Friday, February 5, 2021

Nonfiction Writing Tips: How Students Can Make a Whole-class Topic Their Own

Last week, I began sharing some of the teaching strategies included in  Nonfiction Writers Dig Deep: 50 Award-winning Authors Share the Secret of Engaging Writing. Today, I’m going to pick up where I left off by discussing how to help students make an assigned topic their own.

If you read this blog regularly, you know that I always advocate for letting students write about topics that fascinate them. You might think that strategy is at odds with a teacher’s need to integrate language arts with content area instruction. But it doesn’t have to be.

Let’s say your class is studying the American Revolutionary War, and you want everyone to write a report related to that umbrella topic. Obvious choices might be George Washington or the Battle of Bunker Hill. But let’s face it, not everyone has a deep natural interest in a dead white guy or a skirmish that happened in Boston almost 250 years ago.

That’s where the Idea Incubator I discussed last week can come in handy. As a student looks at this list at the back of her writer’s notebook, she may notice a lot of facts, questions, and ideas about the weather and wonder if she could write a report about the weather during the Revolutionary War. After doing some research, she discovers that the 1770s were an exceptionally cold, snowy period in history, and the weather influenced the outcome of many battles. Bingo! She’s identified a great topic that she’s excited about.

Another student notices that his list includes some facts, questions, and ideas about numbers and math. He might decide to create a series of infographics comparing statistics related to different battles or the two competing armies.

A third student who’s fascinated by fashion could focus on the kind of clothing the soldiers wore, including how a severe shortage of boots affected the Colonial troops.

When a student’s personal interests guide the research and writing process, their final piece will burst with passion and personality. When students recognize their natural interests and look for ways to discuss an umbrella topic through that lens, they’ll be infinitely more invested in the process and the product.

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