Before I start, does anyone else think this shark's mouth is totally photo-shopped? I've watched my fair share of Shark Week episodes and I've never seen such a happy shark.
When you're looking over your district's instructional calendar, do you sometimes think, "This doesn't quite make sense. Are they kidding?" I know they didn't ask for my opinion, but sometimes I scratch my head at the timeline or the way topics are grouped together. These moments always lead to a fork in my professional road where I contemplate rebellion and chart my own course. You've done this, right? Don't hide it... you've strayed.
And this is when some of my best teaching happens. It comes from me, from what I know about my kids and what they like and where they are developmentally, from what I know works for them. This was one of those times.
Just so you know how this started, our curriculum calendar had informational writing and persuasive writing being taught at the same time during the same month, but in a way I thought was forced and disconnected. Plus I wasn't sure how we'd do either one justice if we didn't somehow combine the two genres for the sake of time. I knew I wanted it to be interesting, relevant, and connected, but I didn't have a clear vision... until my pool deck became inundated with frogs that weekend.
I hate frogs.
When my daughter started trying to get me to see how cute they actually are, the idea for our new writing unit hit me: Animals People Love to Hate. The idea was that children would write informational books about less-than-lovely animals and include a part at the end of the book where they would attempt to persuade the reader to love (or at least like a little more than hate) the animal. And I have to tell you, it was totally worth the straying.
I don't have this unit written out, but you'll definitely get the gist by reading through the description and seeing the photos. It will be easy for you to make the unit fit your needs, but I do have all the research and book templates at the end of this post.
Preparing for the Unit
Even though each child was going to make their own book, I knew I wanted the children to work collaboratively during the research phase of this unit, especially so they could support each other while reading the nonfiction books and taking notes. I also knew I would need to find books first graders could actually read, otherwise the research portion didn't stand a chance of being authentic and I'd be running around helping everyone read instead of coaching them through their research. Our own classroom library was the best source of age-appropriate books and I supplemented with internet videos I bookmarked on each animal. I was able to find enough material to make 6 different baskets of books:
I found plenty on sharks, but that's a topic many of my children already knew a lot about and, since I wanted this to be a process of learning new information, I kept the topic of sharks for myself... to use as my mentor pieces throughout the unit.
Then, I had fun introducing the unit (being totally dramatic about how lots of people don't like these animals) and invited each child to choose one animal from the list. Some chose an animal they already liked because they thought it would be easier to persuade the reader, but some writers chose animals they didn't like, challenging themselves to find reasons to change their own minds. (This type of "shared control" works for me. I limited their choices by listing only the animals I had good resources for, but the children had complete control over which animal they chose from the list. Don't get caught in a situation where a child chooses something obscure like electric eels and you suddenly realize all the books on eels are too hard to read.)
Tech Tip: Set up one computer for each topic. For example, have one "Frog Computer" where all the frog videos are bookmarked and ready to view by the frog group.
Being a Researcher
After selecting their animals, we talked about what it meant to be a researcher. I gave them templates for taking notes and a week to gather information with their group mates. Because my kids are first graders, I wanted to support their research by scaffolding their notes. You'll notice the templates guide them to look for specific information while they're researching... things like body parts, diet, habitat, predators, etc. (You can see how this writing unit would easily tie into a science unit on animals.) I also have pages where they can collect "WOW FACTS" and then a blank page where they can record any other notes that are of particular interest to them.
They used books...
And videos bookmarked on their group's computer...
Throughout the writing workshop lessons, I modeled my own research and note-taking with my own topic, sharks...
And the children kept research notes of their own in their writing notebooks. These are sample notes from an average student. Her topic is bears.
Time to Write
I can't say how long your class might need for the research phase of this unit, but mine needed a week to sift through the books and videos to get the notes they wanted. Once we finished that, it was time to write. This is when the children began working independently... I modeled, they wrote, we conferred, they shared with partners, we all gave feedback along the way... a regular writing workshop... and they were busy! I gave the children the freedom to choose their writing templates so they could design their books in a way that was personally creative and meaningful for them. The templates I used allowed the children to practice different formats and text features. We had already spent a long time studying nonfiction mentor texts and now they were ready to make their own nonfiction books. It was very exciting to see their different ideas emerge on paper.
I always modeled my own during the minilessons so the children could hear how I was thinking and making decisions about what to do. One reason kids love nonfiction books is because they have a lot of graphic features, like comic books almost. I added everything I could think of to my shark book... arrows, labels, captions, bold words, WOW FACTS, close-ups or "Zooms," and so on. And since many nonfiction books rely heavily on graphic features, it's important to teach about different ways to illustrate their pages. For example, on the page where I'm writing about the shark's sense of smell, it isn't necessary to draw the whole shark. I modeled how I wanted the reader to focus on the nostrils, so I had to think of a different perspective when drawing. The kids love this and they try it, too!
Here is a student sample from the little girl who took notes about bears. She's really into apostrophes right now... not sure why. We'll work on that later. (January - First Grade)
(Wow... this is a really long post. I wasn't planning that. Kudos to you if you're still with me.)
Sharing and Celebrating
My students get super-pumped when they know they'll be sharing with an audience and we love to share with our second-grade friends in Trina Deboree's classroom, so when our books were all finished, we headed upstairs (where all the "big kids" are) to share our nonfiction / persuasive books.
This time, we had six students share publicly and then each 1st grader shared with their 2nd grade buddy, so every child had a chance to share with some type of audience.
And don't forget to save time for a celebration... they've worked hard! My students are happy with music and anything that smells like sugar.
If you'd like the templates for the research notes and writing pages, you can pick them up HERE.
Happy teaching! :)