Writers’ Workshop

Fourth grade is all about expository writing.

In Mr. K’s class, students work on a range of topics, all designed  around the structure of the 5 Paragraph Essay.  First, the introductory paragraph, which gets the reader’s attention with a rhetorical question or a fascinating fact, and then sets a purpose for the paragraphs to come.  Then, three supporting paragraphs, each with a main idea supported by details.  At last, the conclusion–a quick summary of what’s been presented, wrapping it up with a clever observation or an invitation to learn more.

Mr. K. does a phenomenal job of laying out each of these steps for his students.  He uses catchphrases and powerpoints, examples, non-examples, a handout about every single stage in the game.  He presents the kids with menus of options, lists all the different ways to say “also” and “finally”, arranges opportunities for kids to share their work with others and learn from those examples, too.

That is, alas, not enough for Yosef, who still needed every part of his  California Regions report presented as a sentence frame for him to fill in and recopy.  The most challenging part was teaching him how one asks a rhetorical question.

People love questions, I told him.  A question can get a reader’s attention, because people love to talk and share ideas, and a question is a way of inviting them to share.  A question can be a most excellent way of introducing a paragraph, or wrapping one up.  Yosef’s first attempts showed a basic grasp of the concept, but needed a bit more finesse: left to his own devices, he began ending every paragraph by asking the reader what he or she thought of whatever noun he’d used last.

It was necessary, then, to develop and deliver a few mini-lessons on the idea of Power Questions.  A Power Question, I told Yosef, both asks the reader something, AND tells the reader something.  We started by revising “Sequoias are tall trees.  What do you think about tall trees?”.  (Italics Yosef’s). Eventually, with a very healthy dose of indirect verbal prompting and the “pick one” style for at-least-he’s-not-copying/it’s almost his idea semi-generation of kinda novel content, the Power Question was formed: “Can you believe Did you know that the shortest  tallest tree in the world is a manzanita Sequoia tree named General Sherman?”

Bit by painful bit, Yosef made inroads on his California Region Report.  He worked at times with Mr. K, at times with me, at times alone, at times with a peer, and at times with the paraprofessional who supports in the room.  It truly takes a village, but we can see the steady growth.

Finn, on the other hand, worked alone on the beginning of his  report on Native California–demonstrating both that he fully understood the concept of Attention-Getting Rhetorical Question, and that he found the assigned subject matter less than compelling .

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