Putting Into Practice What I Learned about Authentic Information Writing From Ralph Fletcher

The Monday morning after Ralph Fletcher’s presentation on Authentic Information Writing at Vassar College, I gathered my sixth graders at our reading area and shared what I had heard and learned, then we read Fletcher’s “Interview With a Coho Salmon”: an information article about the life cycle of this type of salmon written in an interview format, replete with corny jokes and lots of information:

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My kids groaned and laughed at the puns and jokes, but there was also plenty of “Woah! I didn’t know that!” and “Huh, that’s so cool to know.” Finally, they wanted to know: “Can we write something like this – it would be SO much fun!”

Music to this writing teacher’s ears.

So, I offered the following guidelines for our new mini-unit of study – The Information Interview:
* choose a partner to collaborate with (it would be ideal to work in groups of two, but our class size is, of course, an uneven number)
* decide on a specific topic of mutual interest (it could be one you researched and wrote about for our just completed Feature Articles)
* create a web or box and bullet the points you wish to cover in your interview
* frame those points as questions and create a logical flow for those questions – be sure to include at least one follow up question
* frame responses to those questions – include definitions, statistics, surprising information, facts…and jokes/puns
have fun!

I was amazed at how quickly my students sorted themselves out in terms of partners to collaborate with and topics they wanted to write about. They got to work quickly, using research materials in our classrooms and as well as their phones (our school laptops had been commandeered for the last round of PARCC testing). It was obvious to see that they were eager to get going! I also shared the following suggestions from Ralph Fletcher:

* generate questions, wonderings, speculations
* make a map or web of your topic
* collect surprising information, facts, statistics
* react: what amazes/appalls you about the topic?
* make a prediction
* build a lexicon or glossary of words or terms specific to the subject
draw or sketch
*sift, sort, summarize
*try a “flash draft” on the topic

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By Friday, my students had finalized their interviews and begun working on the their video introductions to their presentations – a set of photographs or a video to activate prior knowledge for their classmates. Here, for example, is a Flipagram two students created for their introductions:

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So, what was our take away after a week working with the Information Interview? Here’s what my students had to say:
* this was so much more fun to write because we could be creative
* we could let our personalities come through – especially with the puns and jokes
* talking with another person about the topic really helped figure out how to include interesting information
* we loved figuring out fun ways to include facts and important information
* when I wrote my feature article, I kind of lost my interest in the topic by the time I’d finished, but this way of writing just kept me interested all the way through
* I liked that we could create our own structure – we could figure out how to say what we wanted to say
** can we do this again?

In his presentation, Ralph had challenged us to encourage our students to try “Type B writing”: writing that is exploratory, and allows kids to experiment and practice with writing moves and forms. Best of all, he had given us a writing option which values passion, originality and voice – the elements that form the very heart of the mission of writing workshop.