More Ways to Skin the Information Writing Cat

I certainly believe that, as teachers, we need to prepare students for the kinds of academic writing they’ll be asked to do as they move up the grades and into college by teaching them to write powerful essays that demonstrate deep understandings of content. But I don’t think they need a steady diet of thesis-driven essays. And so last week I looked at using Dummies books to engage students in information writing.

This week I offer three other ways of writing engaging nonfiction pieces that explain and inform. All three are grounded in one or more mentor texts that students can study for structure and craft. And all three invite students to write with passion, voice, insight and even humor in a mode of writing that sometimes runs the risk of becoming mechanical and dry.

Compare & Contrast: Using a Children’s Picture Book to Explore Different Perspectives

As opinion writing made its way to lower schools, many teachers discovered the wonderful picture book Hey, Little Ant by Phillip and Hannah Hoose. In rhyming couplets, the book recounts the debate between a boy, who is poised to squish an ant, and the ant, who pleads for his life by mounting a persuasive argument that provides all sorts of facts about ants. And it ends with the following invitation for readers to decide:

Many teachers use this question as a prompt to write opinion pieces about the merits of killing or letting the ant live, using the arguments in the book to support their position. In fact, the book is so popular, it spawned its own website, which one year sponsored a Hey, Little Ant essay contest for kindergarten through third-grade students. But I like to use the book instead as a mentor text for writing information pieces that set two characters with opposing viewpoints together, say, a gray wolf who’s been reintroduced in the west and a rancher who wants to hunt him, or Columbus and a Taino Indian discussing who was here first. A Hey, LIttle Ant-inspired book would let students explore both the facts and misconceptions about each side’s position—while letting kids play around with rhyme without sacrificing meaning.

Narrative Procedures Re-Invented: Unleashing the Power of the Second-Person Point of View

While narrative procedures do not appear, as such, on the Common Core Standards, they are a kind of writing that informs or explains a process or procedure, which makes them a good vehicle for meeting the information writing standard. Unfortunately, though, for some students that means explaining how to make something like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich year after year after year. And so at some point I and a few intrigued teachers began rethinking procedural writing in middle school by introducing how-to essays and stories written in the second person, such as Lorrie Moore‘s “A Kid’s Guide to Divorce” and two pieces by high school students.

The first is Chris Kanarick’s hilarious “How to Survive Shopping with Mom,” which appears in the wonderful anthology Starting with ‘I’: Personal Essays by Teenagersand includes many priceless moments, such as the following:

As you and Mom begin your leisurely stroll through the first floor of the mall, Mom will suddenly veer off to the left, arms out-stretched, eyes wide, and nose in the air looking like something out of The Night of the Living Dead. Mothers can smell a sale from a mile away. There is no scientific explanation for this, it just happens. Follow her. You have no choice. Remember who’s got the money.

And then there’s Dorsey Seignious’s incredibly moving “When You,” which appears in another great anthology for older students, You Are Here, This is Now and acts as an instruction manual for grieving:

When watching someone die, you must be very quiet. Always look down at the ground and examine your feet. Be uncomfortable and very somber. Allow your eyes to fill with tears. You will bite your lip until it bleeds, but you won’t notice until you wipe your tears with your sleeve and feel the sting of the sleeve on your lips. You will see the bloodstain on your sleeve, and then you will believe.

There is something strangely liberating about writing in the second person. I’m not exactly sure why this happens. I think it gives the writer more distance from his subject than the first person point of view does, while allowing for more intimacy than the close or omniscient third person. Whatever the reason, students are often eager to try it on after reading pieces like these, and when they do they write with more voice and detail than they have before—even when exploring more academic topics.

Real-Life Responses to Literature: Appreciations & Forewards

Finally, in Thinking Through Genre, Heather Lattimer uses Tobias Wolff’s introduction to Raymond Carver’s short story collection Cathedral as a masterful example of real-life reading response for her “Response to Literature” chapter. I was happy to discover it there, but it was only when I started reading forewards to re-issued classic children’s books, such as Anna Quindlen’s “Appreciation” to the 2007 edition of Madeleine L’Engle‘s A Wrinkle in Timethat I began to consider the possibilities of studying forewards as a genre.

Writers of forewards and appreciations explore the meaning a book held for them, while also summarizing and talking about elements such as characters and themes. They also usually include a memoir-ish vignette about reading the book for the first time and they frequently touch on the reasons why we read, as Michael Chabon does here in his foreward to the 50th Anniversary edition of The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. “Milo’s journey, Chabon writes,

. . . was mine as a reader, and my journey was his, and ours was the journey of all readers venturing into wonderful books, into a world made entirely, like Juster’s, of language, by language, about language. While you were there, everything seems fraught and new and notable, and when you returned . . . the ‘real world’ seemed deeper, richer at once explained and, paradoxically, more mysterious than ever.

