Using The Writer’s Notebook To Grow Ideas:Diving Into Information Writing
All of us have our various moments of teaching epiphany, when we suddenly realize (although the evidence may well have been gathering right there in front of our eyes for some time) that we ought to be doing something quite differently. My information writing epiphany came in the form of Brendan’s “The History of the Super Soaker” feature article six years ago.
Brendan was a charming, funny and sharp student, but he hated writing. I tried every trick in every teaching book to try to get Brendan even a little bit interested in writing, but, by the time we reached our unit on nonfiction writing, I had made little progress. So, when Brendan excitedly announced that he knew exactly what he wanted to research and write his feature article on, and that he couldn’t wait to get started, I left all reason and good judgement by the wayside and gave him the green light. Even though the topic was Super Soakers, even though I knew better. And the results were predictable, because I had violated two of my own basic rules for nonfiction writing: pick a topic that is research worthy, and pick a topic that will grow you as a person.
My epiphany? Start students on the road to thinking about topics they might become interested in researching and writing about from day one. Why wait until January to begin a topic quest when students have curiosities and wonderings in September, which can be nurtured and explored in their writing notebooks as a matter of course from their very first day of writing workshop? Here are some ways in which we do this in Room 202:
- Using the writing tools we build into launching writing workshop:
The writing visuals we launch our year with are filled with seeds of narrative nonfiction writing. Here for instance, is Sophia’s “summer stuff” visual.
During our gallery walk, many of us commented on the way Brazil commanded center stage, and so Sophia’s first quick write in class was about her love of her parent’s native land, and the strong sense of connection she had also developed through many visits to her relatives there. “Brazil feels like this great big puzzle of family and history and great memories and great food,” she wrote, “I feel that there is so much I want to learn and know about this place!” That connection was explored and tweaked in several entries, and by the time we’d arrived at our nonfiction unit, Soph was ready with a topic she was passionate about, and entries which paved the way for aspects about Brazil she could research and write about. Visual tools and writing lists are ways to get our kids writing narratives about themselves and their lives; but they are also wonderful sources for narrative nonfiction.
- Using the writer’s notebook as a place to think and wonder:
By the time my sixth graders arrive, they have been writing about themselves for years and years. Sometimes, they are just sick of writing about themselves and long to be asked to consider other people’s lives. Enter explorations through forums such as “Humans of New York” and National Geographic – we call these, “Stories From Our World”. I share these videos, interviews, or photographs, read the accompanying captions, and provide geographic context with maps. My kids listen, think, write, share, and write some more. Sometimes, we do these in class, sometimes we share our thoughts on our Slice of Life Google Classroom. Last week, we saw some of the photographs of Syrian refugees, a topic some students were aware of but only slightly. We wrote a lot, when the time came, and among what was shared were these wonderings, which may well be returned to for further research and writing:
- What is going on there in Syria that would make people want to choose to put everyone they love on plastic boats and cross dangerous seas? And where is Syria anyway, I want to find out.
- I want to know more about what the world is doing to help. Like, how are the camps getting food and water? Are there schools?
The videos about children having to trek dangerous miles to school elicited admiration and curiosity.
Here’s what Jon had to say:
I watched an extra video that wasn’t on the list. It was called The most dangerous ways of getting to school in Peru. I watched the video in interest because I was like hey, I used to live here. I watched the video and saw a nine, eleven, and four year old cross El Lago Titi Caca. Kids were paddling for one or two hours when we just sit in a car for under five minutes. It’s insane! I when I was in third grade and still living in Peru I went to a private school for the rich and talented. I was neither so I had no idea how I got in, but we had a fundraiser. Every student had to bring ten soles/Peruvian money to school. Me and my friends were like, I wonder what this is going to be for and we thought it wasn’t important. After we brought the money the next week they asked us to bring our school vests. A month later we’re in an assembly and the principle is saying that we raised a bunch of money for people in Lago Titi Caca, and that the vests were used to keep the children warm in winter.
So now after two years I’m watching this video and I see this little boy going to school on a tiny boat with his big brother. I see that the little kids vest was a brown vest and when they interviewed him I saw the golden lion from my old school knowing that the donation we gave wasn’t for nothing.
