Thursday, November 8, 2012

Refreshing Ideas to Teach Informational Writing

During the TCRWP Saturday reunion, I was excited to attend Jerry Maraia's workshop titled, "A State-of-the-Art New Unit on Information Writing:  Tools for Assessing Information Writing Alongside New Unit Plans, Mini-lessons and Expectations."  It was only 50 minutes, but boy, did he hit that title!  I furiously took notes (& pictures- ah, how the iPad has transformed my note-taking) to come back and share the information with colleagues. 

We know that the purpose of informational writing is to inform, and we also know that there are many different types, or genres, of writing that can inform an audience.  Jerry started by reviewing the types of writing that live within the purpose to inform. 

Here's a quick list of informational types, or genres, that Jerry shared: 
  • fact sheets
  • news articles
  • feature articles
  • blogs
  • websites
  • scientific and historical reports
  • analytic memos
  • "how to" books
  • directions
  • research reports/non-fiction books
  • directions
  • recipes and
  • applications
One thing that I loved about the list above is that often, teachers think of non-fiction writing (and reading) as just biographies, text-books, or news articles.  But, there is so much to learn from websites, blogs, and even written directions.  I love the idea of studying different blogs and then having students create one of their own based on the topic of their choice...  talk about authentic (and relevant) learning!  Teachers can get so bogged down with worry about resources and having all the materials in the classroom, but we could also just turn on a computer and have so many different mentor texts and opportunities to teach information reading and writing at our fingertips! 

The focus of this workshop was the creation of non-fiction books, but these strategies could be used to guide the collecting, drafting, revising and publishing for any of the above types. 

Like Chris Lehman discusses in his fantastic book, Energize Research Reading and Writing, we must raise the level of engagement with non-fiction to push students to write MORE.  Giving students mentor texts to study and analyze can model important "moves" that authors use that students can try with their own topics.  I see a lot of models passed out to kids... "Here's a model, read this and try it," without a lot of conversation about the writer's moves.  What did the writer DO to make this information come alive?  How did the writer craft this paragraph to give us a whole lot of information in a really engaging way?  What is the structure of this writing?  These questions and mentor texts give students a vision and purpose for a piece and give students a model for the work expected of them. 

Using the on-demand writing pieces to guide our teaching points and instructional topics throughout the unit is an important first-step to assess the needs of the students. Then, Jerry suggested spending less time on the collecting phase of the writing process, and instead, having students dive right into new topics after some structured and collaborative talk with peers.  Students should choose topics that:  (1) show their expertise, (2) have ideas that they can teach to others, and (3) they wish there was a book that existed on the topic.

We want students to explore their topic using many different angles.  Let's say I'm writing a non-fiction book about being a maid-of honor in a wedding.  And, yes, I have become an expert on that topic, and yes, I do wish a book would be written about it.  :)  I'm going to crack open my topic by looking at it through many different angles.  What can I teach someone about being a maid-of-honor?  I can think of the parts/duties of being a maid of honor:  throwing the bridal shower, organizing the bachelorette party, attending dress fittings, being there for the bride through her planning process, writing a speech and paying for the events.  Or, I could think of the topics that I could cover as a different angle:  duties, planning events, calming the bride down, materials to buy.  As I dig deeper, my thinking should change across ideas.  I might try out many different ideas like a pro/con list of being a maid of honor (pro: the honor of being part of the most important day of a friend's life; con: cost).  Maybe I would try a cause/effect  (if you get input from all the bridesmaids about the shower, then you will be trying to please everyone all the time because of the many different ideas.)  I'll practice all this thinking out in my notebook and talk it out with my peers to narrow my topics into sub headings.  I'll ask myself which topics/ideas that I want to cover in my book as I begin to structure it. I'll also think of the places where I might need to go find some new information, or research, to back up my claims.  Above are two pictures of Jerry's examples in his writer's notebook exploring compare/contrast and cause/effect about New York City transportation. 

As students draft their books, they come back to their notebooks for revision and to "see again" their ideas throughout the whole process.  This helps students to focus on the audience, task, and purpose of their topic throughout each step of the writing process. 

This unit hits so many English Language Arts Common Core State Standards.  Giving students the information as mentors and then sending them off to make strategic decisions based on their knowledge base and topic also aligns to higher levels in Webb's Depth of Knowledge.  Students are studying text with the purpose to transfer the skills and strategies into their own work.  And, as an added bonus:  students are analyzing text structures that may help their reading of non-fiction text across many non-fiction text types.  Thanks, Jerry, for an inspiring introduction to a strong, state-of-the art unit to help our students think deeper and more meaningfully. 

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