The students' "historical picture books" (actually, they would be called summary writing in the Common Core, but the kids don't need to hear that dry talk!) go through the composing and revision steps of the writing process, and students take them home to "publish" their writing as a decorated children's book as week's worth of homework. We celebrated our accomplishment (93% turned in on-time for this homework project; two of the three missing assignments were in my hands the next day, one project still M.I.A.) by reading our classmates' picture books to each other using our "sweetest librarian-at-storytime voices."
All in all, this was a great lesson for writing across the curriculum, for summary writing that cites primary sources, and for being creative with a final published piece of writing while in a small group presentation. I'm not sure that last italicized standard is in the Common Core, but the presence of the other two certainly should justify letting the crayons and safety scissors come out when putting on our finishing touches as to impress our classmates and teacher.
Two Mentor Texts that inspired Idea & Structure (and Style!):
Pinterest Board Accompaniment
This original and free-to-use lesson write-up comes with a bonus. With some of our more visual assignments, I often take lots of photographs of my students' samples. This lesson comes with this accompanying Pinterest board: Primary Source Picture Books...an Assignment. There are a lot of student samples shown for this lesson already, and I will be adding more as time goes by and time permits.
You should know me well enough by now to know ahead of time this lesson was inspired by a mentor text. It was inspired by multiple texts actually, which is probably also not a surprise to those of you who follow my work here online. With writing lessons, I employ mentor texts for a variety of reasons, which I have classified into three categories: idea-inspiring, structural, and stylistic texts. All three purposes were actually featured in my lesson, but I focused more on the ideas and the structure more than the writing style, which I will add more of next year when I teach this.
When I introduce the first mentor text (which is pictured above), I tell the students how it's a picture book I never paid for. Free is good. The author--Ellen Jackson--was kind enough to send me a free copy when I was serving as webmaster for the WritingFix website, and I introduced it to many teacher over many years when I taught my "Writing Across the Curriculum" workshop for teachers. Having returned to in the classroom now, I don't have the time to teach those classes for my district anymore, but I miss the books we used during those classes.
Two years back, I decided to make this picture book about and by Teddy Roosevelt into an assignment. I purchased a transcribed version of Roosevelt's boyhood diaries, which is a thick (and pricey) resource, I can tell you. There was a lot of boyhood journal to transcribe from the future president. I explain what the illustrated picture book is, I show them the longer and unedited version of the Roosevelt journals, and I explain why Ellen Jackson calls herself the editor on the front page.
We then have a "value debate," which is always fun to do with middle schoolers. I ask, "So if you wanted to enter the children's book industry as a future profession, is this a fair way to do it?" Now don't send an angry letter! I have so much respect for what Ellen Jackson has done here with this picture book, and I wish I could have learned history with more resources like this one. I always have a small contingent of kids who think Ellen Jackson's technique is an unfair way to write a picture book (and they are wrong), and having them explain their thinking ALWAYS takes us into a conversation where we can review what constitutes plagiarism; we also get to talk about what is fair and intelligent use of historical documentation that already exists. By the end of our discussion, my kids want to find a primary source or two that will help them re-tell a story from recent history.
Now, I love Ellen Jackson's book, but I need more from my kids than practicing editing skills to call this a reading workshop project; my reading workshop projects all must involve an original piece of writing, and if we emulated Jackson's writing style here, there wouldn't be enough original writing.
My objectives for this non-fiction-inspired Reading Workshop? I wanted my students to summarize something historical so they could show off their new knowledge of compound and complex sentences. And I wanted them to learn from and then cite primary sources.
I knew there had to be a historical book that quoted primary sources and summarized history. I'll bet there are many, but I was fortunate enough to find Theodore by Frank Keating. This book also quotes from young Teddy Roosevelt's boyhood journals, but it quotes from other primary sources from this former president too. Just about every page has a quote from Teddy Roosevelt, and every page has a well-written summary piece that very competently brings together the relevant quote with the summary that's being shared. On some pages, the quote begins the summary and on others the quote concludes the summary. We talk about using both as organization strategies.
Ellen Jackson's book served as my "idea mentor text" for this lesson. Frank Keating's book served as my "structure mentor text." The two books--as two books often well, I've discovered--worked in conjunction to demonstrate the writing process we would follow as we created our primary source picture books.
