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.
In yesterday’s lesson, each student selected her research project topic and then wrote all she knew about it - kind of like the “K” of a KWL chart. In today’s lesson, students will complete the “W” section.
I ask students to come to the meeting area with their writing notebooks and pencils. We briefly review the work we completed yesterday as we open up our writing notebooks to a new page. I ask students to write today’s date and the words, “What I Want to Know About _____ (their topic).” I explain that by the end of the period, they will have chosen their four chapters in their informational texts. I love the looks this gets from students. They still don’t believe that they will actually be writing a non-fiction book, much less one with four chapters. Some give me looks of pure excitement while others looks of terror. To help calm them a bit, I tell them that they have completed similar work before. They’ve chosen topics and researched information in certain categories. That’s all we’re doing here - but this time they’ll just write a little more about each category and include text features for each. No worries!
On their pages, I’d like them to write down all they want to know about their topics. What interests them, what questions do they want answered, what else do they want to learn about that topic, etc. They can do this in paragraph form, list, or graphic organizer - however they like. Again I encourage them to not stop after they’ve exhausted their initial ideas, but if they get stuck, just take a break to think for a few moments and begin writing again.
Students go back to their desks and begin writing. While they are working, I either circulate the room offering assistance or hold conferences with those students who need a little extra support.
At the end of the writing time, I point students’ attention to my own list. As I explained to students earlier, I’m going to write my own informational book along with them. I write the topic “bellybuttons” and then listed all I want to know about them on my chart paper. For your own modeling topic, choose one that will catch and keep students’ attention. They’ll have to hear about your topic just as long as you’ll have to hear about theirs!
To begin the modeling process, I quickly read over my list. I explain that I need to pick four topics from the page that would work well as chapters for my book. Not every idea will make a good chapter. For example: innies vs. outies. Have you ever wondered why some people have bellybuttons that stick out while others don’t? I have. I’m not an expert in this field yet, but I’m guessing this could be a topic that would require a decent amount of research and provide me with plenty to write about. I can also visualize potential text features such as diagrams, illustrations, captions, and maybe even a graph. All of this lets me know that I’ve probably found what will make a good chapter in my book.
I have students examine their lists and put stars by the topics they want to use as their chapters. I give them about ten minutes to complete this task.
Once the writing time is up, I explain the last step. Students look over their topics, turn them into cohesive chapter titles, and put them in an order that makes sense. I use mine as a model. I’ve come up with:
- Innies vs. Outies
- Bacteria that grow inside
- What is a bellybutton?
In order to make my titles cohesive and have a flow, I change them all to questions. I explain that students don’t have to use this strategy, but that it’s just one way to make your titles go together. Next, I rearrange them to improve the order. Students could also use this strategy of sequencing their titles so that their book has a great flow. My revised chapters look like this:
- What is a bellybutton?
- What’s the difference between innies and outies?
- What kinds of bacteria grow in our bellybuttons?
- What’s the best way to keep it clean?
I give students about ten minutes to turn their chapter ideas into titles and then arrange in a proper order. I circulate while students work and provide additional time to complete the task, if needed.