Each week our school has professional collaboration time. This is a time when each grade level team meets to collaborate on topics decided by the team. We prepare homework, choose or create common assessments, plan our art instruction, help each other with technology related matters, vent, share resources and a myriad other things. One of our goals for the year was to make sure that, as we transitioned to Common Core standards in writing, we continued to improve our scores.
One day, with this goal in mind, we were choosing the theme for our weekly instruction and the daily prompts. The previous year we had had success having our students write descriptions of different people. We wanted to blend that success with W.1.2 and have them write in informative paragraph with a topic sentence, some key facts and a closing sentence, which we started learning about in a shared writing lesson (the first in the unit). This was basically the same as we had been doing last year, but we wanted to add rigor to it by having the students learn the facts from a website (W.1.7. Participate in shared research and writing projects), and make sure we included L.1.f (Use frequently occurring adjectives), which our District has added as an item in the writing rubric.
After brainstorming, we came up with the idea of doing an Author study for our weekly writing cycle and selected Jan Brett as the subject of our informational paragraph about a person. This lessons, and the related lessons for Days 2, 3, 4 and 5 can be modified for any author, as long as you find kid friendly sources of information for them.
I explained to the class that we were going to read about a great children's author, and that we would write an informational paragraph about interesting things we learned about her. I showed them some books by her, and promised we would get to read them during the week.
We chose the author to highlight in our Author Study during our weekly collaboration meeting. When I taught this lesson, I was very dissapointed at the lack of engagement I could see in my class. I switched from the "about Jan Brett" part of the website, to the link to Time for kids, thinking that perhaps going to more kid friendly text would help. It didn't. For closure I asked them to tell me a fact they had learned about Jan Brett, and I was surprised to find out that most of them had something to say. I still left thinking that the author choice was a mistake, and that each teacher should have selected an author that their class liked. I find that every year my class has different tastes. One year I may end up with Clifford indigestion, and the next year those books may stay practically untouched. I thought selecting the author based on each year's fad may help with engagement.
Then the next day we went to the school library. Many of my kids spontaneously started telling the librarian about Jan Brett, they took out all her books. Wow! They were clearly more interested than I though, and the author study we started had the additional bonus of introducing them to a wonderful writer. I am glad I enjoy her because I suspect I am in for a large dose of her books.
It had never occurred to me to introduce an author this way, but it has been a fun experience, definitely worth repeating.
After the brief introduction of Jan Brett (it's helpful to generate interest if you've already read one of her books), I explained that we were going to find out interesting information about her by visiting her website and that we would record the information on a graphic organizer. I asked the class to draw the oval for the main idea in our graphic organizer (in the resource section you can see a clip of how they make these, to avoid excessive photocopying).
Since they already knew what the paragraph was going to be about, we discussed possible topic sentences, reminding them that they would contain the main idea for our paragraph. After hearing a couple, I told them to go ahead and write the topic sentence of their choice on the graphic organizer. Counting to three and telling them to show their work (see resource section), provided me an easy way to see who needed help and who was ready to go on.
After we read the information on the website and they told me different facts that they had learned from the reading, I told them to complete the graphic organizer by themselves. In the resource section there are some work samples.
In the past, when my students completed graphic organizers, I noticed that when it was time to write, they would simply lay them aside and write without using them. Completing the organizers was a pointless exercise that was not helping them. I decided that I needed to adjust my practice to ensure that my students understood how using graphic organizers could help them write better paragraphs, and retain information.
One change I have made is to have them make the graphic organizers instead of giving them templates. Though it is a subtle difference, this ownership makes my class more invested in the process and they see it is not filling a worksheet, but starting a product. Emphasizing that they are putting their "own good ideas" or choosing "the key details that they find more interesting" on the graphic organizer has also increased this sense of ownership.
When I use graphic organizers, I write down a word or jot a cryptic note. I was worried because most of the class was writing complete sentences. In practice they were doing a rough draft in the organizer, and redoing it on paper. I still kept working on the organizers because I realized that they were staying on topic much more than when they didn't use them. They were indeed keeping them organized! As they become more comfortable using them, get more practice and feedback, I have noticed that my students are transitioning from complete sentences to phrases and developing a gradual understanding of the purpose of these organizers. In the resource section, you can see how this average student used some words, phrases and sentences.
At the end of the session, my class put their organizers in the folder they keep in their desks with work that needs to be completed later. I told them that the next day they would use it to write an informational paragraph. As they left for recess, I asked them for a "ticket out the door": they had to tell me something they had learned about the author. I was pleasantly surprised to see that they had all retained some information; clearly they had been more engaged than I thought.