tongue.
If I so desire to play sports in college, it is mine for the taking, but that does not mean I do not have to work for it.
But not long afterward, I fell in love with him, not through the charm of performance but through the hallucinatory power of his language.
But not long afterward, I was filled with resentment, not necessarily because I had done something wrong but because I knew how angry it would make my friend.
_________Extending With Vocabulary
I’ve also extended this lesson with vocabulary. For this activity, I pulled words from an SAT book, then had students read the Modern Love essay “Need to Find Me? As My Ham Man.” The piece begins:
The man who sells me ham is the first person who would notice if I were dead. Experience supports this claim.
When my grandmother died unexpectedly three years ago, I left Paris for the funeral without warning any of my local shopkeepers. This led my charcuterie salesman to believe that I myself was dead.
Alarmed by my continued absence, and aware of my daily dining route, he hurried across the street to my wine guy to see if he had any news of me. I’m the human equivalent of a stray dog who wanders from shop to shop in search of whoever will give me a snack.
My wine guy hadn’t seen me in days either, so he called my friend, who explained about the family emergency. When I finally returned from Boston, there was no need to explain where I had been; the whole neighborhood had been alerted. And they turned out with hugs, condolences, even chocolates.
Students then emulated — sentence by sentence — the sentence structure of the piece, and incorporated five SAT words of their choice.
This activity shows students the importance of a punchy sentence, the flexibility of phrases and clauses, and how different sentence beginnings can add energy to prose. Their end result had to flow as a story and make sense, which also taught them cohesiveness and creativity.
Here’s what they came up with:
The man who sells eloquent glassware is the first person who would notice my inevitable death. Experience supports this claim.
When my exorbitant brother died unexpectedly three years ago, I left Paris in a panic not realizing how much damage this inevitable death would deal to the family. This led to a sentimental service.
Alarmed by my continued absence, and assiduous about my dead brother the salesman went on making the small glass hummingbirds with great care. As I learned more and more about my brother and his pricey habits I realized just how inevitable his death was.
My family hadn’t seen my brother in days and missed him so much, so I called a friend to compensate my feelings. When I finally returned home there was nothing to help me grieve.
The man who sells me pencils is very assiduous and not sentimental. He is always working to help me and is happy while doing it. He is aptly about the work when I am having a bad day.
When my dogs left me out of the blue three weeks ago, I left stoically without the pencil man knowing. This made him think that I did not want pencils from him anymore, but truly I still did: I was just upset about the current circumstances.
Scared about my secret disappearance, my pencil man wreaked havoc attempting to find me by asking around and screaming at other vendors. I am the perfect representation of an undercover drama queen: wanting attention, but also by doing it without anyone knowing.
The barista who makes my coffee is the only person who knows my order. She tries to compensate her time by making mine beforehand when there is a long line.
When my boss tells me to get his coffee, I have to leave my house early without letting my dog know. His barks are verbose and unneeded when I wake him up early.
