Chapter 8: Redefining Nonfiction Writing

Redefining Nonfiction Writing

The In-between Space

One foot in elementary and one in middle school.  Fourth graders are the “tweeners” no matter what the school configuration might be – stuck in that in-between space. As learners they are beginning to construct different understandings of what it means to be a reader as they shift from learning to read to reading to learn in the content areas. Their identities as writers are also changing as they learn to write in particular genres and continue to address more sophisticated and complex issues of writing craft.

When I started teaching fourth grade, I, too, felt like a “tweener” situated in an in-between space. After five years as a first grade teacher and a break in my career to be a stay-at-home mom, I was offered a position as a fourth grade English language arts and social studies teacher. I embraced the challenge of preparing my fourth graders to plant both feet firmly into fifth grade the following year; there was a lot to teach and I soon realized that finding enough minutes in my day for writing, which I believed to be so essential to students’ growth in English Language Arts (ELA), was going to be difficult.

After pouring over the curriculum guides I concentrated my writing instruction on teaching the format of the writing genres that were part of our district ELA curriculum.  Research reports related to a social studies topic were completed through an instructional sequence of mostly step-by-step, whole class lessons. There was not much in the way of creative writing or thinking and definitely not much in the way of choice.  And while the students did get some practice with how to write a report, the finished products basically were all the same. It was all I could manage as I juggled to fit in the various facets of good ELA instruction with the time I had allotted to me each day.  And then, of course, there was still social studies to be taught.

After several years of teaching in this way, I came to realize that, while I was a successful writing teacher if one measures success solely by test scores, something was missing.  Where was the enjoyment?  Where was the relevance? What else could and should my students be learning from writing?  How could I use their writing to deepen their thinking about nonfiction text?  How could I teach more efficiently to fit everything in? Professional development through reading books and attending workshops gave me some answers, and I began to expand my thinking about what constitutes nonfiction writing.

The journey beyond test scores and curriculum guides began when I discovered the power of the personal narrative in the form of literary nonfiction.  One day I decided to introduce a pre-writing activity that I had learned during a professional development workshop.  First, I drew a floor plan of the house I grew up in on the whiteboard.  Then as I went from room to room, I reminisced about the memories I had of the activities that went on in each room.  I did a “think aloud” and recorded ideas for stories I could write about my family to the side of the floor plan.  As I wrote on the board, my back was to my students, of course, so I didn’t have much opportunity to gauge their reactions.  Another teacher who was in the room to lend writing assistance to one of my students shared with me that the kids were totally “mesmerized” as I shared bits and pieces of my life and family through my memories. “Really? They were?” I replied in amazement. I listened to the buzz in the room as students then created their own floor plans, narrated their stories to a partner, and developed their own “prompts” of things they could write about their family.

“I have a hard time teaching writing because I am not really comfortable writing myself,” this colleague admitted candidly.

 

Based on this experience I realized that starting with what students already knew – themselves and their own lived experiences – seemed to build confidence in even the most reluctant writers. After all, they had been writing using this personal memoir genre since kindergarten.  I just had to “grow their writing up” a bit.  By providing them with opportunities to hear and tell their stories to each other before putting them to paper, I was able engage my fourth graders in the writing process.  Further, as they listened to each other, they became aware of where they might have left out important details or where their narrative sequence was confusing. As a result, their narratives became more complex and their confidence in writing increased.

And something even more exciting happened.  We began to build relationships with each other and became a community.  We learned new things about each other that fostered respect and built a feeling of trust in our classroom. Students listened to each other. And, yes, the students became more comfortable with taking risks so that they began to share their stories aloud. When given permission to write about themselves and their everyday experiences, I discovered that even the most reluctant writers would take a chance – and sometimes we were all surprised by the results.

Around this same time, I had a conversation with another teacher that pushed me toward my next steps in preparing my students to be writers of nonfiction.

“I have a hard time teaching writing because I am not really comfortable writing myself,” this colleague admitted candidly.

I acknowledged her concern but to myself I wondered why that might be.  Did she lack the preparation for teaching the particular genres?  Was she worried that her students might see her vulnerabilities if she shared what she wrote as she modeled the writing process?   Her words caused me to stop and think.  While I considered myself a writer, was I comfortable enough to share with my students the process I go through to get to a finished piece?  I knew the answer had to be “yes”.  I had to model the process.  The whole process. The joys. The frustrations. And everything in between.

And so I began to model how I write. I thought out loud. I erased and revised and rewrote as I worked through the messy process of writing.  I wanted my students to see and understand that even though I am a teacher and one who enjoys writing, I still have to work at it.  I modeled my process for answering an essay question in social studies.  I modeled how I would write a letter to request information from the Ohio Department of Tourism about historical places I might want to visit. I modeled how to choose the important facts from an informational source and then how to write a report using those facts. I showed them that it is a challenging process but one that becomes easier with practice and the right tools in your toolbox.

I also found myself thinking about how to provide students with choice in their nonfiction writing. I began to collaborate more with my partner to provide science topics as well as social studies ones as choices for writing.  Writing lessons became more interactive as we solved the problems of writing together.  We read. We researched. We organized the information.  We talked it out. We wrote together.  And we learned.  We learned how to write nonfiction. We learned how to read nonfiction. Further, as students engaged with the science and social studies content through the writing process, I often found myself clarifying misunderstandings about conceptual information, too. My job got a little bit easier.

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