“Give me liberty or give me death,” read a large poster hanging on the door of our literacy classroom early this January. We were kicking off an intense study of information texts through an in-depth study of the American Revolution. With this rich history content as our kindling, learners dove into reading, writing, and becoming historians like never before.
Over the past eight weeks, learners grew their skills as researchers as they worked to produced a written piece about a self-selected sub topic of the Revolutionary War. While this product was important in driving the unit, more importantly and in keeping with our typical literacy philosophies, we emphasized the process and helped learners recognize skills and ideas they should take with them every day for the rest of their lives as readers and writers. We worked hard to help students to recognize the lenses historians consider - culture, geography, chronology, political viewpoints - as they read historical accounts and other period documents. Students learned that when studying history it’s particularly important to pay attention to who, where, and when. Furthermore, we often discussed the role of perspective when reading and writing history, emphasizing the point that too often only one perspective is considered.
Each day of the unit, we started our Literacy Block with an hour of reading workshop where after a short (7-10 minutes) focused lesson with explicit teaching, learners were off to read independently, with strategic coaching from teachers as needed. Our readers learned that before diving into a nonfiction text, it is really important to preview it and to read more accessible texts first to glean an overview of the topic. In subsequent days, as we built on this idea, learners were taught that when researchers preview a text, they try to identify the text structure, because knowing this can help researchers understand the important parts and organize their reading and note-taking.
Learners began selecting sub topics to specialize in. Margaret picked the taxes and many acts that built frustration in the colonists. Coleman selected the importance of Paul Revere’s famous midnight ride. Greta picked the Boston Massacre. William, our resident military and history expert, even picked the military styles of combat during this war. As we deepened our knowledge of these topics, we introduced the learners to primary sources and examined speeches and art from that time period. Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre was a popular source of discussion and debate. Moreover, we taught learners strategies for tackling more complex texts.
We used mentor texts such as The Revolutionary War by Josh Gregory, The Split History of the American Revolution by Michael Burgan, and Liberty: How the Revolutionary War Began by Lucille Recht Penner as read aloud texts to not only learn content, but also to study the moves of information writers.
Beyond the historical content, there was an emphasis on the skills of synthesis, main idea, and summarization, all crucial in reading complex nonfiction texts. Another emphasis of this unit was notetaking. We aimed to raise the level of notetaking in a way that also raised the level of learners’ reading. Many learners started to find their stride in reading a chunk of text and then stopping to jot some notes, rather than trying to write down each fact he or she encountered. Others moved from not having much experience with notetaking, to understanding the importance of synthesizing information and ideas in this way. This work with notetaking intertwined with our work as writers when we learned that writers of information texts make a plan for the structure of their writing and then use this structure to organize research and notetaking. Several days later, we circled back to this when we emphasized that notetaking is not the easy part of research writing. When writers take notes, they need to understand what they are writing well enough that they could explain their notes to someone else.
Concurrently with our reading lessons and eager dives into research, learners were growing their skills as information writers in the second hour of Literacy Block. After learning about the importance of planning the structure of a piece, learners discovered that information texts often contain a variety of other genres of texts, and as learners gain new information writing skills, they also used what they knew about narrative and persuasive writing (two genres previously studied this year) to enhance the research pieces they were working on. Specifically, young writers were reminded that when writing essays about historical topics, they think about all they know about essay writing: the structure, the thesis, and the supports. They need to do research to find facts to develop and support their idea. And connecting back to our realistic fiction unit that kicked off the year, young writers were reminded that when writers are writing a story about a time in history, they think about the three most important elements in a story: character, setting, conflict. We further connected to an emphasis from the fall’s study of realistic fiction when we reminded our learners that writers improve their writing by adding details. History writers often try to include details that help readers picture what happened long ago.
Mid-February came and it was time to set a deadline for a first draft to be finished. As is typical of our writing units, we insist learners “finish” a draft a week or two in advance of the “publishing deadline.” This allows for plenty of time for lessons on revising and editing, crucial parts of the writing process. From lessons on conclusions to work with commas, learners worked feverishly, with individualized feedback from teachers. to push the first drafts to a higher level.
Finally, celebration and publication day arrived! Earlier this week we “published” each learner’s piece and bound it in a special plastic cover. We had an author signing where each learner autographed the published copy for our Long-View library. We toasted to many teaching points from the unit and even to Google Docs and technology for aiding our writing process.
Through this unit learners not only deepened their understanding of an important historical event for our country and built crucial background knowledge for a Build Week focused on the writing and ratification of a constitution, but they also deepened their understanding of information consumption and production; learners increased their understanding of credible sources, perspectives, critical thinking, and communication. These are all skills that will serve our for the long view.