At the beginning of each soccer season, my daughter and her teammates immersed themselves in team activities. They had double practices in both the morning and late afternoon, and they also spent time watching films, playing team bonding games, and doing physical fitness. For that week, they don’t think about much other than soccer, and when the season kicks off a week later, they are ready for it.
Just as the soccer players immerse themselves in soccer, writers can immerse themselves in a new unit. Maybe they don’t do it for an entire week– an entire period or two seems more plausible– but for a set period of time, they notice, note, and name all they can about the type of writing they’ll be doing for the next several weeks. This practice is helpful for strong writers who need less explicit instruction in order to try out new writing concepts as well as for writers who strive to complete their written work. Sometimes seeing a completed piece is exactly what they need in order to kick their executive functioning into gear.
Recently, I led a classroom of fourth graders along an immersion of personal essays. As you read the rest of this post, you might consider how these practices and steps could transfer to other upcoming units of writing in other grades. The examples are specific; the practices are universal. In preparation, I printed five completed personal essays from previous classes. Intentionally, I chose pieces of varying length, complexity, and topics. I made six copies of each essay, and I enlarged one copy to mount on construction paper. Additionally, I collected five sets of sticky notes in different colors.
The first thing I did was explain their job during the upcoming 45 minutes. As you can see from my procedural chart, I worked hard to keep it simple.
The class was divided into five teams. In this case, there were five tables of students in the room, each with four to five students. I gave each table an enlarged essay, the copies, and a pile of different-colored sticky notes. In our case, we had a blue team with blue sticky notes, a green team, a pink team, and two orange teams (since I couldn’t find another different color!)
Then, each table had about seven minutes to read and notice what the essay in front of them taught them about essay writing.
During the first round and possibly even the second, there was a lot of confusion about reading for content as opposed to reading for craft. “You’re reading these as essays as writers,” I found myself saying. “You’re not focusing on whether you agree or disagree with the claims and reasons, but rather how the author constructed the essay and the special tricks you can find in it.” Because their annotations were on sticky notes, it was easy to offer redo’s or remove some altogether.
As we got going, the level of noticing, noting, and naming improved dramatically. Part of the routine was that they could not duplicate a comment that was already on the essay. They had to read what others had noticed before their turn with that essay, and they had to come up with their own group’s idea.
As you can see from the pictures, they had plenty to say. It was easy to track what team noticed what since the colors were different, and we could also get a sense of contributors. A healthy sense of competition emerged since teams wanted to make sure their color was represented on the final annotated essay.
Not every comment and annotation was exactly what I’d hoped it would be, but here are some of the benefits and takeaways from this 45 minute writing session:
- Students saw several completed essays and could begin to envision what their own essays could look like.
- Students read and listened to the language and vocabulary of essays over and over; if they didn’t read a craft move on a previously written sticky note, then they wrote it.
The inquiry chart we created during the final five minutes of our writing block was based on the question: What did you notice that all of the essays had in common. As they provided me with answers to this question, I placed the responses on the chart as strategically as I could, leaving space for the responses I wanted to make sure came in a bit of a sequence. That being said, the language itself came directly from the students, and they were able to provide it quickly and efficiently as a closure to the process of annotating essays.
While I’m not sure I’d call this my most beautiful and visually pleasing chart, I’ll add some color as we progress through the unit, and the students knew exactly what each component meant since they were the ones who provided me with the information.
I’m looking forward to the rest of the unit, having set up a strong foundation for all of the students to understand and envision the work they’ll be doing!