teaching writing

Opinion Writing - More than just "Favorites"

“You have been given the opportunity to choose two after-school activities per week.  Think about what you would enjoy doing during this time. Write an essay explaining what two activities you would choose.  Include reasons which support your choices.”

We begin to teach students the writing process through the genre of opinion writing, using prompts such as the one above. Through the use of opinion writing, students learn the writing process – gathering ideas, planning, and writing a rough draft.  Prompts which focus on opinion writing provide students the advantage of knowing the topic. They do not need to gather information about the content of their writing, as opinion writing can focus on personal preferences or favorites. 

However, we do not want to stay with these limited topics.  Opinion writing is so much more than simply writing about a favorite restaurant or TV show.  How can we expand this writing genre to include both curricular areas and responding to texts?

One suggestion is to consider curricular areas. What is happening in the classroom that can be expanded to writing?  Here are some examples:

After a unit on Space:

You have been invited to participate in a two-year space mission. During that time, you will travel throughout space without returning to earth.  Write an essay explaining whether or not you would choose to take part in the mission.  Include three reasons why you would accept the position or three reasons why you would decline the invitation.

Or. . .

After completing our unit on space, think about what you have learned about each planet. Choose the planet you find most interesting and write a letter to a friend describing what they would see if they were to visit this planet. Make sure you use evidence from the texts to support your response.

After a field trip:

The Third Grade just completed our first field trip to the City Council as part of our unit on local government. Would you recommend that next year’s teachers take their students on the same field trip?  Write an essay which explains your thoughts on the field trip. Include two reasons why you think the trip is valuable or two reasons why you would not recommend repeating the trip.

After a read-aloud:

Our first read-aloud this year was because of mr. terupt.  I am deciding whether or not to begin next year reading the same novel aloud.  Do you think this is a good choice to begin the year?  Write an essay explaining whether or not you believe this is a good selection for next year.  Include two reasons to support your opinion.

As a classroom community:

As 6th graders, the freedoms and choices you have at school are increasing.  Write an essay explaining to your teacher two choices you would like to be able to make in your classroom.  Be sure to give reasons to support your choices.

Primary Classrooms

Although many primary students are not yet planning, teachers can still introduce the concept of prompts and planning to young students.  As you experience concepts with students, be thinking of ways to introduce students to planning. Create a chart with students, listing the topic and big ideas on the left side. Fill the t-chart in together, adding details to the right side of the chart.

Student Community

We have been working and learning all semester.  We will celebrate our accomplishments with a party.  Think about activities you enjoy participating in at a party.  What three activities do you believe we should definitely include at our celebration?

Primary prompt.jpg

Social Studies

We have been learning about people who help our community.  We can invite one community helper to visit our classroom.  Using the information we have learned, think about whether you would like to learn more about firefighters or police officers.  Together, we will make two t-charts.  The first chart will list three reasons you would like to invite a firefighter to visit our classroom and the second chart will list three reasons you would like to invite a police officer.

Science

 We have been learning about three different habitats: the ocean, the jungle, and the desert.  As a table group, choose one habitat you would like to visit.  Using what you have learned, think of reasons why this habitat is unique and interesting. Together we will make a chart organizing reasons why people might travel to each habitat.

Or . . .

We have been learning about habitats.  We have just completed a book on jaguars.  Using what you have learned, which habitat do you believe would be the best place for a jaguar to live?  Give reasons to support your answer.

Applying Opinion Writing To Responding to Text

Students are now ready to write an opinion paragraph in response to text.  The skills needed to write the paragraph are the same, but students will need instruction on using those skills in forming an opinion in response to text.

1.)     Choose a topic which relates to either content area curriculum or a shared classroom experience. Write a prompt which clearly addresses the topic and format you want students to use.

A class of third graders was ready to write an opinion paragraph in response to text.  They had been studying local government in Social Studies and taking care of the earth in Science. The teacher combined these two curricular areas with the following prompt:

Read the article on recycling. Write an opinion paragraph stating whether or not you think recycling should be mandatory in our city.  Be sure to include three reasons that support your opinion using information from the text.

