Moving to the Common Core this year has caused big change in our instruction. I’ve challenged myself to rethink how I teach non-fiction so that students gain a greater understanding and appreciation of the genre. For this reason, I reworked my reading and writing non-fiction units so that they are completely intertwined and cohesive. You’ll find those lessons that focused mainly on reading skills in the unit called, “All About Non-fiction” while those centered around writing skills in this unit called, “Informational Writing Project.”
In this sister unit, students apply what they’re learning about non-fiction text structures and features to their non-fiction writing. They’ll spend four weeks choosing, researching, and writing about the topics of their choice. Their completed projects will be a four-chapter book complete with text features. Most of the lessons included in this unit are ones that introduce a step in our writing process. While I’ve listed each as lasting one day, oftentimes each would carry over several days in my classroom. You decide what works best for your students and pace the lessons accordingly.
I have two classes. One moves at a fairly advanced pace while the other requires a little more processing time. While I originally planned to have both classes produce digital copies of their informational writing projects, only one was able to do so. Each step of the research and writing process took a little longer for the second class than it did for the first and because both had the same final due date, one class was able to participate in digital publishing while the other did it the old fashioned way. Today’s lesson is for that second class. Maybe this lesson is a better fit for your students because, like mine, they need that extra time or maybe it fits well because there is a lack of technology in your building. In either case, students can create a published piece they are proud to share. Here’s how we did it the old fashioned way!
Students pull out their research notebooks and join me in the meeting area. I explain that today we get to turn all of our hard work into a product that can be shared with others! I compliment students on their time and effort put into this month long project and tell them how excited I am to see their final work products.
I explain the steps for turning their research into a book format. Each chapter will have its own page. If a chapter runs long, then you will use a second page. Just be sure not to combine chapters into a single page. I have students open their research notebooks to where they’ve written their chosen text features for each chapter. I explain that they have free choice for where each feature will go on a page. If they want their diagram to be in the center with text structured around it - no problem! Let’s say they want their word bank to go in the bottom right hand corner - go for it! You have complete control of what your finished book will look like! For this reason, I am not going to show you a finished copy of my own project. While it might serve as a good reference tool, I don’t want you to feel that your project must look like mine. I want everyone to feel free to create a chapter book they are proud to show off!
Just a day or two before we were to publish, I made a horrific discovery. Most students didn’t have enough research materials for a four chapter book (and some didn’t have enough for three chapters!). I spent those first few moments trying to figure out how that was possible so close to our “publishing date.” Soon I realized it was just a combination of factors that had compiled to a lot of missed work time - two snow days, several absences due to sickness, and perhaps a few poor choices during student work time.
Regardless of the reason(s), students still needed to complete a four-chapter book! After that initial panic had worn off some, I came up with the idea to include a chapter on “All About the Author.” Although not part of the original plan, I had done this with students before and it always added a personal touch to finished writing projects. I quickly had a brief writing conference with every student in the room. If he had enough information on his topic for four chapters, then he could choose to include an “All About the Author” chapter as a bonus. For those students who were lacking information, we quickly eliminated the chapter that had the least information and put the “Author” chapter in its place. Students didn’t mind the change and were thrilled to write about themselves as real authors!
Students are dismissed to their desks and asked to clear them of everything but their pencils and research notebooks. We’re going to need lots of space to work! I passed out a blank cover page to each student for his name, book title, and cover art. Students also received a blank table to contents to list each chapter name and location.
Then I point students’ attention to my front table on which I’ve placed several types of paper. I show examples of each and explain which would be best for each kind of writing:
- Paper with all lines - best for just text. This could be the second page of a chapter that runs long or maybe the first page of a chapter in which you plan to put your text features at the end.
- Paper with lines and text boxes - best for combining text with visuals (text features). I premade several types: text boxes at the top and/or bottom (good for illustrations with captions, maps, charts, graphs, etc.), text boxes along one side (good for sidebars and longer word banks), text boxes within a corner of a page (good for diagrams, smaller word banks, etc.).
I also have a large stack of blank copy paper. I tell students that this is for those writers who want the most freedom when designing their chapters because they won't have the restrictions of pre-drawn lines. I then model how to use this paper and still have neat, straight writing. Simply lay a blank piece of paper on top of the premade form of your choice and you'll see the dark lines peeking through. Use those lines as a guide, like a ruler, to keep your words straight while writing.
I tell students that they will begin publishing today, but that most of them will need more than the one period to finish their work. They have all of today, but will have more time tomorrow if needed. After creating a final copy of their text and features in pencil, they are to put the finishing touches on their book with color.
When students have finished their independent work, they will come to me for help with binding. I use 11x17 construction paper as their covers. My original plan was to have students fold the sheets of construction paper in half and then glue their cover art to the front. I would laminate the covers and then staple the chapter pages inside so that they would be a bit more durable and last longer in our classroom library. However, neither of our building laminators were working that week! (Best laid plans…) So instead, I had students complete the process without laminated covers. No problem - I just asked that they be gentle when handling each other’s work during the sharing part of our unit.