Part One: Who Proves he/she Learned the Most through his/her Writing?
I learned everything I know about good writing instruction by taking classes from our local writing project--the Northern Nevada Writing Project. Our local NNWP has unfortunately fallen on hard times, and they offer very few classes these days. If you're in a location that is served by a chapter of the National Writing Project and that chapter is able to offer inservice or summer courses, I encourage you to enroll; I still bump into teachers who took any of the 20 or more new courses we developed and presented during the time I was serving as the Director of the NNWP between 2003 and 2008, and they almost all say (I'm generally paraphrasing here), "That was one of the best classes I've ever taken." We took great pride in the variety and quality of inservice courses we developed back in the day.
I think one of my favorite inservice classes we created during my time leading the NNWP was focused on teaching skills for writing across the curriculum, which is an important topic found in Common Core State Standards. As Director, I applied for and received a grant to develop a writing across the curriculum class, and we used part of that grant money to provide a text-book for all our participants; the book we purchased and distributed to our K-12 teacher participants was 51 Wacky We-Search Reports by Barry Lane, which remains one of the best books on my bookshelf for inspiring original research-inspired writing from my students. We also used our grant money to develop three "sister sites" to the resource website (WritingFix) the NNWP helped to sponsor between 2001 and 2008; those sister sites were NumberFix, HistoryFix, and ScienceFix, and they became a place for us to celebrate and share the very best original writing lessons our class required its participants to write-up and present on the final night of our inservice. If you're looking for more unique and skill-based writing across the curriculum ideas after reading this write-up, I hope you'll make time to explore those pages. The NNWP lost its ability to co-sponsor WritingFix and its sister sites in early 2009, so Dena and I (with the help of public donations) have paid to keep those websites and their resources on-line, and it thrills us to know the teacher-built lessons stored there are still inspiring teachers and their students.
The very first learning task and discussion we always did in that writing across the curriculum inservice was one that I came in and presented. I still use the activity today when teaching students because it proves its point to my students just as it proved its point to the teachers who were taking our class. The point? Research-based writing does not have to be dry and dull, and teachers can easily spot writing that's plagiarized.
At left, you see a thumbnail of the handout required for this learning task. If you click on the thumbnail, you can access a PDF of the document I invite you to share with your own students before they go out and do any research.
I pass out the handout and ask students the following question: "Which student has proven he/she has learned the most about their research topic based on the final draft writing found on this handout?" My students carefully read the three pieces of student writing, and then they discuss the question with their Sacred Writing Time partners for that day. Then, they team up with another pair of SWT partners and discuss again, seeing if the two groups are in agreement.
I ask, "Does any group have what they think is a pretty good explanation of why they chose one piece over the other two? I am looking for 50- to 100-watt answers," which my students understand as (I'm paraphrasing myself here) "I don't want an answer from every group of four; I want answers that your group honestly thinks are pretty smart answers because you can refer back to the text when explaining your answer." Early on every school year, I establish the 50- to 100-watt metaphor with them.
This class discussion has always fascinated me because I almost always have different groups who will fight for each piece as being the "best.", including the one that is clearly plagiarized by its author. When I did this activity with teachers during the inservice, the plagiarized piece about Argentina never was selected, and the teachers' justification was (I'm paraphrasing here), "Some of it doesn't sound like they could be her own words." Some of it?!?! I know for a fact that every word in the Argentina report was copied because this is an excerpt from the fifth-grade country report that my wife--Dena--was assigned to write in her own grade school, and when her Mom (who saved almost everything she turned in during grade school) brought it to her, Dena remembers just copying it out of the encyclopedia. And yet she got an A on the report in fifth grade. And yet she never remembers anyone ever teaching her how to properly paraphrase and summarize ideas from in-class research.
And yet--I have students who think it's the best piece of writing when I do this activity with them, and they justify it by saying it has the most facts and sounds the smartest of the three pieces. I'll say it again: I find this fascinating. Somehow our students today equate the idea of good expository writing as writing that has the most facts jammed into it, and it doesn't matter if the facts are interesting or not. No fact in Dena's paragraph is very interesting because Dena (like me and like hundreds of teachers I've met and presented this activity to) don't ever remember having a lesson on how to differentiate between interesting and run-of-the-mill facts.
