Chapter 6: Conversations With First Graders: Scientific Imagination and NonFiction Writing
There is much to be learned as we consider these conversations from Mrs. Janey’s classroom. We can hear how students were constructing identities as nonfiction writers and researchers; they saw themselves as people who asked and answered questions in certain ways through reading, talk and writing. They understood that they were expected as part of the writing practices of Writing Workshop to find and report information that was interesting, important and (generally) accurate. As they figured out how to explain the information they gained from their research, they were also expected to revise their understandings, making sense of and communicating the relevant information they had read vis-à-vis the topic they were researching. Finally, they were trusted to write in an interesting way which would both inform and appeal to their audience.
Mentor texts were an integral part of nonfiction writing in this classroom. Mrs. Janey gave a great deal of thought to the books she purchased for the classroom library considering readability, accessibility of information for her students, appropriateness and accuracy of content, and the text features. She used nonfiction books that were different in their organizational structures; many of her mentor texts also had literary qualities. She was purposeful in choosing and talking about these elements with her students. In turn, the students used the language and visual features of the mentor texts in their own writing to inform their audience about their topics in ways that were interesting and creative.
The instructional framework in Mrs. Janey’s classroom allowed a great deal of freedom for a varied range of students, expanding rather than constraining their opportunities for learning. Students had time and many opportunities to read and write nonfiction. As they read books, and wrote their own research, they also had time to talk to each other about interesting questions and answers, as well as to share writing of their own and others. There was room for and acceptance of mistakes, and there was time to explore the topics they were researching. There were also daily opportunities to write a variety of nonfiction texts including notes, drafts, visual texts, posters and research reports. As they worked within this instructional framework, students began to write to learn what they thought.
Further, while Mrs. Janey guided students through a process of asking and answering questions and recording information in certain genres (posters, thinking bubbles, and research reports), students were also supported – they were never told that a topic or question was too hard to answer, for instance. Instead Mrs. Janey and I, as well as the school librarian, worked with students to find texts that would help them with their research. When the texts were difficult for a first-grader, we read and discussed the content with them. Yes, there was often a great deal of guidance as we grappled with complex content, but this hard work was valued as part of the identity of being a researcher and nonfiction writer.
Young students hypothesize and create ideas using textual knowledge and lived experiences to imagine what might be possible and what might be real; what might be true and what is actually a fact; and what might be imagined and how we might be critical of those imaginings.
The dialogue between two voices that Medawar refers to and we have seen in these conversations further reveals the ways in which young students are constructing and writing about their knowledge of complex scientific concepts. They hypothesize and create ideas using textual knowledge and lived experiences to imagine what might be possible and what might be real; what might be true and what is actually a fact; and what might be imagined and how we might be critical of those imaginings. We have seen through these conversations that students’ scientific thinking is not the same an adult’s. The elements of playfulness and struggle to understand are common throughout these conversations; likewise students often relied on their own lived experiences and real world objects to construct an understanding of content that was, at best, an approximation of complex scientific concepts. What we have to recognize, as teachers, however, is what it means to teach and learn nonfiction writing in the area of science. In the end, this work is not about becoming scientists per se. Rather, this process is about learning writing practices and inquiry practices and how to coordinate them as we become writers who have “scientific imagination.”
Although scientific imagination and reasoning may take many forms, as teachers we need to be accepting of these dialogues between the imaginative and the critical. The stories of these first-grade students suggest that young children are able to read and write nonfiction when the adults working with them are mindful of the challenges of the genre, willing to accept students’ “scientific imagination”, and ready to support students as they think about the complex concepts they encounter.