Inquiry in Writing Workshop (Authors as Mentors)

I've been very fortunate to have our literacy coach, Barb Golub, work with me through our current writing unit. To those of you who know her, don't worry folks, she's looking for an awesome new Twitter handle and once she has one, I'll be sure to link it here! Together we've been looking into ways to make this unit, Authors as Mentors more inquiry based and student centered.

Thinking about Student Choice

During our first meeting, Barb presented the idea of choosing four genres for the children to work in, introducing these genres and having the students try out writing within them. I liked this because it would give the students choice. I knew that at one point during the unit, once familiar with all of their choices, I wanted the students to choose a genre they wanted to learn more about and focus developing their writing in it.

Four Genre Baskets

When deciding which genre baskets to create these were the factors I considered:

  • Which books in my classroom library were at a level that I thought my students could somewhat replicate?

  • Which genre of books did I have enough of to form these baskets?

  • What types of genres did I want my students writing?

  • What types of genres would they want to write?

As I started pulling books, I realized that I've been teaching them genres of writing through this whole year, why introduce four new genres if they had already learned a little bit about some genres already? So, I thought about previous writing units where I felt the students could continue to hone their craft and extend themselves. At the same time I wanted them to feel confident that they were capable of writing in these genres, so the familiarity factor was important. I ended up with:

  • Small Moment Books

  • Extended Pattern Books

  • Nonfiction Books

...but I was still missing one basket. So I decided to choose a genre I knew the kids would be familiar with even if we hadn't taught it this year:

  • Traditional Tales

Here are some examples of books I put in each basket:

Small Moment Books:

  • Joshua's Night Whispers by Angela Johnson

  • A Box of Treats by Kevin Henkes

  • Rollercoaster by Marla Frazee

Extended Pattern Books:

I feel like I need to explain a little bit about why I added the word "Extended" here. During our pattern book unit, my students got really good at writing simple pattern books. I included this word to let them know that this time around they were going to explore ways to stretch out their patterns and make them more complex.

  • Pete the Cat I Love my White Shoes by Eric Litwin

  • The Very Busy Spider by Eric Carle

Nonfiction Books:

This was the easiest to pull from because I just went to the nonfiction leveled readers and pulled from the levels my students are currently reading in. I also added a few others not from their leveled readers.

  • Snakes by Melissa Stuart

  • My First Soccer Game by Alyssa Capucilli

  • My Baseball Book by Gail Gibbons

I Don't think I need to give examples of Traditional Tales, we all know what we could put in there ;)

Week 1

In the first week, I left labels off the genre baskets and in my first minilesson, created the first of these two charts with the students.

The Lion Who Wanted to Love by Giles Andrea

I used the book "The Lion Who Wanted to Love" by Giles Andreae to demonstrate the skills of using a mentor text during this minilesson. The first page was my demo, and the thing I "noticed" was "The author said WHO the character was, WHERE the character was, and WHAT the weather was like."I showed them how to write their name on a post it and put it on the page that they found interesting so they could refer to it when writing. 

Barb and I then went around conferring with students to see if they would actually understand we were looking for things the author was doing or features of the genre rather than what they noticed about the story. We found that although some of the kids were understanding this, majority could use more teaching into the second point of the chart: Look for something you want to try.

So on the second day, I taught further into this point and created the second chart. I used the same book and this time showed the students the page where Leo imagines hugging a zebra and there is a clear picture with a thought bubble in the illustration. I then named what the author did "The author is matching the picture to the words", and I tried it out in my own writing by putting a thought bubble in my picture to illustrate the words "I really want a cupcake."

On the third day I taped the two charts together and showed the kids how these two were related.

Student Centered Inquiry and Discovery

While planning for the following lessons, I wanted students to make discoveries about different things they noticed happening in each of these genres so I decided that in my minilesson I would model how to go through a book, look for something I was noticing the author doing, write it on a post it and add it to a chart. Barb, added that we should also get the kids asking questions at this stage as well so I added that onto the minilesson, by also writing a question I had about the book and writing that on a seperate post it.

I decided to introduce two genres a day by dividing up into two book study groups. On the first day I asked Barb to facilitate one group and I had my teaching assistant observe, and I facilitated the other group. On the second day I introduced the second two genres and this time my teaching assistant took over facilitating the second group.

In these groups the students would:

1. Discover the name of the genre and put the label on the basket

2. Explore the books in the basket

3. Write things they noticed the author doing in these books

4. Write questions they had about the genre

I was pretty impressed with the different things the ideas that the kids came up with and the questions that they had.

These charts will be displayed throughout the unit and will be added to and changed as the unit progresses.  The kids have already been adding to them as they discover new things or have more questions. Here are some photos, it may be a bit difficult to read but take a look at some of the things the students noticed or are wondering about.

Over the few days after these charts were introduced, I gave the kids a choice to either remain in the same genre they were reseraching or to try out a different genre. Some kids tried out a different genre everyday, some kids stuck with one genre through the whole process. What I was amazed at was how independently they were looking through the books, filling out post its to add to the charts, and writing! My kids have NEVER been engaged in Writing Workshop for this length of time before and I believe it all has to do with the aspect of student choice and their interest in the books through inquiry.

Another wonderful thing that has happened is that students are beginning to take action on their learning. For instance, one child brought in two traditional tales from Japan to add into our traditional tales basket! We can't read the words but we can certainly learn from the illustrations!

Next Steps

In our last meeting before we started spring break, Barb and I discussed what we thought would happen next. Here are a few things Barb has suggested we do as the unit moves forward:

  • Minilessons can focus on developing good writing across genres

  • Small Group sessions by genre groups

  • Wonderings can be addressed through read aloud

Things that I want to see happen next are:

  • Students make a choice about which genre they want to study in depth for the rest of the unit

  • Questions can also be ideas for minilessons

  • As questions are answered students rewrite them as a new thing they learned and put that Post it up on the "noticing" section of the chart.

My ideas for what I want to do the week after spring break:

  • Read Aloud: "The Doorbell Rang" by Pat Hutchins. Jacqueline asked why this is a small moment book. We can discover and answer this question together

  • Minilesson/s looking at the different ways authors present text on a page and why. This is to answer questions about why the author changes fonts, uses different sized letters or forms words into different shapes. The kids noticed this across genres and some asked about it. So, I thought it might be good for a whole class teaching point since it could be applied across genres.