Modeling the Process:
It's always great to go into a lesson with not-one-but-two mentor text picture books to serve as professional models of your own lesson's idea for a published product. Through your mini-lessons, students need to experience the process of going from idea-for-a- research to "published children's book" modeled for them. They can't just see a published product up front and be expected to navigate those tricky waters known as the writing process.
When I model, my students are usually in groups of two or three members, and together I ask them to compose and revise. That was the case for this lesson's primary piece of modeling, which I describe below.
First though, a word about my choice of topic: the War of 1812. Why was this chosen, you ask? Because my team's social studies teacher was just finishing up her unit on this. I knew this because I bothered to ask her. Our district believes in teaming in the middle school, and I'm very amazed when I talk with other English teachers on teams at other schools who aren't actively cooperating with their own social studies teachers to satisfy all this Common Core-required non-fiction and writing across the curriculum. A shout out to my own team's social studies teacher, Lindsey Clewell--who rocks the house with history on our team. I can't tell you how many awesome things for reading and writing she teaches them so I don't have to, and it's all because we talk to each other on our team! Go Unity!
We modeled a practice writing session by having them first read this Andrew Jackson's letter, which was written after the Battle of New Orleans. We read the letter two times:
First, they read as an editor, and by doing so, we successfully took all the spelling and punctuation marks off the kids' radar when we talked about the quality of the writing. I simply assigned them this role, "You're Jackson's personal assistant. Fix those errors before he sends this, or you're the one who'll be demoted, not him." As individuals, students read and edited the letter, comparing their own edits with their small group's editing marks once all had gone through the whole letter.
Next, they re-read it as future summary writers. With two colored high-lighters, they attacked the letter again. With one color (let's say yellow!), they can only highlight sets of two, three or four words as phrasal clusters; with the other (shall we say orange?), they highlight entire sentences they think would be worthy as quote, if they were considering using this quote alongside a historical summary (like the author has done in Theodore). Kids at my grade level think they're supposed to highlight entire sentences still, and the yellow activity here is a really great way to teach them the skill of choosing sentences' key concepts so they can scan over the article quickly to summarize its big ideas in their own words. If they really think an entire sentence deserves a highlighted color, then allow them the orange, but they better be willing to explain why they decided the entire sentence is quote-able. Wander around while they highlight and require them to justify; or stop them mid-action and make them compare highlights to their small group members.
Finally, they created a rough draft of the introductory page of the children's picture book to "The Battle of New Orleans," using both summarized ideas in their own words and a quote from the letter. Mine did this in pairs.
Share out loud the rough drafts in small groups made up of two pairs of students. Next year, if I have extra time, I will probably have their small group partners provide an original "Mr. Stick
" illustration that complements the summary writing and quote, which we will have left room for on the rough draft.
If your class needs additional practice modeling the writing that must be present in the final drafts, I might suggest you take a famous document or speech (after reading a short summary of the event around which the document or speech is centered), and have the kids create rough drafts of the picture book in small groups or with partners.
By the way, I told my students they may use "The Battle of New Orleans" and the Andrew Jackson letter as their individual assignment, but I would not give an 'A' to anyone who didn't find their own topic. I had seventy-three self-chosen topics (click image at left to see some) and one who chose the Battle of New Orleans (click image at right).
After we modeled, I announced they needed to come to the next session prepared to efficiently research. We made a list of of three strategies for efficiency while researching in our computer lab, and I wrote them down, and we read them again before heading to the computer lab, which we did the following session. My writers spent a period in the computer lab researching primary sources. I had a lot of students try to convince me that using "Brainy Quotes" was a fair way to seek quotes that would help their summary. I told them they were required to show me the whole document the quote came from, and if they couldn't, then they couldn't use that quote. A few of them asked if they could add more quotes to some of their 5-8 required pages after they had quoted a primary source to a page, and for that, I let them use "Brainy Quotes."
You may have to have a notetaker ready if your students are new to researching for the sake of writing a summary; mine are at the point where they have to deign a useable one they can show me before logging on to their computers. If they're clueless (only a few of mine are right now), you can suggest a simple beginning-middle-end note-taker that is designed to recount a story about an event from history. Once they find their primary source(s), which I allowed them to print if the documents were under two pages, they'll need to research the event that the primary source was inspired by or that it inspired. My students were not allowed to print these; instead, they had to write information down on their notetakers. In my experience, it becomes easier to "accidentally plagiarize" from an Internet summary they have a printed copy of, but writing key ideas down, having students summarize their own notes outloud to a partner five minutes before the bell, well, it reduces the urge to simply copy the sentences in their entirety.
