We are well on our way into our informational writing project. I explained with our first work with informational writing, I wanted to make sure to find ways to give more power over to my students as we began one of our final writing projects of the school year. When we were working on our wonder writing, I saw the power of asking students to choose and analyze and learn from their own mentor texts. For so long, I have seen the power of mentor texts to turn children into better writers. But, only recently, have I begun to realize that if I really want to teach my students to become lifelong writers, then I need to teach them how to learn from the writers they are surrounded by in their lives.
This means that instead of choosing all of the mentor texts for my students, I needed to do more work in teaching my students how to select their own mentor texts, how to analyze these mentor texts and how to apply what they are learning from these mentor texts to their own writing. So this has become a major focus of mine for this unit.
We began our unit by attempting to expand my students’ ideas of what informational writing is. Unfortunately, by the time kids make it to fifth grade, they have been exposed to a lot of bad informational writing. They have seen textbooks and inauthentic informational writing whose purpose is purely to cover content and not to connect with readers. When we began our unit, I asked the kids to tell me what they thought of informational writing. Almost half the kids used the word, “boring.” Many of the kids said it was writing that was done in school or that it was writing that a teacher made you do.
I asked my students if they ever noticed that half of any book store that you walk into is reserved for nonfiction writing. They responded that those kinds of books were not informational writing.
Ah! So that was our problem.
So I brought it four different books that were written in four extremely different ways and we did some work to look at the topics of these books, the formats of these books and the reasons why these formats made sense for these topics. And then every day in writing workshop, for the first week of our unit, I gave the kids half an hour to simply explore the nonfiction books that we had in our classroom and to notice the things that interested them.
It was AMAZING to watch the kids dive into these books. To excitedly share the information that they were learning. To whisper in small groups about the cool ways these books were set-up. To be energized by informational writing.To laugh at the informational writing they were reading. Every day, I checked in with my writers to see how their understanding of informational writing was starting to change. And every day I was pleased to see the growth that we were making. On our final day, I asked the students to choose three books that they were extremely interested in and write about the topic, format and the reasons why this format made sense for this topic.
Once we had spent time exploring, it was time to think about our own topics. To help us determine what makes a good topic for informational writing, we looked back at the author’s notes, source notes and introductions from the four books that we examined all together for topic and format. We pulled out the different reasons that these authors gave for why they chose to write about the topics that they wrote about. Then we read the beautiful book, Ideas Are All Around.
I then put the students into writing groups to discuss their topic ideas and to receive feedback. Like in our fiction writing unit, I wanted my students to have a constant group of peers that will serve as a source of feedback and support throughout our entire writing unit. By the end of this writing unit, these writers will know each other’s writing well and will be a wonderful source of support for each other. In their writing groups this week, the students discussed their potential topics and made a decision on what they wanted to write about after listening to feedback from their writing groups.
Once this decision was made, I wanted to make sure that I gave my students time to just grow their understanding of their topic. Too often, I rush into having my students plan out their writing and decide on subtopics, before I have given them enough time to just learn about their topics. In this way, their plans often limit their writing because they did not have time to learn the big picture first before worrying about the smaller parts. So each day this week (the second week of our unit), I knew that I wanted to devote time to just letting them explore their topics. No note taking. No planning. Just time to learn about their topics.
In addition, I wanted each child to begin selecting their own mentor texts. As I said earlier, I did not want to be the only person in charge of choosing the mentor texts that would help us learn to be better informational writers.
In the past, I have selected two or three authors for us to study. I have found the writing strategies that we would learn to use. I would select the passages that showed those strategies. When I did that, I was the only one learning how to be inspired by the writing of others. And then I was simply pushing my own inspiration onto my students.
This year, I wanted my students to find their own sources of inspiration. I wanted my students to learn how to learn from the writers around them and not just from me.
But to do this, I really had to step back and teach my kids how to locate and learn from their own mentor texts.
So I began by sharing my thought process with the kids on how I went about selecting mentor texts for my own informational writing project. I plan to write a book alongside my students all about chocolate. My students had already heard my thought process in selecting this topic, so now I shared with them how I selected my mentor texts. After that, we built the following chart to help us think about the many different reasons why a text might become a mentor text for a writer:
And then I gave the kids time to just go and explore again, but this time with the specific purpose of finding mentor texts. Again, it was great to watch the kids look at the books that we have had in our room all year long that often go ignored. It was also great to listen to the conversations that they were having about these books as they looked at them through the lens of writers searching for inspiration.
As children found texts that inspired them in some way, I asked them to simply grab a post-it note, write their name on it and list the reason(s) they wanted to use this book as a mentor text. Then we began to pile these resources together. Some favorite books became mentor texts to multiple children and some books were dug out of the bins that I never would have expected.
And I guess that is just it. When I do all of the selecting of mentor texts, I am the one who is controlling the image that develops of what informational writing can look like. But when I allow each child to select mentor texts that work for their own writing, then they are able to select the best resources for themselves as writers and for the kind of writing that they want to do.
Not only that, but this also gives me hope that my students’ learning will continue without me. When we can teach our students how to learn about writing from every text that they read, then the learning can go on whether we are there or not. And ultimately, that is what I want for my students.
By the end of the second day of searching, we had three bins filled with mentor texts. And we also had a chart where we summarized the differences between our sources of information and our sources of inspiration. We will now begin to return to these sources as we put together knowledge of our topics with knowledge of how to be a better writer. I am excited to see where these mentor texts take us!