Chapter 9: A Large and Lovely Accomplishment: Three Types of Non-Ficton Writing for Fourth Graders
Entering fourth grade, students have plenty of experience with nonfiction writing. They are familiar with features of nonfiction: table of contents, index, and picture captions. They have written true stories and researched for writing, since kindergarten. Now they need to start learning the nuances of nonfiction writing. To do this I begin the school year by introducing students to investigative writing.
I like to begin with something that is active and engaging, in recognition of how very difficult it is to get back into school habits of behavior. This past year we looked at a website with a monthly science question, http://www.solveityourway.com/, and decided to investigate “Which ball rolls the farthest?” I gathered playground balls, tennis balls, golf balls, basketballs, and soccer balls, and outlined the scientific method for the class.
Gathering prior knowledge was not difficult, but the work became interesting when the class started writing hypotheses. Most students appropriately hypothesized which ball would roll the farthest, but the reasons were so creative! For example, students suggested that some tennis balls wouldn’t go very far because dogs may have slobbered on them, just like the black and white dog next door that takes any that are left in the yard. Or, another hypothesis: Kindergarteners might come along and grab the playground balls, shortening their rolls, just like “my brother when my friend is playing football with me in the back yard and it makes me so mad.” The scientist versus the teacher in me was overwhelmed. How do I respond? What feedback will be most helpful? Yes, the writing should be detailed, but no, the color of the neighbors’ dog was not a helpful detail. Neither was the dog story or the football story, for that matter. However, after further thinking and extensive prompting about how to write a hypothesis (teaching which may or may not have been helpful for them as writers), all the students finally finished their hypotheses.
The scientist versus the teacher in me was overwhelmed. How do I respond? What feedback will be most helpful? Yes, the writing should be detailed, but no, the color of the neighbors’ dog was not a helpful detail.
Next, we moved on to the procedure and had great fun. In small groups students designed “ball rollers”, to control the variables inherent in beginning the roll. They set out with supplies, including notebooks and cameras, to find an unobstructed stretch of floor. Groups gradually began reporting that data collection was complete, and everyone was finished in a couple of days. At this point I asked groups to meet to finish writing about the procedure they had just completed.
Everyone was excited to talk about their work, and the whole class met to share and assess progress. Thank goodness for cameras and group work! At that first group meeting I’m not sure anyone had a complete set of data. Numbers were disorganized and without labels. Important facts were not recorded. (Does anyone know why that one roll was so short…I think we measured distance in tape measure lengths… Why do you think the ball went 35 when I have 22… 22 what?) I discovered that “writing about their procedure” followed few if any writing conventions. There were incomplete, unclear sentences without regard for capitals, punctuation, or lines on the page. Even the students didn’t understand what they had meant when they read their notes.
After a lot of discussion and creative problem solving, everyone eventually had complete data and complete enough procedural notes to continue. At this point I asked them to tell the results, reflect on their hypotheses, and speak about difficulties with their procedures. No, I still didn’t think the dog story was appropriate! Why did your group have one outlier golf ball roll that went 3 feet? You should talk about it. Your reader is going to analyze your work as they read, so be thorough! Conclusions were written, then rewritten. Each group finally created a video. On it they shared their results and included video footage of their procedure. The activity stood out with the students as a favorite of the year. For me, it highlighted some key issues in teaching this type of nonfiction writing.
In some genres of writing, students should make connections to what they know. But in this instance, I found myself, as a nonfiction writer, rejecting many of the connections they made. It seemed that the line between relevant and non-relevant facts and connections was unclear to them. I wondered how I could explain why some connections only work in some instances, or even if I should try to explain. Should I have accepted their responses as developmentally appropriate? When asked to apply prior knowledge, we all, adult or child, evaluate relevancy and irrelevancy based on that knowledge. For example, if I had written my own hypothesis, I would have said that a golf ball would roll farthest, because it is hard and smooth. Someone who works on the design of golf balls would probably create a hypothesis using connections to their much more technical knowledge of design, maybe even thinking that my “hard and smooth” reference was irrelevant at worst or “childlike” at best. In retrospect I can see that students needed to be allowed to use what they knew and be commended for the connections they were making. Likewise I could have pointed out that the tennis balls used for the activity had not been mauled by dogs so that connection wasn’t valid, encouraging them instead to use whatever they did know about all tennis balls.
Another issue I observed was that students didn’t consider the purpose of their writing. The end purpose of any investigation is to learn by connecting the results with all prior knowledge. So it was important that they know the results of their investigation; and the way they would get to those results would be by using their complete data records and well-written notes. But many students did not have complete data. Many did not connect and reflect on the results. When they wrote up their reports they did not consider how the reader was going to understand their learning? Why did their writing not mirror their work in writer’s workshop?
What I came to recognize throughout this activity was that fourth graders are novices as technical writers. I needed to give them a clear understanding of the expectations of this type of writing. I had to help them understand that the purpose of their investigation should mirror the work of other scientists. Using the picturebooks in our classroom as mentor texts, I should have broken down the process into discrete lessons showing students how to record data first. Further, learning to pull together the investigation results and analyze them in relation to prior knowledge to reach a conclusion is a complicated skill that merits a well-developed introduction and series of opportunities for practice. In my early teaching of investigative writing, I had been pushing their learning too far and too fast and not recognizing students’ points of entry to the process.