Here’s the video:
I want to learn more about the people of Lago Titi Caca – I want to know more about Peru!
In 2012, The New York Times launched its first multi media story: Snow Fall-The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, and we dove into it as a class. This thrilling story is just a wonderful example of the kind of compelling narrative nonfiction that Tom Newkirk writes about in his book, Minds Made For Stories, a book that has so informed the way I approach teaching nonfiction. Newkirk writes: “We are not made for objectivity and pure abstraction-for timelessness. We have ‘literary minds” that respond to plot, character, and details in all kind of writing. As humans, we must tell stories.” Snow Fall does just that, it inspired curiosity about a topic (most of us had never heard about back country skiing until then), taught us a lot about great writing, and our quick writes led many of my students to the topics they chose to learn about and write about.
- Readalouds that stir our souls and make us think:
We write about reading in our writer’s notebooks, too. Especially reading that opens our eyes to events from long ago, people we should know but don’t, and the world we inhabit today. Here are two I’ve shared in class:
Digging A Hole To Heaven:Coal Miner Boys by S.D. Nelson
The story of 12 year old Conall who toils away in the coal mines of Pennsylvania sometime during the nineteenth century and early twentieth century- the Gilded Age of the robber barons and their sumptuous lifestyle. Conall and his family, just like hundreds of thousands of coal mining families, lived lives fraught with danger, poverty, disease, and blight. Day after day, Conall and his beloved mule Angel descend into the mines before daybreak and spend daylight hours hundreds of feet below ground harvesting and hauling the coal that powered the wonders of the Industrial Age.
S.D. Anderson tells his story beautifully, bringing to life the tedium and danger of the coal mine, where terrible accidents were commonplace. Interspersed with Conall’s story are photographs of children working in the mines and informative sidebars which lend historical accuracy to all that transpires in the story.
Galapagos George written by Jean Craighead George and stunningly illustrated by Wendell Minor is such a sad and special book. Sad because it is the true story of Lonesome George, the very last of his magnificent species – the saddleback tortoises from the island of Pinta in the Galapagos Islands. And special because the story of the evolution of the saddleback tortoises is fascinating and deserves to be told as well as remembered.
Lonesome George’s ancestor, Giantess George arrived in the Galapagos Island along with several relatives after a violent storm washed them off the coast of South America. Here, they settle and adapt, and this is the fascinating part – for their adaptation is a wondrous thing: necks elongate, and shells change shape. These fabulous creatures survive and thrive…until those ships arrive, bringing human beings. Like Seymour Simon, Jean Craighead George writes in a way that makes nonfiction writing informational and poetic. Here, for example is how she describes Giantess George’s voyage:
Then a storm struck South America. It poured down seas of rain. It rolled the ocean up onto the land. The ocean roared back to the sea, sweeping away trees, cacti, and many kinds of living things. Among them was Giantess George.
She was tumbled into the purple-black ocean. She swirled down into whirlpools. She spun underwater with the land creatures – iguanas, lizards, and the furry mammals, large and small.
Read alouds like these get kids off their seats looking at maps, asking for more information, jotting questions and reactions in their notebooks, and crafting quick writes that may well be the foundation for their upcoming feature article.
- Wonderopolis Wednesdays.
I am a true Wonderopolis believer, and I know that our Wednesdays lead my kids to think deeply about science, geography, and the way things work. They often return to their Wonder pages when it comes time for topic selection – which Wonder stood out? which one left the most unanswered questions? Sometimes, students find connections between their Wonders, and knitting these together becomes the basis for an interesting and informative feature article.
So, thanks to Brendan and his Super Soakers misadventures, I have learned that information writing is best introduced when the new school year begins. It remains part of our writing journey all year first in our notebooks, where we jot questions and quick writes – the seeds of ideas we want to collect. As time passes, some of these seeds take root, and the quick writes become more question oriented and these in turn become the research plans and first drafts of feature articles, photo essays, and all other manner of rich narrative nonfiction writing.