2.)    Choose a text which is easily accessible to the majority of your class.

Provide students with text which is easy to comprehend. The focus for this lesson should be learning how to respond to text, not how to read a difficult text.

3.)     Teach note-taking skills 

Instruct students in specific note-taking skills. If students are being asked to respond to a text, they need strategies for locating the required information. 

4.)     Model planning with students

Students need to know that the skills they learned and used for writing an opinion paragraph are the same skills they use to write an opinion paragraph in response to text.  Their opinion will be based on the information they have read in the text.  The teacher will model taking the information found in the text and placing it in a t-chart plan. 


Teacher model plan.jpg

5.)    Go slow to go fast

As you write the first paragraph together as a class, encourage students to share their writing as they complete each step of the writing process. This helps ensure the students are on the correct path.


Opinion writing can be so much more than writing about “favorites.”  Continually look for opportunities to encourage students to express their opinions in writing.

We love to talk writing with teachers.  Please let us know if we can be of service to you in any way.

 

             

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can We Work With A Partner?

We spent last Saturday enjoying the beauty of Colorado.  We started the day with a 4 mile snowshoe through the mountains.  The mountains are beautiful, but they do present a challenge.  At least half the trip is uphill.  At 10,000 feet, we were breathing heavily by the time we reached the summit.  The view made the struggle worth it – but it definitely took stamina to complete the climb.

We next headed to Breckenridge to view the annual snow sculpting contest.  Teams of artists were provided a 10 foot by 10 foot by 12 foot block of snow and given the opportunity to turn it into a piece of art. Although the warm sun was definitely effecting the sculptures, their beauty was inspiring.  It was impressive to view what these artistic groups had accomplished together.

 Driving home, I reflected on the two experiences.  The snowshoe excursion was an example of stamina – the ability to do something even when it is hard.  Although we had encouraged one another, it took a personal effort to put one snowshoe in front of the other.  The sculptures were an inspiring example of collaboration.  Working together, people had turned a simple block of snow into a beautiful piece of art.

There is a constant tension between stamina and collaboration in elementary classrooms. As teachers we realize the importance of students demonstrating their learning independently.  Frequently asked to complete both classroom and standardized assessments, we desire our students to develop the confidence and skills needed to demonstrate what they know independently.  We define the term stamina as the ability for a student to persevere through a difficult task. 

However, many students desire to work with others. “Can we do this with a partner?” is a phrase frequently heard throughout elementary classrooms.  When asked if there are any questions about a new learning engagement, this is often the first question that is asked.

At a recent staff meeting, we were involved in a discussion with teammates concerning math instruction.  As we discussed the math learning in our classrooms, a fellow teacher remarked, “I can’t remember the last time my students did something entirely on their own.  They complete everything together.”  This comment led me to reflect on my own classroom practices.  How much do I have my students work on together?  How many opportunities do I provide for them to demonstrate their learning completely on their own?

I brought the question back to my students.  At Morning Meeting, I posed the following questions to the children.

What are some positive attributes about working with others to complete a task?

What is negative about working in a group?

Do you prefer to have a group assigned to you or choose your own partner?

My goodness, they had many things to share!

Some positives included:

It’s more fun to work with a friend.  It makes work feel less like work.

If I get stuck, friends can help me understand what I’m supposed to do. 

I love to talk and I can talk with a partner!

Some negatives about working with a group:

When I work with a group, some people mess around and I get stuck doing all the work.

I get distracted when I work with other people.  It’s really easy for me to be off task when other kids are around.

Sometimes members in my group aren’t prepared. I can’t learn anything new because I’m waiting for them to catch up.

After I work with a group, it can be hard for me to work alone.

Choosing partners:

I prefer to choose my own partner because I know who I can work with best.

Sometimes it’s hard when we have to choose our own partner.  I don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.

It stresses me out to have to choose a partner. I worry no one will work with me.

