Creating mini-units of study in writing workshop: writing to bear witness.

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In my sixth grade class, we cycle through a set of genres every Writing Workshop year: personal narrative, memoir, feature article, poetry, profiles, and persuasive letters and research based essays.  Taken together, these make for a jam-packed year of writing.  And yet, every once in a while, an idea for something new to add to our writing territories comes along, and this is the story of our latest writing venture:

In March of last year, I wrote the following Slice of Life:

“As a writing teacher, I want my kids to know that there are many reasons we write, just as there are many types of writing we need to figure out how to do, and do well.  We write for pleasure, we write to tell stories, we write to inform, and we write to persuade…but this Sunday’s New York Times made me think about another reason we write: to bear witness.  Several weeks ago, the Times’ chief Middle East correspondent Anthony Shadid died  during a daring mission to cross the border into Syria and report on the latest of the  revolutions that began with the Arab Spring.  Shadid was a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who had covered the Middle East for many years, and his incisive writing was always a pleasure to read.

I remember many times thinking to myself even as I was reading about far-off events in Baghdad and Ramallah – he must have put himself in real danger to be able to tell this story.  And so it was when I read that he had been captured and gone missing in Libya, I assumed the worst…but Shadid escaped and lived to write about his experiences.

In just about every photograph I’ve seen of Shadid, he has a notebook in his hand – he is often surrounded by people, and they seem just as eager to tell him their stories, as he is to record what they say.  He carried his form of a writer’s notebook everywhere, and his writing speaks to the fact that he sketched out more than just facts – his articles are alive with a sense of place and the personalities and feelings of all those he came across:

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Today’s  article was written by the photographer who partnered with Shadid on most of his reporting, Tyler Hicks.  Apart from being a journalistic account of the events during which Shadid died, it is also a testament to those writers among us who write to bear witness – to tell us of events we need to know, about how people are affected by those events, about why we need to pay attention.”

I shared the story of Anthony Shadid with my students last year, and we spent some time talking about reporters, the courageous work they do, and how these “writers who bear witness” craft their stories to both inform people as well as move them to action.  My students were quickly fascinated; they wanted to read other articles, study the work of other journalists, and learn more about events they felt they should be paying attention to. And so a mini writing unit of study was born.

Right after our “testing week” was over, I printed out a stack of articles I had been setting aside, articles such as these (the current set I’m assembling for this year) :

Despite Decades of Enmity, Israel Quietly Aids Syrian Civilians

On the Run From War, Syria’s Children Grow Up Fast

Invisible Child: Dasani’s Homeless Life

We read these first with partners and then with small groups, charting:

  • content – what was the heart of this story? what did we learn?
  • slant and tone – what craft moves did the authors use to tell their story? How did the writer’s intentional use of word choice and sentence structure affect the telling of the story? What did this story make you feel?
  • why do we need to pay attention to this story?

We chose one article of special interest, and met in small groups to do a bit of research about the topics in these articles.  I love this part of the process because it becomes cross disciplinary as we studied maps, researched cities and countries, and learned about things we never even guessed about until we read our articles.

The unit then moved into its writing phase, in which I gave my kids some choice in deciding how they would like to express what they learned and how they had been made to pay attention.  Here are some of the options my kids chose last year:

  • letters to the journalists to tell them how much they learned from the articles
  • letters to specific people mentioned in the articles
  • editorials in response to the issues mentioned

Our impromptu, “let’s give this a whirl” mini unit proved to be such a great success that we are doing it again this year.  We will study the work of writers who bear witness – to become better writers, and better citizens of the world.