But, now I'm back, and I wanted to share some of the work that our students are doing with nonfiction writing. You may remember that we began our unit of study on Literary and Practical Nonfiction writing the week before Thanksgiving. We began with a scope and sequence lesson in which we introduced our mentor text, Whales and Dolphins, by Judy Allen and Mike Bostock. We talked about the way nonfiction books are organized and highlighted text features such as tables of contents, headings, indexes (or indices), glossaries, etc. Next, we began to gather content information for our books on seasons. Below is the lesson plan that I used to set up this research.
Literary and Practical Nonfiction
Prewriting Research Lesson
Objective Students will create texts that engage and entertain readers, but that also inform about a topic. In this lesson, we will set students up to do research on their nonfiction topic.
Materials Sky Tree, Thomas Locker
Brainstorming Grid for Winter, Summer, Spring, Fall
Stacks of books about the seasons
Connect Tell students that you have noticed how much they have been learning about the seasons in science recently. Specifically, they have done a lot of noticing about the season of fall. Remind them of the brainstorming grid they filled out for fall last week.
Teach Tell students that when authors get ready to write about a topic, they generally choose one that they know a lot about, one in which they are considered expert. For example, you are going to read the book Sky Tree, by Thomas Locker, who says in the Author’s Note:
“I have spent most of my life learning to paint trees against the ever changing sky. After all these years I still cannot look at a tree without being filled with a sense of wonder.”
Read the book to the students, asking them to pay attention to how Locker’s drawings show how much he knows about trees and the sky and the seasons. Discuss students’ reactions and observations. You may want to make a chart of what they noticed while you read.
Active Engagement Tell students that today you are going to ask that they do some prewriting work for their nonfiction book on the season they each picked. Give students time to choose a book that is all about their season. Ask them to go back to their seats and start to take notes on their brainstorming grid.
Link Tell students that you want them to capture as much information as possible about their topic from the books they are using today. There will be additional time for researching in the next day or two, but writers don’t waste any time when they are researching for a book.
Share Walk around as students are working and take note of students who are doing a good job writing notes on their note-taking grid. Share with the class as you notice this good work.
Locker, T. (1995). Sky Tree. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
The next day, we began to read other Literary and Practical Nonfiction texts in order to study the craft moves of nonfiction authors. I started with our mentor text, Whales and Dolphins, by Judy Allen and Mike Bostock, highlighting their use of flaps throughout the book. They wrote questions on one side of the flap and wrote the answers on the pages beneath the flaps. Several students asked if they could try that, too. "Of course!!!" I answered (with a fist bump!!).
At this point, I thought the writers were ready to begin their picture books. I stapled five sheets of blank white paper together, landscape. Together, we talked about what should be on the cover of their books - title and author name. After checking back into our mentor text, we added a Table of Contents on the first page inside our books. Each student chose 4 subtopics from their brainstorming grids to include as sections in their books.
The next day, I read Bat Loves the Night, by Nicola Davies. Below is the lesson plan for that day.
Literary and Practical Nonfiction
Lesson 2 - Including Factual Information
Objective Students will create texts that engage and entertain readers, but that also inform about a topic. In this session we will consider how factual information is included in text.
Materials Bat Loves the Night, Nicola Davies
Connect Remind students that literary nonfiction means writing a book that is fun to read but that also teaches readers about something. Yesterday we looked at many books that engaged readers but also informed about a topic. Today we will read and study Bat Loves the Night, by Nicola Davies.
Teach First, take a picture walk through the book. Look closely at the cover, inside the jacket, and the first pages. Ask students to share what they notice:
- Cover - a picture of a bat flying at night - looks real.
- Inside - sketched pictures of different kinds of bats.
- Facts about bats and the names of different bats written around the pictures.
- Any other noticings from students…
Read Bat Loves the Night. Ask the students to first listen to the story as readers, enjoying the text and listening for facts. Discuss. What did they see in the pictures? What did they learn about bats from the words? Was it a story? Next, read it again and ask the students to try to listen as writers, being alert for specific strategies and techniques that Nicola Davies used to make her book informative.
Active Engagement Invite students to share their thoughts with their neighbors and listen in. Call the class back together and share some of the students’ ideas. Add them to the Literary Nonfiction Chart.
Link Tell students that they may decide to include their nonfiction facts like Davies did by placing them around the illustrations in the story. This is one way writers teach readers about a topic.
Share Walk around the room as the students work and choose one or two writers to share their work at the end of the session. Be sure to highlight the good writer and illustrator work they are doing.
Assessment You may want to carry around an anecdotal note observation sheet upon which you can keep notes on what you see the students are trying as you begin this new unit. These notes can inform your teaching going forward.
Davies, N. (2001). Bat Loves the Night. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
And this is where the game plan shifted...
As I walked around the room, I noticed that the students were overwhelmed with the blank space in their books. Their handwriting was sloppy because there were no lines. There seemed to be a lot of hesitation as they tried to understand what they were supposed to write about. Not much was being written. At all.
And then, thank goodness, there was Thanksgiving break. Thank goodness because over the break, I had time to reflect. And I came to the conclusion that this class of writers needed more support. A lot more support. So, I switched to a type of paper with handwriting lines across the bottom half of the paper and less white space at the top. When we came back from break, I introduced the new paper to them and retaught the lesson above.
The results were stunning! Most of the students got busy writing their sentences immediately. The hesitation and confusion of the week before was gone. Below is one author's page on Outdoor Activities in summer.
So, that's where we are right now. I will catch you up on the next few lessons next week. But, I am feeling much better about this unit of study now that the students are fully involved in the writing. In my memories of the year I taught first grade, the writers didn't seem to struggle with the blank pages. But, this class of students was clearly at a loss. I have to remind myself that this is the first picture book for these authors and that confidence in facing a blank page is a learned skill. It will take time.
As teachers, we must also take time, time to reflect on our practice. To notice what is and what is not working and to tweak our instruction to match our students' needs. We can pull out last year's lesson plans; but we sure better be thinking about this year's students as we design our learning progressions.
Reflect, rethink, refresh.