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.
Students have been elbow deep in research for several days now - using both books and the internet. Before we get too far into the process, I want to pause for a whole group check in to make sure we’re all on the right path. As we meet together, I explain this to students, as it is the focus of today’s writing lesson.
I tell students that sometimes when we are learning about a topic in which we’re interested, it’s easy to get carried away learning new information and just write down everything we find that sounds interesting. However, as writers we need to keep our purpose in mind. For this project, our focus is not just to learn about a topic, but it’s also to learn it well enough to teach. When we write informational texts, others will read our work to learn about a topic. Just like when we read non-fiction informational texts. Yes, we pick up the text because we are interested in its topic. But, we really pick up this kind of text in order to learn from it.
Earlier in the unit, you chose four chapters for your informational book. These are the areas about your topic that you have chosen to study. As we’ve collected research, it would be very easy to focus on only one part of our topic (one chapter) or even to collect information that isn’t related at all to what we’ve chosen to study. Today’s lesson is about being analytical. I tell students that “analyzing” is just a big word for looking closely at something. During workshop today, they will take a close look at their research, see what chapters might need a little attention, and then make a plan to give it just that!
I use my own “research” as a model. I post my bellybutton research notes from my notebook on the SmartBoard for everyone to see. I begin with the first chapter and read it aloud. As I read, I stop when I notice that a certain fact doesn’t really match up with the chapter that I’ve written it in. So I model the thinking process, “Here’s where we come to analyzing our information. I’ve decided that this fact just doesn’t fit with this chapter. That was the easy part. Now, I need to decide what to do with it. I really only have two options. First - is it a fact that would fit well with another chapter? If so, then I move it to the correct one. The second option is getting rid of it all together because it doesn’t go with any of my chapters - I must have written it down just because it caught my interest! As I read over my chapter titles and think about the focus of each, I’ve decided that this fact really belongs in my third chapter. Now, today isn’t about revising or editing whole paragraphs and chapters. Today is just about determining if we have the right kinds of information and what else we still need to collect. So, should you decide that a fact needs to be removed completely from your project, cross it out. However, if you decide that it should be moved, simply star it and make a note about which chapter it should go instead.” I model this by putting a star and the number 3 by this sentence. I then explain that we’ll work on moving and rearranging sentences in another lesson.
Students return to their work area to begin analyzing their data. While they are working, I either walk the room offering help as needed or conduct writing conferences.
When our work time is up, I gather students’ attention one more time for our final step. I explain that the last step is to make a list of the topics that need a little extra attention (more information). “Of your four chapters, you probably have some chapters that are nearly complete with information while others have very little. Make a list of those chapters that really need your attention so that tomorrow when we visit the computer lab again, you will have a specific focus for your research.” I give students a few minutes to complete their lists and then have them put all materials away. As explained, the lists will hold students accountable for the time spent in the lab and give them a better understanding of how much work they still have to do.