Writing Lesson Rewrite Produces Big Gains

Young Pupils Learn to Formulate Opinions

Teacher Tessa Jurewicz walks her first-graders through writing opinion paragraphs

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.

Ramon Aleman wrote this group paragraph himself, complete with topic sentence and three supporting sentences

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.

Natalie Bushong reads her work to Kaelyn Molinet

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.

First-grade writing folders are packed with practice exercises aimed at improving skills

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.

Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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