Back in July, I was lucky enough to attend a session at nErDcamp MI called, Nonfiction Nerds Unite! It was a collaborative effort to help teachers better understand how to teach nonfiction writing to their students. Sarah Albee, Jess Keating, and Melissa Stewart kept me engaged with many suggestions. One message that stood out was: There has to be a step between researching and writing. That’s when synthesizing happens.
One of the things I have experienced and I hear writing teachers say a lot is, “Ugh, all they do is take a bunch of notes and then re-write them.”
What I often find is students re-write their notes if they don’t really understand the new information. How do we help students better understand? How do we help students synthesize research and their notes while writing nonfiction forms of writing that inform a reader? I’ve sifted out five strategies to try with your writers that take research and mix it up into fresh understandings that your students will be excited to share with an audience.
Act it Out
After a student researches and takes notes, acting out what they’ve learned can really help solidify the understanding. For younger writers, reading about their topic and acting out the sport, animal activity, or pretending to be the person they are reading about can help synthesize this new information. Not all topics lend themselves to this technique, however, synthesizing often comes from re-imagining what we are learning and mixing it with our own understandings.
Sketchnoting is taking on a new life lately. I love reading about this technique and believe it is a tool for students to better understand their learning and research. If a student doesn’t know how to use sketchnoting while researching, the sketching can come afterward. Taking a list of facts and trying to sketch or create images that represent the facts and information can help a writer resee the information.
Catch the Keywords
I often notice that students rewrite information directly from articles. When videos are available as a resource, I like encouraging students to watch and listen for a keyword or phrase that pops up frequently. As they watch, when they hear a word they think is key, they pause and write it down. Catching these keywords alone can be a starting point for researching later. The keywords can act as a compass, seeking information within these important bits and pieces that are living inside their topic.
Try it Twice
Sometimes students are resistant to writing something more than once. I have often encouraged students to try writing an introduction two ways or crafting a paragraph or sentence in more than one way. However, another thought that was inspired by the session from nErDcamp I referenced earlier was to write two versions of a nonfiction piece. Using Wikipedia as a mentor text, allowing students to write in a Wikipedia-like structure. Then writing it in a silly way with humor to take on a different tone. Another option would be to write your topic like an advertisement.
When I think of topics I’ve written alongside my students, the thought of creating an advertisement structure around the life of Albert Einstein, or the mechanics of a bicycle is intriguing. Writing these topics in an advertisement form would stretch my understanding and give me unique ideas I might not have found while writing in a more typical nonfiction structure.
Nonfiction is a great place to use literary devices to synthesize our understanding. When you can make comparisons, personify, or utilize irony within the analysis of information, not only does the writer become more informed as an expert on the topic the reader’s understanding is also elevated. Encouraging our writers to find relationships between the information they have to share and everyday understandings they already will have certainly push them to create deep understandings about their topic
For me, my research unit is far off in the distance, but I know it will be here before I know it. Also, many of my students are showing interest in nonfiction writing now! If I can build in little pieces here and there for shared writing or independent projects that cross content areas, I’ll create opportunities to create steps between the learning and the writing.
Daughter, sister, wife, mother, teacher, and writer.