Saturday, February 23, 2013

A Learning Journey: Writing Wonderful Essays

Every project we embark on in fourth grade becomes a learning adventure--a path of both expected and unexpected twists and turns.

Currently my students are embarking on the personal essay path as they write opinion essays about special local places they visit--places they think that others should visit too. There are a number of landmarks as we meander this learning path.

Prior to vacation we did some brainstorming and established audience.  We decided that our audience would be parents and children who are looking for great local day-trip destinations.  To bring our essays to our audience we also decided that we would try to publish some of our completed essays in local online and offline newspapers and magazines.

Next we started our paper-cut pre-write projects to awaken our memories and focus our efforts on three distinct reasons for visiting the chosen place. We'll continue those paper-cut illustrations in-school and at home during the following week.

Meanwhile in class we'll start crafting our essays with audience and topic in mind. We'll connect our independent reading and read aloud activities to this writing journey as well.

Introductory/Lead Paragraphs
Students will think about lead sentences and introductory paragraphs.  In keeping with my practice of completing projects first, I wrote a number of lead paragraphs that the students will read, vote on,  discuss and edit in class.  Then students will write three lead paragraphs, share those paragraphs with their project partners and choose one for their essay.

Detailed, Descriptive Paragraphs
The next day we'll discuss paragraph writing.  In preparation, I'll write three distinct paragraphs about my special place and have students edit and discuss those paragraphs.  Then students will write their paragraphs, and again edit with their project partner.  At this point we'll review the editing process and the craft that contributes to wonderful writing such as specific nouns, vibrant verbs, adjectives, similes and dialogue--craft that enables the writer to "draw pictures and make movies" in the readers' minds with words.

Summary/End Paragraph
Following that effort, we'll discuss and write end paragraphs which summarize the essay and leave the readers with something to think about.  We'll ask the following questions as we re-look at the essays?
  • Would this essay convince others to visit my special place?
  • Does the reader get a vivid, detailed portrait or movie of the place when reading this essay?
  • Do the sentences and words make sense?  Is my essay easy to understand and well organized?
Once we've spent considerable time on the draft, students will type up their essays on Google docs and import scans of their paper-cut illustrations.  After that we'll choose publications we'd like to publish our essays in, receive parent permission and send our essays with letters to the publications online or off depending on the publication's directions. 

Laying out the learning journey at the start enables the students to travel the learning path with as much independence and fluidity as possible.  This preparation also allows teacher-coaches and parents to support children's work, learning and success.  The path needs to be looked as a guiding direction since unexpected twists and turns in learning will occur throughout the process, twists and turns that good teacher-parent coaches will respond to with care and attention.  

Thoughtful learning journeys are wonderful adventures for teachers, parents and students when met with a spirit of shared exploration, discovery and growth.  In what ways do you embark on learning journeys similar to this, and how do your learning adventures differ?  What would you add to this journey to enliven the learning and quest?  Would you delete any aspects of this learning path?  As always I look forward to your insights and ideas.