Chapter 5: Collaborative-Interactive Nonfiction Writing: Positioning Students with Significant/Multiple Disabilities As Nonfiction Writers

5.1 Exploring The Natural World Through Our Classroom Window: Positioning My Students As Nonfiction Writers

 

My school is situated in a lovely neighborhood on a tree-lined street. My classroom has one entire wall of expansive windows that face a school yard bordered by a ravine. As we look out our windows, we are blessed with a shifting panorama of sunlight, clouds of every kind, extreme weather, the water cycle, rainbows, seasonal changes in deciduous trees, and life cycles of insects, plants and animals – we have even had the occasional deer striding through our school yard! We have found Luna moths and monarch pupae, spiders rolling up flies like tasty little burritos in their intricate webs, and snow rollers – large, rolled, cylindrical formations of blown snow that look like gigantic Swiss rolls. There is a never-ending source of ideas for our nonfiction writing right outside our window! Further, by building on our observations and curiosity, our first-hand observations and real world experiences, nonfiction writing becomes more accessible.

I vividly recall a wintry morning two years ago when we looked out our classroom window and saw snow rollers scattered about our snowy playground landscape. With blown snow obscuring many familiar features, the deserted playground had an eerie, almost lunar feel to it. My students were entirely captivated – this was an intense sensory experience! It was as if organic, alien objects had invaded our playground. School had been closed the day before due to sub-zero temperatures and high winds – perfect conditions for the snow rollers to form. This natural phenomenon, also known as “Mother Nature’s snowballs,” provided us with an opportunity for inquiry and nonfiction writing aligned to science standards, drawn from our local experience. 

Our fun-loving principal brought one of the large snow rollers into our classroom from the playground (it was too cold and windy to take the students outside). Each of my students had an opportunity to examine the snow roller up close by observing, touching, and holding it. We had to hurry so it wouldn’t melt, though! As we examined the snow roller, I took the opportunity to review states of matter and the water cycle – science concepts that my fifth graders have some knowledge of. I took photographs of the snow roller (using my iPhone) as we continued making observations. Building on my students’ natural curiosity about the snow rollers, I helped them formulate some “I wonder” statements (through the use of modeling and cues) and recorded these on chart paper. Some of these “I wonder” statements were:

  • I wonder how the snow rollers got here?
  • How did they form?
  • Did people do it?
  • How long will they last?

Several of us had heard about the snow rollers on the news, so we went on the Web to read a few news stories and watch some video clips. Our use of online media further ignited my students’ curiosity and helped them construct understanding of this unusual natural phenomenon. After making our observations, gathering information on the Web, and engaging in discussion about the snow rollers, we were ready to begin our collaborative writing process.

I positioned my students in a semi-circle around the interactive white board (running this way and that, moving wheelchairs and standers), and in a complicated and somewhat messy fashion, my students “dictated” their narratives describing what we had observed and experienced. They communicated their thinking using speech, signs, communication devices, assistive technology for students with language and sensory-motor impairments, paralinguistic cues (e.g. rising intonation, increases in voice volume) and gestures, such as making a swirling sign in the air using the forefinger going around in a circle. One of my students, Natasha, sat at the wireless keyboard, typing text using models I provided. An instructional assistant and I moved about from student to student, providing physical assistance and other instructional supports. As Natasha typed our nonfiction text, the words appeared in large text on the interactive whiteboard, providing additional sensory cues for my students with visual impairments. I uploaded the digital photo of our snow roller above the text. 

In this way using our collaborative writing process, the computer, and other assistive technologies, our observations, thinking, and questions became visible and could be shared and understood by others. At the end of the day, I printed our snow roller narrative (which included text and photos) and sent copies home with my students so they could share it with their parents, family and friends. Throughout that week, we continued to research and learn about the snow rollers and other effects of the severe winter weather we were experiencing. In over 20 years of teaching, I had never experienced anything like those snow rollers, and it was exciting to see my students thinking and writing about them! 

Here is an excerpt from the narrative nonfiction writing we did that day:

When we looked out the window this morning there were giant snow rollers everywhere! Some of us heard about them on the news. Mrs. B, our principal, brought one into our classroom. It looked like a giant Swiss roll made of snow! We could see the layers of snow swirling around and around in a circle. Zoe couldn’t believe how big it was! We wondered how long the snow rollers would stay on the playground, and how changes in the weather would affect them. When will they melt?

A student observes the snow roller

Our collaborative writing process helped my students make sense of the snow rollers while supporting their understanding of important science concepts such as weather and the water cycle. That day their natural curiosity and first-hand observations fueled this writing. However, I also use children’s literature to support my students’ as writers. I have an extensive collection of children’s literature in my classroom covering many topics of interest to fifth grade students. (I also make regular trips to the public library to augment my personal collection.) I have some favorite nonfiction books that I use to anchor and support my instruction – books such as Recess at 20 Below written by Alaskan teacher Cindy Aillaud. This book, written as a nonfiction narrative from the students’ point of view, uses text and photographs to tell a simple story about school children playing outside during recess in an Arctic village. On that wintry day, I used this book as a mentor text; it provided my students with a model that they could try to emulate. Throughout the week, we referred to this book many times, rereading it and comparing it with our own narrative. Aillaud’s story supported my students as they became more comfortable with the format of using photos and text to tell their story.  

Using books like Aillaud’s Recess at 20 Below and Cherry’s The Great Kapok Tree are an essential component of nonfiction writing in my teaching practice. Because my students with significant disabilities experience a variety of learning challenges, reading aloud from these books provides them with the rich language and academic vocabulary they need to develop and communicate understanding. Such books also provide and supplement conceptual content.  Finally, as mentor texts, they serve as examples of ways in which authors organize and structure their nonfiction writing.

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