Like my Dena, I also have a mother who saved some of my work from grade school, and at this point I show my students two expository reports that I wrote in first grade:
The exact date someone was born and the date someone died are NOT highly interesting facts. They're simply facts. The only fact that sings to me as being interesting from both these two reports is the fact that Abraham Lincoln was a good wrestler. Today, if I was assigned to write a respectfully-toned report about Abraham Lincoln, I would use this fact to create an introduction that absolutely grabbed your attention, and then I would use wrestling metaphors and vocabulary throughout the report. Good expository writing does things like this.
Good expository writing doesn't just list or regurgitate a huge quantity of facts; instead, it incorporates quality writing skills and focuses on the really interesting facts in order to keep the reader engaged.
Good expository writing--like the short passages on the handout from Dante and Wittekin--can surprise the reader with its format and its approach to the writing. We have to teach students to skillfully utilize authentic writing skills, and most of us don't when it comes to expository; expository is often that place where we teach formulaic organizational skills. The lesson/assignment on this page purposely is trying to teach authentic writing skills of voice and idea development.
Part Two: Selecting and Paraphrasing the Most Interesting Facts from Research
The following mini-lesson can also be found in the Northern Nevada Writing Project's 2006 publication: the Going Deep with 6 Trait Language guide. I am proud to say that I was serving as Director of the NNWP when this guide was created, and we sold thousands of copies of it to teachers across the globe through our NNWP website; the monies earned from those guide sales allowed us to honor and pay our district's best teachers to create both new lessons and new inservice classes during the years when we were offering twelve or more writing classes like that annually. The pictured 6 Traits Guide (at left) disappeared from sight for a few years after the latest Director came on-board, and I was excited to see that over the summer of 2015, they figured out how to sell the guide again over Amazon. If you're looking for some high-quality 6-trait ideas (like the activity I'm about to share), consider clicking on the picture of the guide and purchasing it through Amazon; I am fairly confident if enough people start buying this 194-page guide again, our NNWP might earn the funding they need to begin offering more classes to our local teachers again. Thanks in advance, if you choose to support our NNWP in this way!
The objective of the following mini-lesson is twofold: 1) teaching students to identify more interesting facts found when researching; and 2) learning to paraphrase those interesting facts by putting the actual research out of sight and discussing the facts conversationally long before writing about them. Donald Graves, the great author and writing teacher, once said that 85% of the writing process should be dedicated to the act of pre-writing, and this activity is something teachers can do, then adapt and replicate using different pieces of student-found research as part of that increased amount of pre-writing our students should be doing when preparing to write an expository piece of writing.
Mr. Borilla--who was the best teacher I ever had--never had us do activities like this when we wrote our president and state reports in fourth and fifth grade. Dena's teacher who assigned her Argentina report never did either. And we both plagiarized without really knowing that's what we were actually doing. An activity like this one is designed to teach the skills one needs to recognize what paraphrasing and summarizing in one's own words really looks and sounds like.
Here's what you do with the handout, pictured at right; click on the thumbnail image to open and print the handout with your students:
Explain the objective of the activity: Analyzing researched facts to select those facts that would grab a reader's attention in an expository piece of writing, and learning to paraphrase researched facts so that you are not copying the facts and--therefore--plagiarizing them.
Hand each student a copy of the handout about humpback whales. Go over the instructions and answer questions about the task. Allow students five minutes (or more or less, depending on your students' thinking and processing pace) to check the five most interesting facts according to them.
Tell students they will be doing something now that will help them never to plagiarize in the future: they will be learning to discuss facts from research without having the research sitting in front of them. Explain how it's human nature to be tempted to read facts from a page of research instead of simply discussing the facts with out own conversational voices; we do this with research because we are often afraid we might paraphrase the research incorrectly. And so, we read the facts exactly as they're written, and that invites us to later copy those facts (or portions of the facts) exactly as they were originally written when we are reporting on them in an expository piece of writing. Copying another's research into one's own writing is a pretty serious offense called plagiarism.
