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Inspiring Excellence Part 5: Reading to Get Ready to Write

The Inspiring Excellence Series is a set of six videos that document a learning expedition—an extended interdisciplinary study—involving second-grade students in Jenna Gampel’s class at the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston, MA, investigating the topic of snakes. The videos celebrate a powerful confluence of exciting original research that includes fieldwork and experts, artistic skill and critique, and sharp Common Core literacy practices in reading for and writing with evidence. The quality of the resulting work is remarkable.

This video series accompanies the book Transformational Literacy: Making the Common Core Shift with Work That Matters.


- [Girl] “Yellow Anaconda in the Amazon Rainforest” by Emma Sophia Guev-ara It’s a sunny day in the Amazon Rainforest, as little birds chirp in the warm air. Flowers sway in the wind. The sky shines with splotches of blue. Now, the yellow anaconda is ready to shed her skin.

- After all of this work, how can we share what we’ve learned with the world?

- [Teacher] I wanted the students to make a product that could include all the high-quality work they were doing. Their writing, their illustrations, their research, and, if possible, their voice.

- I thought that would really motivate them to do their best work.

- I think we should make a book, and the grouping of the, um, partners that we’re working with, with chapters.

- We can make an app about it.

- [Teacher] An eBook seemed like the perfect container but I wanted the students to feel ownership. So, I set up a process in the classroom to include their input.

- And then it will tell research about it.

- Like with our photographs and our drawings.

- [Teacher] Once that everyone understood that we were making an eBook, a couple of things about non-fiction became really important to understand. These establish criteria for a narrative non-fiction story. Use these.

- [Teacher] In the research process, we were looking at informational non-fiction, which is all organized categorically. But when we looked at examples of eBooks, we realized that there was a different kind of non-fiction. There was narrative non-fiction. Narrative non-fiction doesn’t present information in the same way. But it still presents truthful information.

- Because it’s narrative non-fiction, so it has, so the things that you put into the story has to be reasonable, or else it won’t be narrative non-fiction.

- [Teacher] To understand the difference between narrative non-fiction and informational non-fiction, we looked at different models of stories.

- [Teacher] The red fox, hawk and coyote, are especially dangerous to groundhogs.

- I can describe the gist of a narrative non-fiction story.

- [Teacher] And we went through, and we coded the stories using colors and categories, that were the same categories we were researching.

- We had red foxes, hawks and coyotes are dangerous to groundhogs. So then, I would write P for preditors.

- [Ron] Close reading of complex text is really hard. What’s going to make students empowered and motivated to actually do that? It’s this combination of mission and purpose to contribute to the world, and also having structures which make that feel feasible and possible for them to achieve together.

- When groundhogs are born, they weigh only an ounce. And, my code for that was P-F, which stands for physical features.

- [Teacher] The kids could really see the difference. They could see that informational non-fiction had all the same colors and categories on the same pages, but narrative non-fiction spread that information out, because the story was based around time and events, but the non-fiction elements were still all there. A lot of schools emphasize fiction with kids, because it’s creative and fun. The common core emphasizes the importance of working with non-fiction and scientific information. I wanted the kids to have both. I wanted them to have the creative exciting element of creating a story. And at the same time, I wanted those stories to be grounded in research and grounded in facts.

- In the end of the story, I’m gonna put for a fact is that, um, my snake, it eats food after it lays eggs.

- [Teacher] Having coded and looked at examples of non-fiction narrative, it became important for the kids to now take that same eye to their own work. So, we did the same coding process with our own stories, as they got closer to completion.

- Me and Ser-gene had to trade stories to see if the facts that she wrote were in her story. I got all your facts.

- [Teacher] The kids could make sure that they included facts from every category, but they didn’t clump them all together. That wasn’t the genre of work we were making. Have you talked about it shedding? Have you talked about it mating? Okay, so those are all things that could happen in the future, right?

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