CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number . . . .February 17, 2017
The arrival of Rog’s Marvelous Minilessons for Teaching Nonfiction Writing K-3 found me in a liminal space: just after saying adieu to teacher candidates of a course in Critical Literacy and several months before working with the next group. I would have loved to have shared Rog’s lucid work with the first group of students and truly look forward to using it on a regular basis with those I will meet in September. Written with considerable passion for the subject matter (writing) and enthusiasm for the work carried out by its intended audience (early literacy teaching), Rog’s book is as credible as it is solid. The credibility and solidity of the book is informed by Rog’s many years of successful classroom teaching, consulting, workshop delivery, and publishing.
Along with an introduction, this useful book has six engaging chapters. It would be a mistake to skip the introduction because it is there that Rog consolidates and lays out the rationale for the book, the importance of writing strategies, the pedagogical “power of minilessons”, the developmental “stages on the [j]ourney to [l]iteracy”, a handy “how to use the book section” and a not-to-be-missed table detailing important “characteristics of writers and readers at each stage of literacy.” At the end of the introduction, Rog clearly spells out the intentions of her work and urges readers to “adapt rather than adopt” (p. 9) the minilessons she presents. In what follows, I provide brief overviews of each chapter and conclude with my global impression and assessment of the book.
Chapter One is entitled “Teaching Time, Writing Time, Sharing Time” and begins by proposing a structure—a 40 minute block of time for writing within the framework of Calkins’ (1983) Writing Workshop. Premised on the three basic principles of (1) time (2) ownership and (3) response, the framework dedicates 10 minutes for teaching, 20+ minutes for writing and 10 minutes for sharing.
The segment on teaching time centers the major components of the Writing Workshop: I Do, We Do, You Do (teacher modeling, demonstration, and gradual release of responsibility to learners of a specific writing skill through the use of a minilesson). Typically, minilessons start with explicit instruction where the teacher models a specific learning goal, moves to interactive demonstration that allows learners to try what they learned from the teacher’s modeling and then terminates with students applying “the focus concepts [of the minilesson] in their writing” (p. 12).
The next two segments of the chapter—writing and sharing time—similar to the one on teaching, are written with clarity and conciseness while imparting many good tips to engender success for teachers and students during Writing Workshop. Rog includes tips such as: using a timer to get used to the time frame, accepting that it is “neither a natural process or effective teaching to have everyone planning, drafting, revising, and editing writing on the same schedule” and working with students to take responsibility and accountability for their writing so that “no one should ever have to ask, What do I do when I’m done?” because “When you’re done, you’ve just begun?” (p. 13).
Other topics covered, but not indicated in the title of Chapter One, includes: Supporting students’ independence, choosing topics for writing (e.g., giving students choice because “truly powerful writing comes from topics that the writer actually cares about and knows about”), keeping a writing log and managing materials. In addition, Chapter One also addresses subjects such as: The teacher’s role (e.g., provide just in time teaching, conduct Bumblebee conferences where the teacher buzzes around the room like a bumblebee alighting at every desk or table to offer the writer a quick consultation, and offer TAG conferences where students Tell something they like, Ask questions and G ive advice, as well as Polish to Publish Editing Conferences).
After laying the foundation and elaborating on the components of Writing Workshop in the first chapter, Rog’s Chapter Two beckons readers with enthusiasm to learn more about its practical application. “Let’s Get Started! Day 1 and Beyond” exclaims the title. The invitational tone of the second chapter is likely to be appreciated by beginning teachers and those not yet familiar with Writing Workshop. Beginning with a clear introduction, the author provides meaningful snapshots and routines of what is involved in teaching writing to kindergartners through grade 3. Here, as elsewhere throughout the book, Rog writes and shares her classroom practices with the ease of someone familiar with the journey. To teachers of kindergartners that will have emergent writers, she says, “I like to teach the alphabet using the children’s names—one letter a day—and we practice printing the letters we use to form words” (p. 23). Rog’s voice is increasingly authentic and convincing because she consistently draws directly from lived classroom experiences. To teachers of Grade one, for instance, she explains that “the first weeks of school are dedicated to establishing Writing Workshop routines” for these early writers and that “at some point in Grade 1, we will introduce Editing your Own Writing”, and she provides elaboration for this on p. 38.
