Friday, January 17, 2014

Finding the Heart in Nonfiction--Thank You, Georgia Heard!

Over the summer, I revised our third-grade information writing unit with one of the teachers in the district. When we shared the revisions with the rest of the teachers, many didn't feel that the unit was drastically different from the days of pre-Common Core. For the most part, they were right. We increased the emphasis on the writing in the unit--tried to steer teachers and students away from the obsession with text features. I'm sure that some of you have taught students who would prefer to write glossaries, tables of contents or draw pictures with captions at all levels of magnifications than write a paragraph.

Between the time of our summer revisions and the presentation of our work to the rest of the teachers, I read Georgia Heard's book, Finding the Heart of Nonfiction. At one point during the meeting, I allowed that I might have written some of the teaching points a little differently if I had read that book before our revision work. One of the teachers wanted to know why. On the evaluation sheets, several of the teachers asked for copies of the book, so I bought each school a copy and hand-delivered it to the teachers who had asked for it.

I still owe this blog a post about Finding the Heart of Nonfiction. Suffice it for now to say that if you want your students to have voice in their nonfiction writing, to string together beautiful language, to recognize what human beings hold on to and remember when they read, then read this book. While these ideas sound lofty, keep reading and hear what happened in a third-grade classroom.

Across the district, the third-grade information unit is winding down, so I have been asking teachers how it went. Most of what I have seen and heard has been positive--the increase in writing happened and students learned that they could incorporate information from books and other resources.

However, what I saw yesterday blew me away. Blew. Me. Away.

I saw one of the more experienced third-grade teachers in the hallway and when I asked her how the unit went, she said it was great. "Was it different than in previous years?" I asked. "Oh, yes," she said. When I probed that response, she shared that the book I had given them changed her teaching. She asked me if I had a minute and she would show me some of her student's writing. I always have time for student writing.

Here's how the piece that she showed me started (I fixed a few spelling mistakes...):

Out in a meadow a dog plays, bounding through the tall grass. The wind blows his fur. A sound so cheerful we all have heard before:woof! Then somewhere far away his voice echoes, to remain forever in our hearts. All of us love this very special kind of dog: this is the wonderful life of Golden Retrievers.

The piece continues with organized information about all different aspects about Golden Retrievers, but I also can't resist sharing the last few lines:

As we all can see, Golden Retrievers are very beautiful pets. This world would be plain and dull without the voice of the Golden Retriever. Woof!

The fact that the Common Core State Standards does not include expectations for voice in writing concerns me. I would never, ever want to lose the voice of this young writer, because it is the woof that I will remember, and the woof that will guarantee that I will read anything else she writes.

Enjoy the weekend,


  1. I've told you before that I'm reading this book with a group of primary teachers, & we are enjoying the ideas presented, Melanie. Students at the school do many kinds of non-fiction research and communication of the results, so we are always looking to help them do beautiful response. Thanks for this & I'll look forward to the review.

  2. BOW WOW. I agree, 100 percent. Voice is one of the six traits!