Tell students they must prepare themselves to accurately discuss their selected facts about humpbacks, and they will have to do so without having the handout in front of them. And so, they have two minutes to do their very best to memorize the five facts they have checked.
After two minutes, have students fold the handout in half and leave it on their desks so that no one can see what they checked. Require students to walk 8 steps away from their desk and find a partner to talk to. The first discussion stem/prompt is "Of the five facts I chose/checked, the one that ISN'T as interesting as the other four is ___ and I say that because ____."
Have partners move to create new partnerships. The second discussion stem/prompt is "The two facts I checked that seem the most similar/complementary to each other are ____ and ____, and I can justify why I think they're the most similar to each other with this sentence: ____"
Have partners move to create new partnerships. The third discussion stem/prompt is: "The checked fact from my whale handout that might make an interesting introduction to an essay is _____, and here's a possible first sentence (or two) of that essay I might write: _____." Try creating a first sentence (or two) using a question, then use the same fact again in an introductory sentence that is NOT a question. Ask your partner which introduction he/she prefers after sharing both.
Have partners move and create new partnerships. Here is the fourth discussion stem/prompt: "What's one fact you checked that you haven't said much about yet to any of your partners? Ask your partner to help you write a sentence that both paraphrases the fact and uses three really great action verbs in doing so."
Have partners move and create a final partnership, and here is the final discussion stem/prompt before students move back to their desks: "In no particular order, try to recall out loud all five facts you checked on your handout, and have your partner give you a thumbs up (or down) for each one that sounds like you remembered the fact accurately but made a good attempt to express it in your own words."
Students return to their desks. As a class, discuss the following: 1) How confident are you that you could include these five facts in an essay about whales and that you could write about them using your own words? 2) How/Why does discussing your researched facts with others before writing about them improve one's chance of putting them in your own words?
| If this will help you, I invite you to use it.
Here's a PowerPoint I created for the above activity so my students don't have to keep asking me to repeat the discussion stems.
Part Three: Exploring Wacky We-Search & Making Research Fun!
What follows here is my set-up for a fun, expository writing assignment I have just created this year (2016) inspired by a favorite old mentor text. Now please make no mistake about my classroom's fun assignments; my students absolutely DO all write one formal expository paper every semester, and they do a good job with that paper, even though those aren't necessarily fun. As part of my writer's workshop expectations, my students must take an expository, a persuasive, and a narrative idea of their own choosing all the way through the entire writing process every 18-week semester. Their final drafts of these formal papers go into my students' portfolios, and about every six weeks, a new paper is created. In between the time it takes to put those more formal papers through the writing process (I set aside a day every week to work on those writer's workshop pieces), we do a lot of one-day, two-day, or sometimes four-day fun writing tasks. My fun writing tasks are completely designed to build the skills needed to be successful with the bigger papers that go into my students' portfolios. Now...I have teacher-friends who do formal writing instruction most of the time, and they don't spend a lot of time on the fun stuff. Their students write great essays, but so do mine, and I can guarantee you that my students have a much more positive attitude about writing because so many of my assignments really try to make writing fun.
Some teachers report to me that they can't seem to make the time for both the formal and the fun. I am so glad that I have been able to find the balance so that both can happen regularly and routinely in my own classroom. It took me a while to master that balance, and--I'm not going to lie--it was a lot of work to become the writing teacher I am today. It was worth the effort. Every time I say, "We're going to begin a new writing assignment today that will take us a three or four days to get through," the vast majority my students are genuinely excited, which I don't think is the case in all of my friends' classrooms where formal writing is what they spend most of their time working on. This holds true even when the writing assignment I am giving is expository and research-inspired, which is often the type of writing that students find the dullest. If you want to see expository writing that is fun and that is worth taking a one- or two-day detour from your literature or short story unit, check out my wildly popular "Ridiculous Essay" lesson. Don't sell short the fun assignments in the interest of time; they're the ones the students will remember the longest. And if they're designed well, they teach good writing skills.
