I’ve been thinking about how we use informational texts in our classrooms–if we use them and how often–since Tosh wrote about this topic about a month ago. Her statement is so me:
“I, like many other language arts teachers, overvalued and overemphasized the genres of fiction in the lessons I taught, and now I’m on a mission (crusade?) to help teachers connect students with interesting and complex informational texts that can broaden their knowledge of the world around them as well as model the writing they will have to do in that world.”
Like Tosh, I have my own 20/20 hindsight. And while I never taught my own children in an ELAR class, I did facilitate years of workshops where students “wrote prolifically in their journals and experimented with different writing styles. . . [and] a lot of poetry writing and narratives and imaginative stories” and little focus on reading “more complex informational texts.” Like Tosh, I felt “by focusing on the beauty of language and expression, I neglected the power and practicality of strong informational reading and writing skills.”
And then I got smarter.
It wasn’t that I needed to do away with the the reading and writing practices I had been doing. This kind of reading and writing works magic in developing relationships and beginning the habits of mind of authentic readers and writers–engagement soars when students feel the emotional tug of a beautifully written story or poem, and we invite them to write beside it and then share their writing with their peers. What I needed to do was use these practices as a springboard into an exploration of the more complex informational texts I knew my students needed.
I also knew that to keep students engaged, the spring in my board needed just a little bounce not a 10 foot one. Instead of a sharp shift from one type of reading and writing into another, we took a slow curve. We started mining our own expressive writing for topics we could research, read, and write about in other forms.
For example, since our first major writing piece was narrative, we’d packed our writer’s notebooks with multiple quick writes that sparked reflections about personal events in our lives. Imbedded in these events were topics–topics that could lead to a search for information.
Take my student Jordan (name has been changed for privacy) as an example. He wrote a touching narrative about his first memory after arriving in the United States from Mexico with his parents. He was five. A few of the topics Jordan identified in his piece included: immigration, parent/child relationships, parental responsibilities, financial hardships, mental health, physical health, citizenship both in home and new country. Jordan had a lot of ideas to work with as he chose a topic for our next major writing piece, an informative essay.
Topic mining like this can take time. Many students had a difficult time putting a name to the topics they had written about in their narratives. They also had difficulty in narrowing down those topics. But this is the beauty of talk in a workshop classroom–students talked about their writing. They reflected on it more. They shared their ideas–and they gave one another, writer to writer, authentic feedback.
Of course, as my writers moved into thinking about their informational writing, I started sharing informational texts we used as mentors. This is when we challenged ourselves with text complexity. We read and studied structure and language use. We discussed objective and subjective views and determined if we read any bias. We delved into how writers use data and statistics or why they might choose not to. And more.
And the bounce from narrative into informational writing worked. And it worked again later as we moved from informative writing into argument and later into spoken-word poetry.
Topic mining like this saves time. More often than not, students stuck with the same topic throughout the school year they wrote about during the first three weeks of school. And with each deep dive into form, students practiced layering skills, be it a variety of sentence structures, precise diction, or good grammar. (Skills all learned and practiced via mini-lessons.)
Informational reading and writing is vital to the success of our students beyond high school. We know this. (Think contracts, lease agreements, college textbooks.) I think we also know that some informational texts are downright boring (contracts, lease agreements, college textbooks.) And if your students are like mine, any text over one page–no matter what the writing style–is not likely to get much more than a quick skim without some pretty intense pleading.
When students choose their topics, our chances of engagement–pivotal for learning–grow exponentially. And the student who chooses to write a narrative about her family getting evicted after her father’s illness just might end up being the adult who writes that complex lease agreement.
While not your typical complex informational texts, here’s two I’ve used with high school students with great success: Joyas Voladores and How to Change a Diaper both by Brian Doyle. (P.S. If you are not familiar with The American Scholar, it’s a gold mine of fine writing.)
I’d love to know your favorite informational texts you use to teach your readers and writers. Please list them in the comments.
Amy Rasmussen reads voraciously, writes daily, and chooses texts to use with students wisely. She’s an advocate for student choice in every teaching practice. She lives and works in N. Texas. You can find her on Twitter @amyrass, although these days she’s mostly a lurker.