For the next few weeks I’m going to share some lessons which I’ve used with groups of students of widely varying ability and achievement levels. Since I teach thematically (no matter what grade or type of class I may be working with), my lessons tend to be in units, and focus on an art, science, or social studies theme. They are the same kind of lessons that you use every day, and I hope that maybe they’ll show you that you are actually differentiating more than you might realize!
Each post will tell you a little about the school I was working in at the time, the type of class I had, and the objective I was focused on. I hope you’ll find them helpful!
All About Me: An Autobiography
A writing unit for the first 2 weeks of school
School: PS-4th grade Elementary School in a rural area with 4 classes of 30-35 students at fourth grade level. Grades PS-3 had a full-time assistant in each class who did all the lunch and yard duties, as well as helped in the class for the full day. Fourth grade teachers had no assistants, and covered all duties themselves.
Class: heterogeneous 4th grade class of 32 students which included 2 developmentally delayed children from a special day class, and a student from the resource specialist program. There were 3 gifted students in the class, as well. Special education services did not begin until the third week of school.
Objective: Students will write on a subject that they are very familiar with (themselves) and create a book illustrated with photographs to share with the class, and add to the class library. This would act as a baseline writing assessment, which would enable me to develop writing lessons, and plan future writing activities and projects. It would be part of student writing portfolios.
Before school started, I sent home a letter to each parent and enclosed a postcard to each student introducing myself, and explaining the writing project. I asked each parent to talk with their children about topics for their “autobiography”, and then to help them choose 4-5 photographs that they could bring to school. The photographs were to be scanned into the classroom computers, and then returned to the parents.
On the first day of school about half of the students arrived with their photographs in hand. I had another letter ready to send home that day with the students who did not yet have any photographs. By the end of the first week, all but one student had photographs. I took digital photographs of the student who didn’t bring any.
Day 1: Mini lesson on interviewing others. Students developed questions they wanted to ask specific classmates, and then went around doing “mini” interviews. We discussed some of the questions, evaluated them on how interesting they might be to other people, and shared responses.
Day 2: The class developed some interesting questions they felt should be answered in a story about themselves. I read a picture book biography of a famous person to the class (I believe it was one of the presidents), and then compared the information in it with their questions. They asked questions about the book I read to them. Then we revised the questions they originally proposed. Students then individually wrote several questions they might want to answer in their autobiography.
Day 3: I read another picture book biography to the class. (I believe this was a picture book about Ruby Bridges.) This one focused on one event in the person’s life, rather than on their whole life. The students compared and discussed the two books, and began to plan their own stories. They met in small groups and each person shared their pictures and their ideas for their autobiography. The group asked questions and gave feedback. Each student wrote a brief description of their plan for their book and turned them in to me.
Day 4: We began writing. I modeled a paragraph for my first paragraph, including one of my photographs. Students then began their rough drafts. At the end of the period, those who wanted to, shared what they had written, and the class commented, asked questions, and made suggestions.
Day 5: We continued with rough drafts, sharing in small groups at the end of the period. Most students were finishing their rough drafts by the end of the period.
Day 6: I modeled appropriate response group behavior by “performing” a group with willing students in front of the class. By this time all students had worked in small groups several times, and I had worked with them enough that they were pretty ready for the task. Students met in groups of 3-4 students. (Since this was the very beginning of the year, the students always chose who to work with in small groups. Later, they were required to work with any and everyone in the class.) Each student shared their draft, and listened as other students asked questions and made suggestions.
Mini lesson on revising a draft, modeling once again. I physically cut, pasted, and added and deleted information using chart paper and my “autobiography.” Students then worked on their own drafts. Those who were hesitant to work independently worked with me until they were ready to go on their own.
Day 7: Finished revising. Mini lesson on conventions using CUPS: Capitals, usage, punctuation, spelling. (Usage was new to them.) I didn’t want to do too much instruction at this point, because I wanted to see what they already knew and used.
Day 8: Students began typing their final drafts. They scanned in their photographs, and placed them in their stories, saved, and printed them. These were the versions used for their portfolios and my assessment.
Since I don’t like to have models with mistakes for student use, I always edit any student created material before printing it for the classroom or school library. Sometimes I tell each student how many errors they have and they try to find them all. Sometimes I assign students to edit each other’s final drafts. Sometimes I have a parent volunteer do it. No matter what else, I always do the final edit myself. I’m just particular that way.
When the piece is perfect (at least as far as I know), I print it, collate it, staple it, and the student presents it to the class or the school’s librarian.
This project worked quite well and was one of the smoothest activities of that first 2 weeks of the year. The special needs students were able to do all that the other students did, but they used much fewer sentences, and shorter phrases. Other students helped with spelling if needed. They could meet in the same groups with the other students. They could share their work. They could offer suggestions and ask questions of other students. Workshop style teaching makes it very easy to differentiate, even when the achievement levels of students in the group are quite disparate.
Because this was an assessment activity, I did not do a lot of teaching about autobiographies—I simply emphasized they were writing about their lives. Later in the year we did a unit on biographies and autobiographies, reading them and writing them to learn in greater depth. Integrating writing activities with reading provides incredible support and allows students to grasp both language areas deeper, quicker, and stronger. (Usage?)