To get started on creating fun and expository lessons (like the one I have on this page for you), I always suggest you get your hands on 51 Wacky We-Search Reports by Barry Lane. The lesson write-up contained on this page is partially inspired by this book by Barry; it is the book I mentioned earlier on this page that we found grant money to buy a copy for all teachers who took our Writing Across the Curriculum inservice course back in the 00's. It is the best $15 you will ever spend if you recognize that your expository lessons might be more dull than fun. I first met the author--Barry--when he came to town and presented on a Saturday about another one of his books--The Reviser's Toolbox--and our then-great Writing Project chapter sponsored a half-credit workshop that turned out to be amazing. A few years later, when I was Director, we had a full-credit class dedicated to writing across the curriculum, and half of that class was all about using Barry's 51 Wacky We-Search Reports. We always bought each participant their own copy, and the great Barry actually stopped by during one of the sessions and did some activities with us. With all this personal exposure to this book over the years, I can boast that I know it backwards and forwards. Here are three of the the book's best principles:
Creating appropriate and clever humorous things for writing requires higher-level thinking, and this book thoroughly supports the idea that writing assignments should encourage students to try using some humor when reflecting, and this makes expository writing and research more enjoyable;
Researching properly (or "we-searching") can be both intimidating and dull, so doing it as a small-group or partner task is a great way to build those skills in a less intimidating and less dull way. Thanks to this book by Barry, I have a completely different view on the power of student collaboration and grouping, which you can explore at this page
here at Always Write
If you are asking students to translate research they've done into an unusual piece of writing (like Wacky We-Search report idea #29, "Crazy Report Cards," where students design a report card--complete with teacher comments--for, say, the Grand Canyon or for Harry S Truman), there is no way students can plagiarize. The book's assignment suggestions are perfect for practicing how to put other's ideas into your own words.
The book contains 51 different ideas for having students research and write something other than a formal essay; some of the writing tasks take less than 30 minutes, and others could become projects that take a few days to complete. All the book's suggestions can work as individual tasks or as small group tasks. If you look again at the handout from "Task One" above on this page, you'll notice that sixth-grader Wittekin wrote a recipe for "Exploding Universe Cupcakes," which he wrote by himself after the class did research on the Big Bang Theory; this idea came directly from Barry's book--Wacky We-Search idea # 44--which is called Recipe Poems.
When we taught our Wacky We-Search inspired inservice class back in the day, we created a complementary website that shared the course's outline and activities for other presenters around the world, and Barry graciously granted us permission to scan and share several of the book's wacky idea write-ups that we used in the class. Below, you can open those scans for the following lesson ideas I just mentioned. Barry would appreciate it if, inspired by these two examples, you decide to invest in your own copy of the book:
One of the book's ideas that Barry didn't give me permission to scan and post is idea #34: The World's Wackiest Tour Guide. The premise here is simple. After researching a topic, students create the script for the tour guide who'd be helping you through a guided visit of a place or a "place." Students could certainly provide a tour of a real place they've researched (to be wacky, think Mars, or Montana during the Great Ice Age, or the inside of a human heart), or they could provide a tour of a "place" that doesn't exist, like Algebra-land, which is one of the examples Barry shares in his book. The other example Barry has created for sharing is a tour of the Crusades, and the tour guide--instead of stopping at physical landmarks--is stopping at dates from history. I am quoting (not paraphrasing) Barry's book's example here: "On your left, you will see November 27, 1095. The man in the pointy hat is Pope Urban II arriving in the French town of Clermont to tell everybody that we Muslims have been destroying shrines where Christ lived in the Holy Land, attacking Christians and refusing to go to bed at a reasonable hour." That last little bit is Barry's sense of humor infused into his script, which the book's many examples are great at demonstrating. The idea here is that students aren't just creating a script based on facts they've researched, but they are creating something that might just set them up to provide the class with some performance art. When we do Wacky We-Search projects, my kids love to share them, and they giggle themselves silly in a good way as facts are shared out loud.
