Prior knowledge is stuck to everything we own as learners. Every piece of information we hold, every experience we’ve tucked away, and each opportunity we have grown or buried is linked in our brains. Sometimes our prior knowledge settles, and what remains on the surface lacks a depth that can only be sorted out by stirring and mixing all of knowledge’s parts back together.
As a teacher of writers, I find myself stirring reading and writing together within the immersion phase of a unit. When we are experiencing what we remember, what we know, and what we seek. The collision of reading and writing is heaviest for my students within this phase because of the levels of inquiry as both audience and writer connect in a way different from the way a mentor text can influence writers entering a revision phase of their process.
What do I hope to accomplish within the immersion phase of a unit?
- Learn new things about my writers and their interests.
- Observe their interest and engagement based on prior knowledge.
- Plan how to best launch them into independence.
This begins with creating opportunities for students to notice, talk, and engage in low stakes writing. Melanie Meehan recently wrote a post about how she encouraged students to notice what writers do when creating information text. Starting a unit with multiple models of text allows students to begin noticing, annotating, and reflecting on the work while we are able to observe what they notice and what they don’t.
We recently began our information unit in third grade, and I asked students to begin by exploring our classroom library for text examples. I observed students who went directly to biographies, history books, and picture books that fell within a nonfiction category. I also saw students choose books from the I Survived series, by Lauren Tarshis, a book series that uses a real event in history and tells a realistic story about how fictional characters survived the event. This led to great discussions about what distinguishes fiction from nonfiction. Also, how we might gain information from fiction based on fact, but we would need multiple sources. That led to this chart that I would share with students the next time we met:
In subsequent lessons, we looked at articles and books with varying levels of depth in terms of information, noticing what helped us as readers. Many students were drawn to the text features, and several remembered names of certain features that helped them.
Those are called headings. They are like little titles.
This is a map that shows us the place they are writing about.
I found this picture that showed what the article was about.
This caption tells more about the picture.
Over here are some bold words, and down here is like a little mini glossary.
I listened, and I heard words like heading, map, glossary, caption. These were understandings we could build on and begin talking about as readers. We would be able to capture how these features helped us better understand what we were reading, to be more informed, and therefore help us to make informed decisions when it came to using text features in our own writing later.
These opportunities within the immersion phases allowed for background knowledge to surface. It generated an abundance of topics potentially worthy of exploration–stirring everything to the top so it can be collected and written down. I heard writers talking about topics they already knew and understood, sharing with each other different expertise. I jumped on this quickly, providing a template for students to write down topics they felt would flow easily at the beginning of our information unit, using personal expertise as a launch.
As we continue this phase within our information unit of study, we will begin to look at the structures of writing through our flash drafting, shared writing, and low stakes journaling while reading information text of interest. As we add to the chart this week, I suspect we will be discovering ways we can inform readers while observing how other writers have informed us. I’m sharing what I’ve planned for in terms of adding to my chart, but it could certainly change.
That’s one more thing I love about this phase of a unit. I can plan for certain expectations, I can predict what problems may come up, but ultimately, I may not know until we are in the thick of it and it is in those moments that we all get to learn something new.