Aiden Hernandez may only be in the first grade, but he’s already got opinions about things. As in, “yes” to green beans and “no” to broccoli. And he’s not a fan of snow or math, but he does like crickets. As food.
“Not the alive kind,” he clarified. “Cooked.”
Aiden’s decisiveness came in handy recently in Tessa Jurewicz’s Stoney Creek Elementary classroom, where an opinion writing unit recently was launched.
Jurewicz and English-language learner teacher Holly Straight have been helping first-graders home in on what they think via “opinion circle maps.” After that, they come up with reasons to justify their opinions, then construct paragraphs from that information.
First-grade teachers at Stoney Creek worked with Straight to revamp and beef up Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators writing units to create what Jurewicz calls “a pretty impressive writing curriculum.”
“We have seen huge, amazing gains in our students’ writing success, both in our EL population as well as the classroom as a whole,” Jurewicz said.
First-graders also have been introduced to procedural writing by seeing if they could compose directions for drawing a reindeer, and next will tackle informational writing about an animal, which starts with practice taking notes.
Connecting Writing to Reading
With the previous persuasive writing unit, Straight said, students were to write a letter advocating for social change.
Although an important skill, the Common Core objective at this level is opinion writing, not persuasive or argumentative, she said. K-5 standards call for opinion writing, which transitions to argumentative writing in grades 6-12.
“We found that the unit bypassed critical foundational skills the students needed,” Straight said. “Now the units also center around the features and language of that particular type (genre) of writing. This also helps us more intentionally connect writing to reading.”
Straight called students “far more engaged and successful” using the adapted unit.
“Students need to learn how to form an opinion — yes, their own opinion — and support it with strong reasons before they can even approach higher level skills like writing a letter for social change,” she said.
The adapted units also employ thinking maps, which Straight said have helped the students organize their thinking.
Also, Straight said, writing checklists previously provided to students on EL and M-STEP assessments in order to organize their thinking were often not completed, “which is super frustrating, as they typically provide the student with the exact expectations they need to score a proficient score.”
“We need to teach students to really use these checklists. To do so, they need to practice with checklists that are genuinely useful.”
Jurewicz said she loves what she’s seeing from her students. Those who entered first grade unable to write single words are now writing strong opinion paragraphs with supporting reasons, transitional phrases, and a restatement of their opinions.
“It’s amazing what these little people can do,” she said.