With regard to students in Grades 2, 3, and beyond, Rog advocates that teachers quickly establish what “students know and can do as writers” and to work with them to “complete a simple graphic organizer that provides them with a repertoire of topics for writing, based on subjects they feel strongly about, either positively or negatively” (p. 25). To this end, she shares one of her “favorite first-day minilessons” Love It or Loathe It which is more fully explored later on page 83. The preceding tips are useful; they help teachers demonstrate from the first day the importance and constancy of writing in their classrooms. With a list of their own self-selected topics, students will always have something to write about. Hence, it is safe to say that Rog uses Chapter Two to introduce ideas about Writing Workshop and to lay the foundation for teacher and student success (e.g., distributing and decorating writing folders, allowing primary students to use a pen to write so as to reduce time spent on erasing, and to use the Strikethrough to handle unwanted words and sections in their writing). The ideas she introduces in Chapter Two are fully developed in succeeding chapters.
Additionally, Chapter Two looks at the “Publishing Journey” (sharing with an audience) and “Evaluation”, and it includes an example of a very handy “Assessment Rubric” as well as a table that shows the writing process at different stages of development. The richness of the chapter is further enhanced by the inclusion of specific minilessons on: “Bubble Gum or Book Writing” and “Pruning Your Writing” to delete unwanted details etc. Without a doubt, the most powerful feature of Chapter Two and the three subsequent ones are Rog’s minilessons. They are indeed marvellous! In them, teachers/users of the book are provided with easy-to-follow teaching scripts that they can use to solidify their teaching of specific writing strategies and skills. Moreover, the practicality of the book can be seen in the minilessons on Pushing in Details, Striking through a text, Stretching the paper and Pruning your Writing (pp. 34-37) in Chapter Two. These minilessons are accompanied by short nonfiction texts that concretely illustrate how the preceding is accomplished.
Such concrete examples are carried through chapters three to six. It is in these chapters that Rog zooms in on minilessons for the teaching of nonfiction text types/genres of writing. Chapter Three, for example, focuses on procedural writing or what Rog identifies as How-to Writing. She indicates a preference for starting with this text type because it is “easy for children to generate ideas and it lends itself to writing several details about a topic” (p. 39). Some of the many worthwhile features of this chapter are discussions about imperative sentences or “Bossy Sentences” (as Rog call them) because of their ubiquity in procedural texts, the order of the steps involved—teaching chronological sequencing by engaging students in concrete activities such as making a sandwich, and adopting a multi-modal approach through the use of digital cameras so that students can use words as well as images to “Picture It.”
Along with the above, Chapter Three includes nine minilessons/scripts for teaching that addresses the main parts of a minilesson: I Do, We Do and You Do for the topics presented (e.g., identifying the characteristics of the procedural text form, how to write and understand the structure of imperative sentences, using “precise quantity or quality words in their How-To writing” and learning to write opening and closing sentences for procedural writing etc. (pp. 42-49). This teacher-friendly, as well as student empowering, chapter terminates with a nifty “How-To Writing Rubric” that is well-suited to students in Grades 1-3.
Chapter Four closes in on informational texts, ones “written to inform ...all about a particular topic” and that’s why Rog calls it All-About Writing (p. 54). In line with previous chapters, it begins with accessible background/introductory information on the text type, a table showing the writing minilessons contained in the chapter, an activity template and a four-level rubric for assessment of student-authored informational texts. There are 14 minilessons in this chapter, and some are accompanied by exemplars based on the focus of the minilesson—she tells and shows. Some of my favourites include: Learning to identify the structures and features of informational writing (e.g., see pp. 59-60), distinguishing factual writing from fiction or “made-up” ideas, generating potential topics for informational writing, choosing appropriate topics for informational writing, generating several facts by subtopic or theme, organizing writing by grouping details on the same subtopic together, writing engaging leads for informational writing using a question or an amazing fact, writing a summary sentence to wrap up ... a piece of writing, and conveying information through an illustration that features labels or captions (p. 59-75). The chapter ends with an “All-About Writing Rubric” that reflects some of the ideas presented in its minilessons.