Back when I was in fourth grade, my previously mentioned favorite teacher of all time--Mike Borilla--used to give us mimeographed writing prompts once a week as our "creative writing time." I assume he had a book filled with them as we saw lots of them over the course of my two years with him as my teacher. The first one I remember doing for him was in October, which I remember only because it was based on Columbus Day. The prompt asked us to write about a day in the life of the Nina, the Pinta, or the Santa Maria in the voice of a ship rat who lived on board. We had been studying Columbus, and so we--of course--were prepared to infuse actual facts into the delightfully creative idea suggested in the prompt. The idea that a rat was our narrator tickled most everyone's funny bone in the class, but it was my writing that Mr. Borilla read aloud to the class at the end of the lesson. I had used humor appropriate for my fourth grade mind in my script. The line that made Mr Borilla laugh the loudest was how the rat would pilfer and secretly eat all of the ship-appropriate rations of the time when the sailors weren't looking--except for the spinach, which he threw overboard. Forty years later, I remember that the sailors ate cheese and salted meats and rice and almonds, and I remember the silly joke I made about spinach too because I wanted a good belly laugh from my audience. I reported the facts in my own words (actually in an imaginary rat's words) and I made a little joke to help me enjoy the assignment a bit more. Mr. Borilla's mimeographed writing prompts were an early version of what became Barry's 51 Wacky We-Search Reports, and I loved writing when I was in Mr. Borilla's class.
Another great thing about Barry's Wacky We-Search book is that it invites reckless adaptations of the original ideas from teachers using the book. Barry provides a solid idea with each wacky idea for writing, he then provides an example or two, and he invites you to discover your own twists to the original concept as you think about the content you are required to teach your kiddos. Now I have always firmly believed the best way to become a great writing teacher is to borrow others' best creative ideas and adapt them to be your own creative variations; that ability to adapt builds teacher confidence, originality, and wisdom. I suspect it might be appropriate at this point to liken the power of adapting others' ideas in order to become a better teacher to the skill of paraphrasing when creating a research paper; you have a source--an original something, if you will--and you learn by putting that thing into your own words. I have made so many great adaptations of Barry's "Recipe Poems" over the years, and those adaptations have done nothing but make my lessons and units stronger and better. With the lesson on this page, I am sharing an adaptation of "The World's Wackiest Tour Guide" that I am working on for a new piece of writing I want my students to start doing every year around President's Day. My hope in sharing this: that you will find a way to adapt my adaptation to fit an upcoming expository unit you are developing, and in the meantime, I hope you might consider trying my adaptation--because I think this is a four-day exercise that is worth the time because of the writing skills it teaches and the writing skills it sets up for review.
So here is my adaptation of the tour guide assignment from the Wacky We-Search book. I am going to have my students create a scripted tour of a historical North American site (think the Golden Gate Bridge, for example), and--here's the wacky part--the tours will be given by an animal that is primarily considered to be a North American animal (think the American beaver). This project will involve a research day, where students will research both a site and an animal. This project will involve a writer's notebook day, where students will create a fun page to serve as some of their prewriting. This project will involve a script-writing day, where drafts will be composed, shared out loud, and revised based on fellow students' suggestions. If it feels like the students' work has been good, we may set aside a fourth day for students to publish their scripts in the computer lab so they can be informally self-assessed by fellow students and formally assessed by me on a specific writing skill.
Interactive Writing Prompt!
Press the two buttons until you create an idea for
a wacky idea for a historical tour:
Remember, you will need to research both the historical site and the animal giving the tour in order to write!
Once students have their historical sites and tour guides chosen for this lesson, they will need to do some research. Here are some tools my students will be using to gather their research. Remember, the worst thing you can do--in my opinion--is allow students to simply print our research they find; instead, students need to record the most important facts they find online or in print onto another piece of paper.
The blank graphic organizer packet
My teacher model of the packet
My next-to-final draft of my tour script
My students will each receive this packet
I have modeled steps of the process
My next-to-last draft I will ask my students to critique
Part Four: Strengthening the Writing Assignment with a Mentor Text
One thing that sets my writing assignments apart from others is my dedication to having a mentor text that can be shared with the students some time during the writing process. A mentor text is a published piece of writing whose ideas, whose structure, or whose written craft can be analyzed (and perhaps imitated) to inspire better writing out of your students. If you've not explored my resource page for mentor texts, you might consider doing so. I genuinely believe my writing assignments work as well as they do because I have learned to base them on actual mentor texts. My students, I find, want to see that I am challenging them to write similarly to real world published authors.
