A Peek Into the Start of an Information Unit

Back in the days when I used to ski, I rode the chairlift up the mountain and studied the skiers as they swished their way down the mountain. I picked out the best ones, and I studied them for how they did that. What was their pathway? How did they navigate the moguls? What were they doing with their knees? I’m fairly certain I was never the skier anyone studied on their ride up the chair, especially since I tried to avoid the runs where people could see me on their way up. However, studying other people’s skills has always been a learning strategy for me, regardless of the content.

When we show students examples of what they should be creating before and during their writing, we are, in many ways, providing them a figurative ride up the chairlift with many good skiers in front of them. In two separate classrooms, I introduced an information writing unit with a classroom teacher with a pile of books and writing samples and the students sitting in a circle. “Your job,” I said, “is to look at these books and pieces like writers. What did the author do? How did they do it?”

Everyone started with something in their hands– National Geographic books, picture books, textbooks, demonstration pieces, pieces from past students– and here’s the thing: I didn’t let them keep the piece for very long before having them pass it to the left. I called for three passes and then asked what were some of the things they were noticing as writers. Not facts. Not what they learned. What they noticed writers doing. We passed and noticed, passed and noticed. As they passed, I paid attention to the aha’s and I (might have) cued a couple of students for some features I definitely wanted to include on my chart because through their noticings, we created this chart:

As you can see, there is some mess to this chart, and I’m okay with that since we co-created it with students. That being said, I had prepared the Post-its with categories that I knew I wanted to include which were:

  • Introduction
  • Organization
  • Types of Information
  • Text Features
  • Vocabulary
  • Transition Words
  • Author Craft Moves

That way, as students noticed and named their ideas, I could categorize them under the major header. I kept track of who contributed to the chart by adding their initials. We challenged student to pay attention if their initials weren’t there and try to contribute. Likewise, if initials were showing up multiple times, we challenged those students to pay attention to that and give others a chance.

This chart-making process lasted with full engagement 35-40 minutes, and we spent the rest of our workshop asking students to self-assess, using a chart I’d made with a progression of information standards. You can access the digital version here. That being said, if you want to duplicate this work, and you’re not a fourth-grade teacher beginning an information unit, you’ll need to tweak it. I recommend offering students two grades below and one grade above, a strategy I’ve learned from the work of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP) and the writing progressions they have created.

Students marked up these charts, using a specific colored pen. They dated their marks, as well, so that later in the unit, they can track their progress.

So wow! –my OLW for 2020– That was the first day of our information writing unit! Just like I had a vision for how I might ski one day, our writers have a vision of what their writing could look like and a bit of a plan for how they might get there.