As we left the descriptive writing assignment behind, we began a task where students experience writing non-fiction for the first time. Up until grade 7, students write almost only descriptive writing and adhere to all of those rules (really there aren’t any rules to follow except basic grammar structure). Consequently, the first time writing non-fiction is potentially shocking and would, in my view, require significant time to really explore and develop understandings of the nuances and restrictions.
We began our work by discussing how we talk about genre. The first time I ran this lesson (as I had two English classes), I asked “How do we talk about Genre?” instead of “How do we talk about books?” as the lead in to the subject. On reflection, while the discussing genre proved challenging to the students, I would use it first again as the asking about books proved to broad and required a lot of links to get to where I needed the class to be in order to do the assignment. I felt the quality of asking about books was lower than going straight for genre and pushing the students to consider how it’s discussed. During the first lesson, my associate came up and pointed out that I asked the wrong question so I said I would ask it afterwards. While I found her entry a little disruptive to my teaching, asking how we talk about books afterwards was not necessary, but provided benefits to more easily link ideas.
Like most of the assignments I gave to the students, this one came from my associate teacher and is an intriguing idea. Rather than writing a book review of their independent novel (which is an easy hybrid of fiction and non-fiction), students are tasked with arguing how their novel fits into a specific genre (as decided by the student writing). I had the students begin with forming arguments on how their novels fit into a genre based on the plot, setting, and main characters of the book.
Interestingly, students seemed to either get the idea of ‘proving’ something or they could not break out of simply summarizing the novel. To help develop understanding, I tried to further break down the portions of the paragraphs without doing the tired ‘point, example, explanation.’ While that is the desired structure of an effective argument, having students determine it for themselves is more rewarding in their learning. So utilizing the graphic organizer above, it was time to start exploring questions one should ask about their novels and use them in class.
I asked students to consider (and copy down) three questions they should answer in their paragraphs:
- How does my novel fit into the genre?
- How can I show that my novel fits into the genre?
- Why are these points relevant to my argument?
With these three questions, students will hit the necessary structure of a paragraph. While I do include clarification points on the side of the questions, the students are still tasked with answering the questions rather than filling in blanks. By providing the question, I notice that students took some freedom in how they structured their paragraphs – so long as the information is clear, they organized it how they felt most effective.
Before moving on to the Introduction, Summary, and Conclusion of their Genre report, I read some of their work and noticed some common grammar errors. While one could do these activities in small mini-lessons spread over a couple days, I chose to do them together and all at once. Part of my reasoning was due to time (which I will elaborate on a little farther along). For the lesson, I provided the students with a sentence (When Phil is going clothing shopping, he finds this difficult as there are “too many options available”.) and stated three errors exist and they must point them out. We went through the hands that had ideas and I acted as scribe for the students. I clarified their ideas (for example, if they said a comma should be somewhere, I asked where and how many) and if they got it wrong simply told them and we moved on. While this lesson was a grammar practice, it also proved useful in showing students that it is fine to be wrong.
Eventually all three errors were found and corrected:
Afterwards, I explained the theory and provided definitions which the students copied:
Finally, I handed out a sheet with practice questions:
From the body paragraphs, we moved on to the introduction, conclusion, and summary of the text paragraphs. For the intro and conclusion, I put on the board the triangle chart papers with the broad and specific terms (and the accompanying arrow) and asked the students to elucidate for me. After discussing their ideas and flushing out what to do, we clarified the specific points and added the information to the chart paper to use as anchor charts. These two lessons (into/conclusion and summary) were a little more lecture based which is fine – sometimes that needs to happen, but just not always.
I finished the project with the students handing in their final copies which I then passed out to different students. With their peers’ work, the students were given a handout asking the student to find and explain the different points of the report. So Student A would read the work of Student B and explain what the author intends to argue, how the author demonstrated the setting, plot, and main characters place the novel in a specific genre (each was a separate question) and then evaluated their peer’s work. I would definitely do this activity again as it completes the skills developed with this project. Not only did they have to write a genre report, but now they needed to read another and determine what was argued and its effectiveness which emphasized process over product – I didn’t care if the answer was ‘right,’ only if the argument was solid.
Overall, this project was useful and something I would repeat, but with significant changes. For starters, the assignment handout was not my own, but rather that of my associate teacher and our goals/understanding of this project were different but not clear in the differences. By that I mean, my AT knew her goal with the project, but my understanding was that the report would be more objective that her intentions. When going through the requirements of the assignment, I would not include students discussing whether or not this novel would make a good movie or information on the author. I personally found those portions (and a couple other parts) disconnected from the meat of the report. While the body of the report ends up academic and objective, the introduction and conclusion are more personal opinion focused and invited students to do things like use personal pronouns.
Furthermore, I would take a lot longer with this project. The descriptive writing project received a lot of time and energy (approximately two months for the writing) whereas the first experience of non-fiction writing received around 3 weeks. Many students felt overwhelmed with the work and I certainly sympathized – I couldn’t publicly contradict the timeline, but I would take longer with this piece next time. Maybe do a paragraph a week with sufficient time for editing. At the end of the project, I had students hand in their work as their ‘good’ copy, but I took them home, reviewed them all and handed them back for resubmission as I felt I wasn’t able to dedicate the necessary time in class (so that handed-back work was filled with feedback for students to hopefully use).
This project demonstrated for me so limitations to team-teaching or some moments where I should’ve been more assertive in how I wanted to operate in a classroom. However, these are problems with being a student-teacher/associate-teacher, you don’t necessarily want to leave assignments hanging after one is gone so they get rushed. Going forward, though, I have a better understanding of my desired speed (and I don’t mind going a little slower to better develop skills).