Moving to the Common Core this year has caused big change in our instruction. I’ve challenged myself to rethink how I teach non-fiction so that students gain a greater understanding and appreciation of the genre. For this reason, I reworked my reading and writing non-fiction units so that they are completely intertwined and cohesive. You’ll find those lessons that focused mainly on reading skills in the unit called, “All About Non-fiction” while those centered around writing skills in this unit called, “Informational Writing Project.”
In this sister unit, students apply what they’re learning about non-fiction text structures and features to their non-fiction writing. They’ll spend four weeks choosing, researching, and writing about the topics of their choice. Their completed projects will be a four-chapter book complete with text features. Most of the lessons included in this unit are ones that introduce a step in our writing process. While I’ve listed each as lasting one day, oftentimes each would carry over several days in my classroom. You decide what works best for your students and pace the lessons accordingly.
Today marks the beginning of our next big writing project. I ask students to come to the meeting area with their pencils and writers’ notebooks. Once they’re settled, I ask them about their favorite nonfiction texts. As they give me names of titles or subject, I write each on the board. After I have a fairly lengthy list, I then ask students to help me put the texts into categories. We look at the list and see if we can find commonalities between the titles. One student shares that the books about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harriet Tubman could go together because they are both about famous people. I ask the class if they see other titles that would fit this category. When we do, I begin circling all matching titles in the same color and then making a note of “Famous People” to the side. Students begin to catch on and together we come up with the following categories: people, places, holidays, animals, science, and other. I instructed students to open their writing notebooks to the next free page. On the top, I had them write today’s date and the words, “Nonfiction topics.” Then they put their pencils down as I explained the project.
During the next four weeks, students will become an expert in the topic of their choice. They can choose any subject they want as long as it is nonfiction. They will study it in great detail and write about it even longer. They will spend over a month with this topic, so it must be something they truly are interested in and won’t tire of after a week. I tell them that I will do this right alongside of them and give an example of a topic that would not work for me. For example, I’m interested in basketball. I like to watch live games and sometimes enjoy watching games on TV. However, there’s no way that basketball could keep my attention for a month. Researching it, studying it, talking about it, writing about it… no way. I’d be bored after a week. So - in a moment, we are going to brainstorm possible research topics. I want them to write down several topics that interest them enough to pursue for a month. On their notebook page, I ask each student to draw five to six boxes and label each with categories that interest them. I encourage students to push themselves to think of topics in several categories, such as the ones we listed earlier.
Before beginning to write, I reminded students that they also have a great resource for inspiration already in their writing notebooks. At the beginning of the year, students completed lists of writing prompts and glued each into their notebooks. Two of those lists, “People I’d Like to Meet” and “Things I Wonder About” might be a great place to look for additional topics.
Students go back to their desks and begin working. While they are working, I have independent writing conferences with students who seem stuck or need extra support in getting started.
At the end of the writing time, I have students share what they’ve written with their writing partners. I ask them to read all of their topics rather than just a few and then talk about their choices with their partners. It is my hope that maybe students can pick up additional ideas by listening to what their partners have written. Once students have shared, I tell them that tomorrow they will choose their research topic from their list of ideas and begin writing all they know.