Sunday, April 11, 2010

A New Look for Book Reports AND An Opportunity to Combine Standards Across Strands

The Brochure Book Report

Do you get groans from students when you announce it's time to write?  Are you running out of ideas for teaching writing?

Now more than ever it is important for teachers to find authentic engaging ways for their students to write.  Otherwise writing becomes a "forced" activity with little perceived value to the student.  And when that happens, little learning is likely to occur and those standards we are so intent on teaching will not likely be internalized.

This past fall in my 10-week writing classes for 3-6th graders and 7-9th graders, one particular assignment became the most popular writing project.  It's a twist on the standard book report and one that your students are bound to find engaging and maybe even fun.

Before Any Assignment, Review Your State Standards

Take a few moments to review the writing standards for your state.  I have chosen to highlight writing standards from the state of GA, likely similar to the writing standards in your state:

ELA5W2:  "The student produces informational writing . . . "  and

chooses a speaker's voice,
develops a controlling idea that offers a perspective,
creates an organizing structure appropriate for the purpose and audience,
includes appropriate facts and details,
excludes extraneous details,
provides a sense of closure, includes appropriate word choice.

ELA4W4 focuses on the writing process and includes elements such as being able to appropriately plan and draft, revise, edit, and publish.

Guidance for the Teacher

One of the most important keys to writing instruction is to be a writer yourself.  Do you write articles for your state IRA affiliate's journal, do action research and document it, write for personal pleasure (a diary or journal, blogging, etc.)?  When you do, you can bring an authenticity to the writing experience. 

For example, I always say to my students early on that "I've been writing for 47 years and I'm not the best writer I will ever be."   Then I add that everyone in the class is likely to be at a different place as a writer but my goal for them is that each will move further down the reading road.  That first statement always surprises my students but it emphasizes the importance of making effort and growing.  The second encourages them and lets them know my focus and commitment to them.  With that approach and a true "writer's workshop" environment, I find that even reluctant writers leave my classes excited about writing and having the skills to be a more competent composer.

To Begin . . .

Ask each student to choose a book to read (choice is very important for students this age).  If they need assistance, chat briefly so you know where their interests lie and recommend a book that matches those interests. Set a specific but reasonable amount of time for them to read the entire text and set aside "snippets" of time (5-10 minutes on a regular basis) for them to read in class.

Once the students finish the assigned books, you'll be ready for the book report assignment,  but it doesn't follow your normal one or two page essay format.  Lakewood Public Library in Lakewood, Ohio has created an online student guide that highlights the main components in a book report of any sort.  The brochure format I've chosen to highlight here offers unique opportunities for writing instruction.

Before your students begin to write their own brochure book reports, bring a collection of locally available brochures (of any sort) to the classroom so students can preview formats, etc.  Allow them to help in collecting these samples as a cooperative approach.

Once they are collected, hand out the brochures to your students in a small group exercise.   Have them highlight together the essential elements they see commonly used in the various types of brochures.  This exercise helps your students identify specific formatting that is used for these types of materials and that they will want to incorporate into their own brochure. 

From this small group activity, take students back to whole group to create a list or even a rubric of essential elements or characteristic of brochure writing together so the entire class will have this at their disposal when they begin to create their individual book report brochures.  Here are a few important characteristics in the brochure format to get you started:

Short paragraphs.
Consistent formatting (paragraph indentations, etc.)

An engaging hook at the beginning that makes you want to read more.

TIP:  You may retain the best examples of commercially-produced brochures from year to year, and "samples" of the best of students' finished work.

Use A Template to Incorporate Technology

Microsoft Office or Word (or most other word processing programs) have templates of brochures that will help students visually organize their brochure book report.  Students may include their own illustrations scanned and inserted, plus photos of the author, etc.  Using the template helps students create strong writing segments with carefully chosen words to make the most of limited space.  Students also love using technology, although you may want them to begin drafting or planning on paper.  Decide ahead of time the point at which you want to introduce the technology piece.

Also use this writing project as an opportunity to review and encourage use of the writing process -- plan and organize, draft, revise, edit and publish (you may have slightly different terms).  Assign one portion of the process at a time, providing writer's workshop opportunities and consultations with the teacher throughout the process to maximize learning and progress.  You may even want to create a time line for each part of the process through which your students will move

The use of technology to create the brochure will also offer you an opportunity to evaluate the students' individual revision abilities if you have them turn on the "track changes" tool in their word processing program (which strikes through but retains anything deleted and highlights in a color any added text). If students are still writing on paper at this point, make sure they provide you with the draft as well as the first revision so you can compare.  This is a terrific tool for honing in on what individual students need to learn in the revision part of the process.


After students have created (and perhaps shared with the class) their brochures, add a unique final step (keep this to yourself until the end).  Your students will probably already be excited about sharing their brochures with one another, but now ask them to write the author a letter, sharing the brochure, and perhaps asking a question or two if the student would like. Have them enclose a copy of their brochure for the author to see.  Most authors are happy to receive a letter from "fans" and many will respond.  Make sure you use this lesson early enough in the year to allow for response time.

Students love this part because it shows them an authentic use for their writing.  They will also be thrilled to share responses they received from real authors and may even want to create a book or hall bulletin board as a class to highlight the responses received.  If you have students who have chosen an author who is not longer living, have them pen a letter "to the author" and ask a special services teacher (librarian, reading specialist, etc.) or public library or local author to respond on behalf of the author of their book (in the author's voice).

I hope this gets  your juices flowing. 
Have you used this format before for book reviews? 
What were your experiences? 
Do you have additional tips that you want to share for the benefit of your fellow followers of this blog (and me)?

I welcome your additions in the comments area.

Additional resources:

IRA/NCTE provides an alternative approach to writing brochures at ReadWriteThink.

Traci Keith, a teacher in the Gorman Independent School District (TX) , also shares an extensive study of the book Bud, Not Buddy on her district web page.  She includes not only brochures and pamphlets but games and other styles of reports.  If you are doing an in depth study over an extended period of time on this book, this is an excellent guide to a variety of activities.

Katherine Chapman who teaches fifth grade at a private school shares a number of genre book report ideas on her Upper Elementary Book Report Ideas posting. 

Finally, my columns for recently included details about teaching the writing process.  My favorite part is revision where you can really see writers grow and develop as they put the polish, change, add, subtract and move around paragraphs, words, phrases, etc. to make their writing better.  If you use the 6+1 Traits framework and language, revision can be focused on through the lens of word choice, voice, sentence fluency and even organization.

Don't forget: I'd love to hear from you and know your experiences with this unique approach. 
Happy teaching!

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