In my district, fourth grade is when we introduce students to large-scale, multi-topic informational writing. Our kids have to do research reports. Since they’re new to the task, they need lots of support and scaffolding. We want their first foray to be successful.
Here’s what I do.
1. Assign a topic. There’ll be time enough in the years to come for them to pick their own topic. But at this point they don’t really know enough about the scope of the work to
competently choose a topic that isn’t too narrow or too broad. For their first reports, I have everyone focus on Native Americans in Washington.
2. Start a graphic organizer. I give each student a huge piece of paper. They draw a five-pointed star in the middle and number each of the points. Each point aligns to a section of their report.
3. Research the topic. This is the fun part. I spend about three weeks teaching the content with textbooks, videos and field trips. As we move through the content, we all add notes to our graphic organizer by drawing complex branches that connect to the start points.
4. Review the content. Each day, before I teach anything new, I tell my students to “track with their finger” as I go through all the notes on all the branches that we’ve written so far. This helps them remember what we meant when we wrote them; it also helps them make sense of their increasingly complex note paper.
5. Draw a conclusion. Sadly, there was only one conclusion my students could reach after learning about the lifestyle of Pre-Columbian Native Americans, the various explorers who visited during the 1700s and 1800s and the pioneers and settlers who came in their wake: The Native Americans lost their land and their way of life.
6. Start writing. After we’ve finished learning the content and taking notes it’s time to transfer them into report form. I do a lot of modeling; in fact, I write a report along with my students on the same topic. We all have Chromebooks in my room and I have all my students share their documents with me, so I can peek in on their writing in real time and suggest revising and editing ideas while they’re writing. The writing stage takes about a week, and it’s fascinating to watch each student develop a different narrative from essentially the same notes.
7. Publish. Mine is the only computer in the room hooked to a printer, so I get to decide when a student is ready to print. I don’t allow nonsense like fancy fonts, but I do require an image or two on every page when they write reports. Fortunately, Chromebooks make this easy. And when we’re they’re printed and bound in their report binders I make them fold up their note papers and attach them inside the back cover.
So everyone can see their big, messy notes.