After a 5-day gradual release series of lessons that helped students immerse themselves in informational paragraph writing, my students had a solid foundation from which to build on their skills related to informational paragraph writing.
However, the prospect of teaching shared research and writing projects, which was to be today's focus, frankly scared me. I had never attempted something like this before beginning to implement CCSS, and I thought that it was really stretching first graders capabilities.
I decided that a first step was to train my students to have conversations where they were really listening to each other, and not just taking turns saying different things (Speaking and Listening 1). We have practiced bits and pieces of conversation and I am now focusing on what we call the 4Ls; based on AVID. They are: Look at the speaker; lean forward; lower your voices; and listen attentively. Soon I will be spending a few minutes each day having "model" conversations, and later I will start them on oral presentations with a question and answer components. Teaching them to have truly collaborative conversations will be a long term process, but when I taught this lesson I felt confident that they could talk about the assigned topic and about the books I would give them.
Most of my students have pets, and we had read several stories about pets. Our anthology had a story about taking care of pets, and reading it together provided the perfect launching platform to write a list of things to do to take care of pets.
I divided the class in heterogeneous groups of three and gave each group some books on pets and taking care of them (I emptied the corresponding section in the school library). I told them to glance through them and agree on a pet they wanted to focus on.
As I circulated, I helped them reach a compromise when they could not agree on a pet. Once they had chosen a pet, I guided them towards brainstorming on what they would need to take care of it. I also modeled looking for information on the book. We had previously worked on obtaining information from captions and diagrams, which helped with the books that were too long and difficult.
Once they had the opportunity to explore the books I had given them, I told them it was time to make a poster explaining how to take care of the pet they had selected. They were very excited when I gave them large unlined chart paper and markers. Sometimes a little change (in this case not writing on paper with pencil and crayons) can make an activity special, motivate them, and lead to superior results.
I stopped the activity when I noticed some of the kids were disengaging from the group and some were starting unrelated conversations. There is no formula for knowing when to stop such an activity. I find that it helps if I have a flexible timeframe. Then I can stop before it stops being effective, and I can continue a bit if stopping would frustrate most of them.
I was very happy with the results, and the quality of writing exceeded my expectations. They all wanted to write, and each group was monitoring for writing conventions. They clearly wanted to create something they could be proud of. You can see some samples in the resource section.
To end the lesson, I selected a sample and called the group to the front of the room. I read the poster to the class and praised all for a good job.