To try on forewards, I like to invite older students to think about a book they loved as a child—whether it’s The Cat in the Hat, Captain Underpants, or Tuck Everlasting—and re-read it to try to better understand the magic it once held for them (and perhaps holds even still). These books are clearly not on the complexity band for these students’ grade level, but I’d like to make a case for this being an example of the “Simple Text, Complex Task” approach, which helps students practice the kind of critical thinking they need to do at their grade level with an accessible text that ultimately helps them write about more complex texts.

All three ideas also help students deeply engage with writing—and for that reason alone, they’re great.

Information Writing for Dummies

Frequently as I look at the Common Core Standards for writing with teachers, a question keeps cropping up: Is there still a place for genre studies? These teachers and I know that narrative, information and opinion writing are not genres per se. They’re more like modes, which Katie Wood Ray defines in her wonderful book on inquiry-based writing units Study Driven as “the meaning ‘work’ that a writer is doing in a text.” Thus narration is the mode writers uses when they mean to tell a story, while information writing, a.k.a. exposition, is the mode for the work of explaining ideas or conveying information.

Genres, on the other hand, are what a writer makes with writing: a book review, a short story, an editorial, a feature article. These genres often employ more than one mode; a feature article, for instance, might begin by narrating an anecdote about the topic, then shift into exposition and end with some argumentation (another mode) that reveals the writer’s opinion.

The beauty of genres is that they can be studied in a way that gives students a concrete vision of what their work can look and sound like. This kind of study also invites students to be more intentional and artful as they apprentice themselves to master craftsmen and wordsmiths in a way that matches my favorite definition of a writer, which comes by way of Saul Bellow:

A writer is a reader who is moved to emulate.

The Common Core Standards don’t mention genres, though neither do they explicitly prohibit us from studying them. And so I encourage teachers to remember their right to implement the Standards as they best see fit, knowing that the benefits of such study are huge. First, closely studying great texts as writers gives students more options of how to organize and convey information than the deadly structure of the formulaic three- or five-paragraph essay, which at its worst asks students to first tell your reader what your going to tell them, then tell them what you said you were going to tell them, and then end by re-telling them what you just told them.

Studying genres also requires students to understand whatever they’re writing about deeply. And as such, the end products are often better assessments of content understanding than forms that encourage students to pluck and insert undigested facts. The third graders I wrote about last fall, for instance, who emulated G. Brian Karas’s Atlantic to write their “I Am China” books fully owned the information they presented. And eighth grade science students using the same mentor text to creatively write about the rock cycle came up with fresh language—such as, “Some of my minerals dissolve in water the way marshmallows melt in hot chocolate.”—which assured their teacher that they’d learned the content.

Finally (as I prepare to shift from argumentation back to exposition), there’s the fact that engaging in the same decision-making process that real writers engage in makes students better readers. For in considering what point of view or structure will achieve the effects they’re after and deliberating on exactly which details will best suit and support their purposes, students become more aware of the intentionality in an author’s choices. They see that those details and structures carry meaning, which positions them to attend to the meaning of the choices they encounter when they read other writers.

When it comes to information writing, I’ve helped teachers design units of study on feature articles, All About Books, and creative nonfiction like Atlantic. And I’ve invited students to study Dummies books, which they’ve then emulated to convey information about all sorts of topics, from babysitting to ballroom dancing to learning Albanian. Whatever the grade, these units begin by students first exploring some sample Dummies books to discover what they can about their structure and features. And from that, we co-construct a chart of what we learned, like this typed-up one from a fifth grade room that was writing Dummies books about topics of their own choice:

Then we look more carefully at how they’re written by studying two samples, such as these excerpts from Drawing Cartoons and Comics for Dummies and Cake Decorating for Dummiesto consider what might be similar in terms of word choice, voice, syntax,  and tone. (Tip: Looking at two samples allows students to move beyond the specifics of the content to notice similarities or patterns in craft.)

 

Here students are often able to notice that the writer talks to the reader directly, through the frequent use of the word ‘you,’ in a friendly and supportive way, and that he or she uses a range of punctuation—including ellipses, parentheses, dashes and exclamation points—to create a strong, flexible voice. Dummies writers also tend to use multiple examples of lists that follow the Rule of Three—such as three excuses for not decorating a special cake or three reasons why cartoons are important—which helps elaborate and support their ideas and creates a richer texture.

With these noticings in mind, I had the fifth grade students who created the above structure chart help me write the introduction to my topic, which was cooking my favorite food, pasta:

I imagine that it wouldn’t be terribly difficult to shift from personal to more content-related topics, with students writing, say, Mummification or Renewable Energy or The Bill of Rights for Dummies. Such texts would surely be more fun to write and more fun to read than a five-paragraph essay while still accomplishing the meaning work of the mode and meeting the information writing Standard. And students would surely retain more of what they learned about both the content and writing because they’d be more engaged and proud of making such a product—especially when it’s graced with a classic yellow Dummies cover, which can either be drawn or made electronically through the Dummies Book Cover Maker online.

And isn’t that what really matters: holding on to learning and feeling the power of language to engage and inform us in so many ways? Let’s not forget that in the rush to meet all the bullet points of the Standards.