Alarmed by me not being there when he woke up, he very aptly and appropriately, went crazy trying to find me. He is the dog equivalent of a worried and sentimental mother who can’t find her child.
It was inevitable and bound to happen that I would get his order wrong, so he made me go back to Starbucks, which was not a surprise. When I walked in the door, the barista saw me; and immediately started making my usual order. An iced chai latte, with almond milk, and 3 cubes of ice.
The results of these lessons have been astonishing. Students who struggle with papers have turned in amazingly written pieces about playing on the football team, using a 3-D printer and exploring their identity. The combination of seeing writing done well out there in the world, plus their writing and reading about something they already find interesting, makes this lesson work.B:
六个杀手彩图【听】【了】【皇】【帝】【的】【惩】【罚】，【秦】【王】【总】【算】【是】【松】【了】【口】【气】，【皇】【兄】【虽】【说】【是】【惩】【罚】，【但】【和】【安】【已】【经】【先】【被】【他】【揍】【了】【一】【顿】【了】，【就】【算】【是】【不】【罚】【跪】【祠】【堂】【也】【是】【要】【个】【把】【月】【不】【能】【上】【朝】【去】【了】，【让】【他】【在】【家】【闭】【门】【思】【过】【也】【当】【是】【让】【他】【好】【好】【养】【伤】。 【果】【然】，【过】【了】【一】【个】【月】【左】【右】，【姜】【国】【使】【团】【总】【算】【到】【了】【大】【周】【都】【城】。 【皇】【帝】【派】【了】【太】【子】【和】【秦】【王】【世】【子】【一】【起】，【鸿】【胪】【寺】【协】【助】，【招】【待】【姜】【国】【使】【团】，【一】【同】【收】
【当】【夜】【罗】【看】【到】【唐】【绵】【绵】【时】，【整】【个】【人】【都】【惊】【了】，“【绵】【姐】，【你】？” “【怎】【么】？【我】【才】【离】【开】【几】【天】，【就】【不】【认】【识】【了】？”【一】【边】【说】【着】，【眉】【毛】【一】【边】【上】【挑】。 【夜】【罗】【抱】【住】【她】，“【绵】【姐】，【谢】【了】。”【一】【切】【都】【在】【不】【言】【中】。 【唐】【绵】【绵】【嘴】【角】【上】【扬】，“【你】【我】【之】【间】，【不】【需】【要】【这】【么】【客】【气】。” “【好】。” “【那】【和】【我】【说】【一】【说】【接】【下】【来】【的】【计】【划】【吧】。” …… 【另】【一】
【五】【柒】【瞧】【着】【祭】【司】【大】【人】，【许】【久】【未】【曾】【的】，【展】【眉】【笑】【了】【笑】。【心】【头】【暗】【自】【有】【数】。 “【是】。”【五】【柒】【悄】【无】【声】【息】【退】【下】，【隔】【着】【一】【层】【薄】【薄】【的】。 【眼】【神】【有】【些】【空】【蒙】，【似】【是】【想】【到】【了】【些】【甚】【么】【事】【儿】，【却】【又】【掩】【藏】【在】【繁】【华】【落】【锦】【的】【街】【角】【处】，【慢】【慢】【遗】【忘】。 “【五】【柒】。” “【大】【人】【请】【吩】【咐】。”【五】【柒】【隔】【着】【雕】【花】【暗】【纹】【屏】【风】【答】【着】。 “【过】【几】【日】，【咱】【们】【也】【得】【回】【了】，【也】【够】【了】
【这】【种】【氛】【围】【下】【的】【这】【种】【话】，【谁】【能】【顶】【得】【住】，【池】【婉】【儿】【虽】【是】【骄】【纵】，【但】【还】【是】【带】【着】【些】【少】【女】【的】【纯】【真】，【红】【赤】【着】【脸】，【连】【声】【音】【都】【发】【不】【出】【了】，【微】【低】【了】【低】【头】。 【谢】【西】【园】【了】【然】，【迈】【步】【淡】【声】【说】：“【那】【我】【帮】【你】【把】【行】【李】【箱】【拿】【上】【去】【吧】。” 【池】【婉】【儿】【紧】【跟】【在】【男】【人】【身】【后】，【看】【着】【风】【度】【翩】【翩】【的】【男】【人】【背】【身】，【又】【不】【知】【道】【想】【到】【什】【么】，【手】【指】【都】【不】【自】【觉】【的】【蜷】【了】【起】【来】。 【上】【了】【二】【层】
【管】【理】【员】【是】【比】【较】【反】【感】【中】【级】【宇】【宙】【的】【一】【些】【人】【去】【歧】【视】【次】【级】【宇】【宙】【过】【来】【的】【人】，【他】【认】【为】【次】【级】【宇】【宙】【凭】【着】【自】【己】【的】【能】【力】【能】【来】【到】【中】【级】【宇】【宙】【已】【经】【是】【很】【不】【错】【的】【了】，【他】【们】【都】【是】【次】【级】【宇】【宙】【中】【的】【佼】【佼】【者】。 【出】【生】【地】【谁】【也】【无】【法】【选】【择】，【大】【家】【都】【是】【智】【慧】【生】【命】，【这】【样】【的】【歧】【视】【就】【会】【显】【得】【有】【些】【卑】【劣】。【如】【果】【大】【家】【都】【在】【同】【一】【起】【跑】【线】【上】，【谁】【比】【谁】【强】【还】【说】【不】【准】【呢】。【你】【歧】【视】【那】【些】【次】【级】六个杀手彩图【血】【色】【滔】【滔】【分】【外】【骇】【人】，【染】【红】【他】【一】【袭】【青】【绸】【长】【衫】，【一】【头】【束】【好】【的】【发】【散】【落】【开】，【青】【玉】【冠】【碎】【裂】【成】【两】【半】，【落】【在】【血】【泊】【中】，【更】【是】【妖】【娆】【诡】【异】。 【白】【芷】【刚】【来】【就】【瞧】【见】【这】【么】【一】【副】【场】【景】，【手】【中】【的】【食】【盒】【猛】【地】【落】【在】【地】【上】，【撞】【出】【极】【为】【大】【的】【一】【声】【响】。 【再】【看】【时】，【他】【已】【不】【在】【原】【地】，【仓】【皇】【地】【蹲】【在】【予】【安】【面】【前】，【将】【地】【上】【的】【血】【人】【扶】【起】【来】。 “【怎】【么】【回】【事】？”【白】【芷】【声】【音】【很】【冷】
“【董】【子】【瑜】，【你】【倒】【行】【逆】【施】，【为】【祸】【天】【下】，【那】【我】【便】【替】【天】【行】【道】，【除】【了】【你】【这】【祸】【害】，【还】【岚】【岳】【大】【陆】【一】【片】【太】【平】【盛】【世】。”【白】【亦】【云】【霸】【气】【的】【说】【道】。 【天】【泫】【大】【军】【一】【路】【长】【途】【跋】【涉】，【急】【行】【军】，【在】【没】【有】【休】【整】【的】【情】【况】【下】【和】【天】【柠】【交】【战】，【并】【非】【明】【智】【之】【举】，【董】【子】【瑜】【也】【不】【傻】，【不】【如】【先】【行】【后】【撤】，【休】【整】【两】【日】【后】【再】【来】【攻】【城】。 “【传】【令】【全】【军】，【后】【撤】【二】【十】【里】【地】【安】【营】【扎】【寨】。”【董】
“【唉】……”【玉】【茗】【羽】【感】【受】【着】【那】【久】【违】【的】“【毛】【茸】【茸】”，【这】【心】【里】【瞬】【间】【就】【舒】【坦】【了】【许】【多】，【她】【不】【由】【得】【叹】【息】【道】：“【你】【以】【为】【我】【不】【想】【吗】？【我】【这】【么】【做】【也】【是】【有】【我】【的】【目】【的】【的】，【自】【己】【找】【的】【麻】【烦】，【哭】【着】【也】【要】【完】【成】……” “【目】【的】？【什】【么】【目】【的】【啊】？” 【白】【玄】【天】【好】【奇】【的】【问】【道】。 “【你】【还】【不】【懂】，【就】【算】【跟】【你】【说】【了】，【以】【你】【的】【脑】【回】【路】【来】【说】【还】【是】【听】【不】【懂】【的】。”【玉】【茗】【羽】