Third grade teachers at my school recently launched an opinion/ persuasive writing unit, and before long we were having the same conversation we have every year as this unit gets underway. What to do about the writers who say they can’t think of anything they feel strongly about? Or those who believe they don’t know any problems that they could solve, or situations they could improve? And what about the writers who choose topics we teachers know are going to be difficult to write about with conviction because the topics are, well, a little thin?
We’ve discovered (the hard way) that it’s hard to teach minlessons about the craft of persuasive writing before writers have solid topics. So this year, one teacher and I put the brakes on studying, teaching, and experimenting with craft moves, and spent one whole workshop class on ways to discover and develop meaningful and workable topics.
We began by gathering third grade writers for a quick minilesson about how to take an idea and grow it a bit.
- I told the group about some things I enjoy and other things that are important to me. Cooking and reading were two examples I shared. Next, I explained how I could grow those interests into possible topics for persuasive writing. Cooking meals, I explained, is something I can do to help friends when they are busy with life. I shared how I could grow that love of cooking for family and friends into a meaningful piece of persuasive writing about how important it is to me to take care of loved ones and the ways that I can do that. I also modeled (by sharing my thinking aloud) how I could take my love of reading and grow it into an idea for a piece of persuasive writing.
- Next, I asked writers to open their writer’s notebooks and fold a new page in half to create two columns. I suggested they quickly write a list of things that are important to them and things they enjoy, in the column on the left. Then I asked them to pause and look back over the list and try to take one item and grow it into a bigger idea that could be the seed for a piece of persuasive writing. Almost every writer was able to do this with ease, and when I asked for volunteers to share their thinking, hands shot up. Following a brief share, I told the children we were going to switch gears for a few minutes, because writers use different strategies to gather and grow ideas, and I had another method to share with them.
Georgia Heard’s latest book Heart Maps inspired the next portion of our work. After all, if persuasive writing isn’t heart work, what is? Chapter 14 in her book is all about creating heart maps that support opinion and persuasive writing. I encourage you to read it as you launch your persuasive writing unit.
I shared my own heart map, explained how they could use the map to think about what is important to them, and then sent them off. Even the most reluctant “I don’t have an idea” writers in the group settled down quickly with a heart map. They got busy with pencils, crayons, and markers.
That day, we didn’t write thesis statements, or generate questions and answers, or make a list of reasons why. We spent the whole hour getting to the heart of the matter and discovering ideas we might be able to grow into persuasive pieces. It was time well spent.