As I listened to the students’ responses, I was impressed with their honesty.  The students were thoughtful as they reflected on their own learning.  The question for me as a teacher was how to help both the students and myself strike the best balance. 

As a teacher, it is often difficult for me to watch the students struggle.  Encouraging students to work with a partner provides a struggling student with another explanation while helping other students solidify their thinking by explaining it to someone else.  Collaboration plays a vital role in our learning. While collaboration is an important skill, we must remember that students can only go as far as what they have learned.

However, as educators, we know it is also imperative that students learn to work independently even when things are difficult – they need to build the ability to stick with a challenging task. It is unfair to suddenly ask students to work independently in an assessment situation if we have not provided them time to practice.

We are currently working on both stamina and collaboration in writing.  We often brainstorm together, gathering ideas from one another.  Using prompts, we determine both the topic and big/main ideas for planning.  As we learn about different genres, the writing is a collaborative process.   However, once skills are learned, the writing becomes more and more individual.  While students are still sharing their drafts and learning from one another, the writing has moved to being independent.

The balance between building stamina and working collaboratively varies both by day and by student. As with all of teaching, this balance is a work in progress.  I am looking forward to talking with my students as they reflect on this balance in our classroom.

Community Helpers and Apples – Planning with Primary

This week I was privileged to spend time in first grade and kindergarten classes.  The enthusiasm and eagerness to learn displayed by these young students was a treat!

First grade was embarking on their unit on communities, beginning with community helpers.  They asked if I could co-teach a lesson introducing these community members which included a writing piece. Whenever someone mentions people who work in a community, the Sesame Street song “Who are the people in your neighborhood?” immediately begins to play in my head.  Is it possible today’s students would be as enraptured by these singing Muppets as my children had been years ago?

We began by labeling a two-column chart Community Helpers and What They Do.  We then played the first video clip of the Muppets singing about the Fireman and the Postman. (See chart below.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5cRukvx850

The characters had the same appeal to present day primary students! 

After the video, we looked at our chart.  What community helper was mentioned in the video?  What did we learn that he or she did as a job?  What else do we know about this community helper?  (We were careful to mention that these occupations can be done by both men and women!)  Together, we filled out our chart.  

It was now time to write!  Our notes were that – notes.  We discussed what we needed to add to our notes to make a complete sentence. The students eagerly chose a community helper and a job they performed.  The room was abuzz as students wrote their sentences and then shared them with both adults and other students. 

We repeated the process with another “Who are the people in your neighborhood?” video. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2bbnlZwlGQ

Students were able to glean the information from the video, complete the chart and set off on their writing.  Before we ended the lesson, we gathered to discuss what we had accomplished in our time together. We had asked a question, looked for the answer, taken notes on what we had learned and transferred the notes to writing!  Wow!

The same process - ask a question, look for the answer, take notes on what we learned and transfer the notes to writing – happened in kindergarten.  The five year olds had been observing apples and had created a map together on the attributes of an apple.  Their teacher and I wanted them to write about their findings in an organized manner.  As their science unit was on senses, we chose to blend the two. 

Looking at their attribute map, we posed the question, “How does an apple taste?”  Students discussed the words written on their map and chose the words they felt best described how an apple tastes.  As they chose words, we circled the words in pink and wrote them on the bottom of our chart.  After we finished choosing the taste words, students set off to write.  A sentence starter “An apple tastes ..” was provided for students who needed that structure.  The kindergarteners were happy to share their sentences with us.  We repeated the process asking the question “How does an apple look?”  Students debated if a word could belong to more than one category and if they could add words to their attribute map.  As they began to write a second time, many began to combine more than one attribute in a sentence – “An apple is red and shiny.”  Using a page for each sense, students were writing books on their own, which they could now read and share with one another.

As I left school on Friday, I noticed a stack of red construction paper books in my box.  The kindergarteners had completed their apple books and wanted me to read them.  They had an audience for their writing and were eager to share their knowledge!  What more could we ask of our young writers?