Miss, where’s the sentence starters?

“How do I start Miss?” Johnny asks if I don’t have the sentence starters on the board.

“Yeah! What do we write?”

“You know what to write!” I respond, frustrated. “We’ve just been over this!”

“Yeah but it sounds better when you start it.”

So my question is, does it help or hurt students to be given sentence starters?

We know that scaffolding student work helps them organise their throughts. We know that giving students tips for what information to include also helps, in much the same way that it helps me to know what to put into a new type of writing I might be trying. But just like I would feel as if the work was not my own were I to use someone else’s sentence starter, I wonder if students too feel less authentic, like the work isn’t quite theirs, when they use my sentence starters.

And along these lines, I wonder if it stunts student progress if they always use sentence starters, if they expect to be given them before they work, and if they are unable to produce writing without them. Are they then spending valuable revision time memorising a teacher’s sentence starters rather than actually learning material that matters? Do these starters then become a crutch that stops students from walking properly?

I argue that this is the case. I hate sentence starters.

Let’s look at Dan Willingham’s book, Why Students Don’t Like School, for some insight. Right on page three, I find some helpful guidance: “People like to solve problems, but not to work on unsolvable problems” (3)

And then again, a few pages later:

“Solving problems brings pleasure…working on solving a problem with no sense that you’re making progress is not pleasurable. In fact, it’s frustrating.” (10)

So, I will take from the above that, if students need a sentence starter, one of two things is the issue:

1. The problem is too difficult for them at this point and they need more knowledge before attempting it

2. They are dependent on them, which means they can’t solve problems themselves which means they don’t know the pleasure they might feel should they do it themselves. This is not to say that scaffolding identity helpful. The sentence starter verbatim is, however, not helpful but rather a hindrance to progress.

Kids have a hard enough time trusting their instincts, trusting their thoughts and ideas, without us straight-jacketing them into a perfect box of sentence starters, information-include, outlines, and other “helpful hints.” This is not to say that “ideas to include” is a bad idea, for I believe guidance is essential. Sentence starters is a step too far.

But do I dare get rid of them? What would happen to my lessons?
An interesting challenge.

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