Would you move to the bottom of a volcano?
That was the question I posed to my 4th graders during our persuasive writing unit. Most students will tell you that they don’t like writing. That is mainly because they are required to write about topics that are not authentic. With the help of Rev Sonia and her husband, Mr. Rev, we were able to create an authentic writing experience that crossed content areas to make a meaningful unit of study for the students that they will remember for years to come.
With Mr. McGourin, 4th graders spend a whole term learning about the earth, its layers, the rock cycle, and it culminates with volcanoes. Students brought everything they learned that term about volcanoes and how they behave to writing class.
Now, you ask, “Why did they care so much about writing about moving to the bottom of a volcano?” Well, when their beloved Rev Sonia showed up at the end of the day, decked out in Hawaiian gear and pictures of all the reasons she was sure living at the base of a volcano in Hawaii would be the best thing ever, they lost it! As cool as Rev thought the daily “fireworks” would be or the cool new plants or the awesome hiking trails, the students knew it wasn’t safe. They were pretty sure she had made it all up, insisting she video call Mr. Rev, so they could ask him about it. He confirmed their worst fears by confirming all the things Rev. Sonia told them, and he let them know that their house was on the market. The students were now all ready to convince Rev. Sonia and Mr. Rev. of every reason to stay!
Enter our persuasive writing strategies! We had been working on persuasive writing for about 6 weeks at this point and students had many tools in their toolbox! They used their knowledge of a friendly letter format, persuasive writing hooks, transitions, and conclusions, along with validating Rev’s reasons for wanting to move to Hawaii to hopefully convince them that staying was the best and safest option.
Some of you might ask, “Why go through all that trouble? Why not just give them a question and have them answer it?”
When students feel that their writing matters, when there is a real world application to their writing, they are more engaged and ultimately write a better piece. Of course, this puts more work on the teacher and those that get roped into the plan, but it is ultimately the best way for students to learn. And, it is just more fun!
Having students use information they learned in another class gives meaning to what they are studying. What is the purpose of learning about volcanoes? Why do I need to know this in the real world? Well, the students’ letters full of persuasive information were definitely the reason we are able to keep Rev and Mr. Rev from making a huge mistake.
It's helpful when giving students writing assignments to give them the information about which to write from a reading or their notes instead of requiring them to pull information from prior knowledge. Not all students have the same level of prior knowledge and this can hinder their ability to include details in their writing. By taking that aspect out of the equation, you help put students on a more equal footing.
Creating these types of engaging experiences are not easy, they take a tribe. The requests might seem crazy, but the students absolutely love these experiences. Even fourth graders...who were possibly just playing along, learned about volcanoes and writing in a fun and memorable way. And, Rev. and Mr. Rev. learned a lot too - including using some of the same writing skills as the students in order to write a song to let the students know that in fact, they were not moving.