Often, I share the mentor text a week or two before I introduce the actual writing task. Sometimes I share the mentor text the day we begin the writing assignment. Other times, I bring out the mentor text that inspired the writing task after the students are well into the writing process. There is no right or wrong answer as to exactly when you choose to introduce your mentor text; in fact, choosing to introduce yours at a different time than when I do, well, that's the sort of strategic decision that leads teachers to become better writing teachers because they are attempting to be adaptive.
My mentor text for this lesson is a great one, and it's very new. It's called Help Wanted at Mount Vernon, and it's written by two sisters who are also teachers: Holly Young and Cathy Morgan. Cathy is the social studies teacher of the pair, and she developed a passion for Mount Vernon while attending a summer teacher institute there. Holly is the math teacher, and when she and Cathy sat down to write the story, Holly was instrumental in making the story interactive by building problem-solving tasks for the readers. The result was the creation of an interactive book that explores the ingeniousness of the first U.S. President by exploring his historic home.
The main characters in this children's book are Hyram (a spitting lizard) and Lloyd (a fainting goat), two animals who end up applying for jobs at Mount Vernon. It was the idea of animals applying for jobs at a national monument that inspired me to ask, "What if North American animals served as tour guides at all North American historical monuments?" If you're a teacher in Australia, you can so easily change this concept to fit your geography. That's adaptation.
The picture book is a bit longer than many I share, so I personally am going to divide it into 5 parts, each shared on a different day. Here is how I have chosen to share this mentor text as my students prepare to write a guided tour, and as President's Day holiday comes up on us:
- First day. I will share the introduction of the book before my students do Sacred Writing Time. I will explain that--because Washington's birthday is coming up-- I want them to know a little more about his home, Mount Vernon, but also that I think this book's idea might make a fun SWT topic they can have fun with for a few days. I will then share the book's introduction to the characters, their being hired as employees of Mount Vernon, and their first job assignments that are given to them. I will stop after reading pages 8 and 9. I think a great SWT topic after sharing this would be, "What if animals had part time jobs, and/or what if animals hired other animals on farms? What would that be like?" I expect a few of my students to "run" with the idea in their writer's notebooks because my students seem to enjoy my occasional suggestions.
- Second day. After the introduction, the book is divided into four fascinating and unique facts about George Washington and the innovations he created on his Mount Vernon plantation. On day two, I will share Hyram's learning about the Ha-ha Wall that kept the animals away from the guests without using a traditional fence. This part of the book ends on page 14. I expect to share this segment of the story on the day my students begin researching their historical site, and I will use the Ha-ha wall as an example of the sort of specific place you could stop a group of tourists and share an interesting location and set of facts about one of their historical site's features.
- Third day. I will take ten minutes on a third day to share what Lloyd learns about the efficiency of the sixteen-sided barn at Mount Vernon, which goes through page 21. While listening, I am going to ask my students to take note of interesting adjectives and verbs the authors chose to use. I'll remind them, as they continue processing research of their own historical site, that they should include good action words and descriptors to make their tour script come alive.
- Fourth day. I like this segment because it really introduces the idea of an animal serving as a tour guide and having a script that the animal must know well. I suspect my students will have gathered their research on their North American animal at this point, so I can remind them to incorporate interesting facts/limitations an animal might share or struggle with in order to serve as a tour guide. Poor Hyram's lizard brain can't fathom the idea of having a tour guide script memorized! I suspect I will share my teacher model of my tour of the Washington Monument on this day too, so I can have my students comment on how I incorporated facts about my tour guide--an American Beaver--into the facts shared on the tour script I created. The fourth section I will share ends with Hyram learning about the Windsor chair.
- Fifth day. I will share the final segment from the book, which includes information about Washington's grist mill to Hyram and Lloyd deciding to try their luck as tour guides at Monticello instead of at Mount Vernon. I will time this final segment to be shared as students are working on completing their rough drafts, and I will ask them to compare the way they are concluding their story with how the authors concluded their story.