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February 15, 2018

Writing to Teach

By Julie Ballew
Grades 3–5, 6–8

    As February continues to fly by us, my fifth graders are diving deep into nonfiction units of study in both reading and writing. Our reading unit has been focused on exploring all of the ways that the nonfiction texts they choose get increasingly complex as they get older and become more proficient readers. Our writing unit is a research unit, and we’ve spent time refining skills like curating information, examining source credibility, and citing sources.

    In an effort to make the most of our instructional time together (always too short!), we are integrating our writing work with our current social studies unit, which is a study of ancient civilizations. We wrapped up a study of Ancient Egypt in December, and we’re currently working our way through Ancient Greece. For their independent research projects, my students were allowed to choose any topic in Ancient Egypt or Ancient Greece that they wanted to study further. The resulting topic list included everything from architecture to beauty standards, and the kids have done a great job applying all of the strategies for researching that we’ve discussed.

    I’m a big believer in process over product, so as we began this unit, I was consumed with the research work they were doing, and I hadn’t given the end product much thought. I suppose I just thought they’d turn their notes into a typical research paper, and that would be the end of it. I slowly began preparing myself for the large stack of those papers I’d have to take home and grade. Then a series of observations during reading workshop changed my mind.

    One day a few weeks ago, I was watching with wonder the high levels of engagement as my students read self-selected nonfiction texts. I have a lot of voracious readers this year, but this reading experience was decidedly different from their experience in fiction. I saw clumps of children gathered around a single book, and I noticed how they kept popping up to share an especially interesting image or share a favorite passage. It was a noisier workshop, but every bit of noise was on task and productive. I began to wonder how I could help my students create nonfiction writing that was this engaging for their readers. How could they turn a study of Greek columns into something they couldn’t wait to share with a neighbor?

    Over the next few days, I took note of which books were passed around most frequently, and I gathered those books into a stack of potential mentor texts. I then told my students that instead of writing traditional research papers, we would be using all of our research to create high-interest nonfiction books. I challenged them to figure out how to teach their readers and have them begging for more. I explained to them that I’d noticed how they huddled around books like the Ripley’s Believe It or Not series and this book about Hurricane Katrina. We took time to look through some of those books and others from the DK Eyewitness series, and we made notes about what attracted us to them. We quickly realized that while content was important, interest was often driven by the unique formatting or text features in the book. This led to a discussion of how writers of nonfiction make decisions to engage their readers. My students quickly realized that they currently had lists of facts, and they had to figure out a way to share them in an interesting way. These texts became great mentors for that work.

     

    The next day, we paused our research and took a day to think about structure. Students began to envision what their books might look like based on an interesting timeline they had seen or a cool infographic that really caught their eye. They created mock books and sketched possible layouts based on what they saw in their favorite mentor texts.

     

     

    Once they had a framework in mind, it drove their future research work, because they had a visual for which sections needed more substance and which sections called for more images. I couldn’t believe how much more focused they were as we moved forward.

    Now, students are working on turning their notes into interesting paragraphs of text to plug into the layouts they created. I love watching them write and revise to make sure they are grabbing the reader’s attention. There is more partner work happening in my current writing classes than we’ve had all year. They are still in the drafting stages, but I’m pleased with the work they are creating right now, and I feel confident that they understand their job as writers of nonfiction. We may not be writing research reports, but they are still trying to teach the reader. They are writing in a way that is engaging and exciting, and as an added bonus, I am much more excited to grade the final products!

    As February continues to fly by us, my fifth graders are diving deep into nonfiction units of study in both reading and writing. Our reading unit has been focused on exploring all of the ways that the nonfiction texts they choose get increasingly complex as they get older and become more proficient readers. Our writing unit is a research unit, and we’ve spent time refining skills like curating information, examining source credibility, and citing sources.

    In an effort to make the most of our instructional time together (always too short!), we are integrating our writing work with our current social studies unit, which is a study of ancient civilizations. We wrapped up a study of Ancient Egypt in December, and we’re currently working our way through Ancient Greece. For their independent research projects, my students were allowed to choose any topic in Ancient Egypt or Ancient Greece that they wanted to study further. The resulting topic list included everything from architecture to beauty standards, and the kids have done a great job applying all of the strategies for researching that we’ve discussed.

    I’m a big believer in process over product, so as we began this unit, I was consumed with the research work they were doing, and I hadn’t given the end product much thought. I suppose I just thought they’d turn their notes into a typical research paper, and that would be the end of it. I slowly began preparing myself for the large stack of those papers I’d have to take home and grade. Then a series of observations during reading workshop changed my mind.

    One day a few weeks ago, I was watching with wonder the high levels of engagement as my students read self-selected nonfiction texts. I have a lot of voracious readers this year, but this reading experience was decidedly different from their experience in fiction. I saw clumps of children gathered around a single book, and I noticed how they kept popping up to share an especially interesting image or share a favorite passage. It was a noisier workshop, but every bit of noise was on task and productive. I began to wonder how I could help my students create nonfiction writing that was this engaging for their readers. How could they turn a study of Greek columns into something they couldn’t wait to share with a neighbor?

    Over the next few days, I took note of which books were passed around most frequently, and I gathered those books into a stack of potential mentor texts. I then told my students that instead of writing traditional research papers, we would be using all of our research to create high-interest nonfiction books. I challenged them to figure out how to teach their readers and have them begging for more. I explained to them that I’d noticed how they huddled around books like the Ripley’s Believe It or Not series and this book about Hurricane Katrina. We took time to look through some of those books and others from the DK Eyewitness series, and we made notes about what attracted us to them. We quickly realized that while content was important, interest was often driven by the unique formatting or text features in the book. This led to a discussion of how writers of nonfiction make decisions to engage their readers. My students quickly realized that they currently had lists of facts, and they had to figure out a way to share them in an interesting way. These texts became great mentors for that work.

     

    The next day, we paused our research and took a day to think about structure. Students began to envision what their books might look like based on an interesting timeline they had seen or a cool infographic that really caught their eye. They created mock books and sketched possible layouts based on what they saw in their favorite mentor texts.

     

     

    Once they had a framework in mind, it drove their future research work, because they had a visual for which sections needed more substance and which sections called for more images. I couldn’t believe how much more focused they were as we moved forward.

    Now, students are working on turning their notes into interesting paragraphs of text to plug into the layouts they created. I love watching them write and revise to make sure they are grabbing the reader’s attention. There is more partner work happening in my current writing classes than we’ve had all year. They are still in the drafting stages, but I’m pleased with the work they are creating right now, and I feel confident that they understand their job as writers of nonfiction. We may not be writing research reports, but they are still trying to teach the reader. They are writing in a way that is engaging and exciting, and as an added bonus, I am much more excited to grade the final products!

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Susan Cheyney

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