Chapter Five advances the nonfiction writing focus of the book through discussion and minilessons on persuasive writing or to use Rog’s moniker, I-Think Writing. Emphasizing that “beginning writers are no strangers to persuasion”, Rog uses her friendly, accessible tone to point out that “every time such writers beg their parents to order pizza for dinner or to extend their bedtime, they’re using their powers of persuasion” (p. 78). In so doing, she validates beginning writers by acknowledging the funds of knowledge they bring to opinion writing. Such validation positions students for success.
Some of the prime minilessons in Chapter Five are: What’s I-Think Writing? (“to identify the features of opinion writing”, p. 81)) and What’s an Opinion? The latter is intended to enable students to “distinguish between an opinion and a fact” and comes with “suggested literature” that can help teachers illustrate the distinction and engage students in conversations about making it. Pre-service, as well as in-service, teachers will appreciate the clarity and detail of this important minilesson. And since persuasive writing often involves stating opinions that the writer is passionate about, this genre allows students to draw and build on their prior knowledge, experience and evolving identities. Along similar lines, Rog explains that this is “...why students need to find topics that matter to them.” The Love It or Loathe It minilesson is ideally suited to helping learners excavate and name such topics. Other ace minilessons include: Adding a “Because”, which teaches students to “give reasons and explanations for their opinions” and the OREO Organizer (p. 86-87)—a not-to-be missed lesson that shows (an organizer template is incorporated) pupils how to “organize a piece of persuasive writing that expresses an opinion, reasons for the opinion, and an explanation of their reasoning."
In addition to the preceding, I draw attention to other favourable features of Chapter Five: a minilesson that orients students to “consider audience and purpose when crafting a piece of persuasive writing”, a “Convince Your Reader Planner”, and a developmentally appropriate discussion of “Four Kinds of Sentences”. The I-Think Writing Rubric (on p. 96) is a worthwhile feature of the chapter and is evidence of Rog’s recognition of the importance of accountability for teachers and for students. Rog shows that assessment is an integral part of every unit; it is always present.
The final chapter of Rog’s book is entitled Putting It All Together: The Multi-Genre Project. It is boosted by the inclusion of a Multi-genre Project Organizer. Loaded with “ideas and suggestions for products and presentations”, a primary goal of this chapter is to encourage and guide teachers and their students to incorporate “a range of different text forms and text features, all with a common theme” (p. 97) in their writing. Rog remarks that, with teacher guidance, “even Kindergartners can participate in multi-genre writing by combining two or three different text forms written on a common topic.” I truly love Rog’s affirmation of the composition capabilities and creative potential of Kindergartners and see merit in her suggestion of celebrating a year of non-fiction writing with an author party that celebrates students’ achievements. Also to be treasured are her tips for ensuring a winning authors’ party for all.
The text of the book concludes with suggestions for other writing formats (e.g., Letters, ABC book, Poetry, News Report, Games and Riddles etc.), writing templates and organizers. As indicated earlier, the text is well-supported by paratextual features such as a list of resources that informed the ideas in the book, one documenting the children’s literature cited, and a fine index that augments readers’ understanding and accessibility of the text. Users of the book are encouraged to collaborate with their pupils to extend Rog’s list of children’s literature and mentor texts to teach non-fiction text types.
Overall, Marvelous Minilessons for Teaching Nonfiction Writing K-3 is a valuable addition for classroom, school and public libraries. The book features rich content about Writing Workshop and the teaching of three foundational nonfiction writing text forms that are important for emerging teachers and seasoned professionals who prize texts that are accessible, functional, and highly relevant to the daily work they are asked to do in K-3 classrooms. Written by a knowledgeable and enthusiastic insider, Marvelous Minilessons for Teaching Nonfiction Writing K-3 is a monograph that users will return to time and time again.
Dr. Barbara McNeil is an instructor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina.
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