Staring at the handout before me, I read the list one more time. At the top of the sheet, I read it again: “Requirements for Case Study.” Anxiously, I looked around the artificially lit beige room at my graduate school classmates, wondering if they felt as confused as I did. This “Case Study” assignment represented the ticket to completing my reading specialist certification; but instead of feeling exhilarated, I felt panicked. I couldn’t picture what my professor wanted. I sensed an invisible haze settling over me. I just couldn’t envision what this thing ought to look like- physically, structurally…what is it supposed to look like? I wondered. And unfortunately, my professor was unable to provide an example.
Looking back on that day in graduate school, I remember feeling like I had been shoved into a pitch dark room and told to build something with only audio instructions to rely on. It was paralyzing. Reflecting on that now, I am reminded of researcher and professor John Hattie’s important teaching about how learners need a concrete and clear vision of what it is they are trying to accomplish. For without it, learning can take on a murky, anxiety-producing experience.
When it comes to writing, this need for a clear vision is one of the big reasons we provide mentor texts in writing workshop (although there are others, of course). Kids need to see not only a goal or end toward which they may aspire, but I would add that they need to be provided models to become inspired. For we all know the effect inspiration can have on anything we are up to in life, right? It matters. It helps. And certainly, writing is no exception.
Last Saturday at the fall Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Saturday Reunion, presenter Mary Ehrenworth led a workshop dedicated to information writing. During the first few minutes, Mary advised all teachers to make “a big deal of publishing students’ work.” “If you make a big deal of publishing before they write,” she said, “kids’ writing will be better.” In other words, providing an inspiring vision for writing– what it can look like and where it will go in the world– helps writers to lift their game.
Information writing, Mary explained, not only teaches information, but it gets people to care about the topic. This is the real magic of strong informational writing; at the end of the piece, the reader cares more about the topic. So shepherding writers toward that type of vision really ought to be what we all aspire to in our teaching.
Across her presentation, Mary recommended three big thing to consider when planning and teaching a unit on informational writing:
- Start with inspiring mentor texts – Mary recommended launching with an inquiry with a singular goal in mind: Make kids think, “I can’t wait to do that!” To structure the inquiry, teachers can prepare some high quality, fascinating informational texts for our kids. Say to writers, “Writers, in this unit, we will doing some writing that will really make people care about a topic you care about, which is what good informational writing is all about… so will you study some mentor texts with me today and think, ‘Which ones of these examples would I actually want to read?’ And, ‘Which ones really resonate with me?’ This provides a lens for kids to begin thinking about information writing from a fresh angle, i.e., what and how writers get readers to actually care about a topic.
Then, consider showing kids some beautiful examples of shape books:
This book (cover is above, inside page below) was created via collaborative authorship, teaching readers about women’s dress in the 1800’s. Notice the shape of the book, the design elements, and how this adds so much interest to an otherwise potentially dry topic.
Although it’s perhaps difficult to discern, this book was created by an English Language Learner in New York City. According to Mary Ehrenworth, “Information writing is the single most inclusive genre. It minimizes the distance between strongest writers and striving writers because everyone can make something beautiful.”
You might also find professionally available examples to show, such this one in the shape of a beehive. Inspiring students with information writing teaches in way that includes novel design elements can go a long way toward lifting levels of engagement, energy, and quality.
- Teach writers to plan and revise with audience in mind– One thing we always want to keep in mind about teaching writers in a writing workshop is the notion that the teacher cannot be the only audience. Whether we arrange for students’ work to be displayed somewhere or shared with a specific group, Mary suggests writers be set up to plan, draft, and revise, keeping in mind whomever their audience will be. I think about myself: each time I sit down to compose a post for Two Writing Teachers, I am thinking about all of you and what you will find valuable. This guides my work each time. So what about kids? Mary recommends three important questions likely to act as powerful guidance for planning and revision:
- How old is my audience? Are they in fourth grade? Second grade? Seventh grade? Are they adults?
- How expert is my audience (in this topic)? Can I assume they know anything about the topic? What level of knowledge are they likely to possess?
- How engaged is my audience (with this topic)? Can I assume they care anything about it yet?
Inviting our writers to consider these questions helps them to begin thinking about such critical considerations such as: (1) how vocabulary will be tailored; (2) what examples will be used, and (3) what design elements might be deployed in order to teach and help readers care about their topic.
- Publish in authentic and meaningful ways- Whether their work will be displayed in the school library or perhaps a local business (e.g., a bookstore or coffee shop), shared with a younger audience or grade level buddy, or celebrated in a classroom with parents and/or significant family invited, kids need to be provided with opportunities to publish in authentic and meaningful ways. Thinking about this ahead of time can pay great dividends when it comes to the level of work writers might produce across the time you’ll spend on this type of writing.
Eventually, my graduate school professor provided us with a model of a case study. And I will admit, it helped tremendously. A clear vision of what the final product ought to look like reduced my anxiety, clarified expectations, and inspired me to do my best work.
It is likely that in October, many teachers are not yet teaching informational writing. But I’m hoping this post provides you some “runway”, as much of what is suggested here will require preplanning, thinking, and organization. However, I am excited for your thoughts about some of the ideas presented.
For more than 25 years, Lanny has taught, coached, presented, staff developed, and consulted within the exciting and enigmatic world of literacy. With unyielding passion and belief in the possibility of workshop teaching, Lanny has worked to support students, teachers, and school administrators around the country in outgrowing themselves as both writers and readers. Working first as a classroom teacher, then as a coach and TCRWP Staff Developer, Lanny is now a literacy specialist, working and living in the great state of Connecticut. Outside of literacy, he enjoys raising his three ambitious young daughters with his wife, and playing the piano. Find him on this blog, as well as on Twitter @LannyBall. Lanny is also a co-author of a blog dedicated to supporting teachers and coaches that maintain classroom writing workshops, twowritingteachers.org.