Once students had their research and their notetaker ready to show me, they had a week to work on the published book as homework. I was nice; I gave them a week off of collecting vocabulary to work on this assignment for my Reader's Workshop. They were, however, told that I'd be grading them a bit harder on the "effort shown" portion of their grade, which I was. My rubric, which the students are now at the point where they adeptly help me design them once I send the assignment home as homework.
These were the criteria they helped me brainstorm. I come up with the criteria; in committees, they create key descriptive words/phrases to write in a blank grid I can put up on the smart board.
Summarizes the historical event thoroughly in their own words
Use language appropriate for a children's book
Revise and edit so the work is worth "publishing"
Makes the quote from the primary source(s) complement the summary
Effort and creativity with the final product is shown
As you think about those five criteria, take a look at the following student page samples I photographed to share with you:
|From Riley's book about MLK,Jr.
(Click image to enlarge)
|Scott's page about Houdini
(Click image to enlarge)
|Scott's Houdini page--unfolded
(Click image to enlarge)
|Sonia's page about Tsar Nicholas
(Click image to enlarge)
Honoring Students' Writing & Efforts by Publishing Projects in a Fun Way:
When I was a young, silly teacher, I collected their papers and projects, loaded them in my car, and spent a weekend alone with them. Sad, I know.
Now that I am a wiser, more experienced educator, I know to set aside the entire period a day project like this is due. In that allotted time--which I CAN afford to give up no matter what anyone else suggests--, my students writing will be read and celebrated by their classmates in a fun way. Afterwards, they self-rank their own rubric based on comparing their final products with their classmates, and most of my assessment work is finished! I have a weekend back. If you're not grading their projects this way yet, you're working too hard. When my kids know their writing was read by many of their classmates, they have learned to like it...for the most part. I'm not going to lie and tell you that I always have that 10-15% who'd rather not have anyone but me read their writing, but tough beans, says I.
For this assignment, I required the students to bring them all to me before school started; I have three classes of seventh graders whose projects were all due on the same day, just over different periods. I wanted them all early in the day so that every class could look through every other classes' books; with picture books, I knew we could spread two or three on every desk, which I did.
After Sacred Writing Time on the day the project was due, I put them in partners I knew they would work well with and have a fun time with. I had grabbed one of the kid's picture books early on--it was the supposedly-appropriate-for-children summary of the beating of Rodney King and the riots that followed. With that book in hand, I asked them to remember storytime with the librarian when they were smaller. Not all had experienced the pleasure of such things in their youths, but all could imagine the "syrupy sweet voice" of a beloved librarian reading in a sing-songy voice even if they had not been brought to storytime. We practiced reading outloud selected sentences I had chosen from the Rodney King picture book. These were our practice sentences:
We spent the next 40 minutes moving from desk-station to desk-station. At each station (which are two desks right next to each other), the partners each had to select a book from the pile of books (there were 4-5 at each station because I had the kids drop them off in the morning), and they each had to read the book aloud to their partner. They probably--on average--rotated five times in that time allotment. They had a ball keeping the "syrupy sweet" voice going; some of them decided to become librarians after this experience!
My favorite "publishing" moment was when my two twin seventh-grade boys--who actually work really well as a partnership--asked their partner (ann odd number meant one group of three) to read them the story while they sat on the carpet.
An Invitation to Share Your Students' Primary Source Picture Books:
You will have students who create awesome notebook pages inspired by this activity--ones that should serve as models for future students who go through this writing activity; you will also have the other end of the spectrum--because we all do! Those kids who put extra effort into this, I hope you'll consider photographing and sharing their notebook pages to celebrate them and inspire others. Tell your students you're going to choose the three best notebook pages and post them at WritingFix's 25,000-teacher-member+ Ning; this is a fabulous way to motivate your writers, and tell your students they could very easily have their notebook pages seen by the tens-of-thousands of teachers and their students who visit our free-to-access educational site annually.
The link below will take you to our posting page specifically set up for this lesson. And hey, I'd love to see teachers sharing their own models of this assignment too!
Click here to visit our Ning's posting page,
where you can post photographs of student notebook pages.