Once you become comfortable with teaching grammar, you will be able to pull grammar mentor sentences from literature.
Today, my students and I read Act IV of Romeo and Juliet. Juliet says to Paris, “I will confess to you that I love him.” What is the antecedent of “him”? To Juliet, “him” is “Romeo.” Paris thinks she is referencing him.
It was the perfect opportunity to use domain-specific language and to discuss antecedents, pronouns, and purposeful use of syntax. Grammar and language in context—it makes my heart sing. The entire conversation was probably a minute, but it added another layer of retrieval for my students. I have not done direct instruction of pronouns for months, but my students did remember the terms and could identify the situation.
The incident made me wonder what other mentor sentences from literature I could find. I went on a grammar hunt and sought my favorite classics.
I started with “I, Too” by Langston Hughes:
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Hughes is my favorite poet, but I never realized the effect starting and ending this stanza with adverbs had. Adverbs move the action along. The opening and closing provide a sense of wonder, a pause.
Maybe that is why I enjoy that poem? His purposeful use of descriptors gives me a feeling of progression and promise.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
To be left alone on the tightrope of youthful unknowing is to experience the excruciating beauty of full freedom and the threat of eternal indecision.
I taught Caged Bird in its entirety for the first time this past year, but I always finesse this line into a creative writing class. Every word in that sentence matters, counts.
Why is youth a tightrope? Young age is certainly a time of unknowing, of not realizing what you don’t know.
Does youth provide “full freedom”? Students always argue that point, and from knowing what the public understands about trauma now compared to when Angelou wrote this, I always listen to my students when they argue that point. Some relish that they have freedom, and for that, I’m happy. Others question freedom in youth, and I remind them that “excruciating beauty” was used to describe it.
The modifiers haunt me in this quote: excruciating, eternal. So specific, so haunting.
A Raisin in the Sun
Mama to Beneatha:
Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well then, you ain’t through learning—because that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ’cause the world done whipped him so! When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right.
That portion from Mama might be my favorite line in Raisin
, and that play has some fabulous ones. The direct address of “child” characterizes Mama: she is the matriarch, and she is leading her family through troublesome times.
As I’ve read this play numerous times over the years, I am increasingly impressed how Hansberry built each character’s dialogue. This quote is the perfect mentor sentence to teach colloquialism.
The Great Gatsby
So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.
Fitzgerald allows Nick to reflect on Gatsby’s behavior now that Nick understands Gatsby. Since I’ve read The Great Gatsby
countless times, it seems this quote has a bit of foreshadowing with “the end.”
Two points strike me about this quote. One, the sentence structure is a tad inverted. The prepositional phrase “to this conception” might work after “faithful” as well, but the reading of it has a cadence. Second, the sentence begins with “so.” That conjunction works perfectly as a transition. The feeling from the sentence is that Nick is drawing a conclusion, and the wording adds to that feeling.
Catcher in the Rye
The beginning or the end? Let’s do both:
I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy.
Don’t tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.
What makes teenagers read this book? Sure, the story is relatable. The language is crisp and authentic.
Salinger Holden uses stream of consciousness to tell his story, making pieces of Catcher in the Rye perfect mentor sentences.
I probably would not use a Shakespeare text as a mentor text for writing, but I do find his plays rich with language to study for concepts like end stop and enjambment. Do you use Shakespeare as mentor texts?
Those five authors brought us beautiful texts, and I hope you can use those sentences in your students writing and language studies.
Note: I literally (honestly and truthfully) started this blog post eleven months ago. Every time I went hunting for lines from my favorite classics, I read and reread. Basically, I hope you have as much fun as I did with mentor sentences from literature.