Some time ago I led a writing class with fifth-grade teachers. Our purpose was to write our own essays, using state classroom-based assessment criteria to analyze them. I chose the “You Decide” option from the state standards and the topic: Should violent video games be considered free speech and be protected by the First Amendment? In this exploration we would state our opinion on a public issue, provide background on stakeholders’ positions, and explain how a right or common good connects to the issue. Our own learning experiences would inform us as we built a social studies unit for students. The video game topic was particularly timely, since a local boy suffocated as a result of his friends burying him headfirst in a sandbox. The boys were mimicking a character in the popular video game, Naruto, where the objective is to reduce the opponent’s health to zero.
Throughout the workshop the teachers and I had many “aha” moments about our lacking civics education. As hard as it was, we realized the importance of the work. In a democratic society, we can’t just teach kids how to read articles and state their opinions so they can vote one day. We need to teach them how to gather information, listen to the law, listen to reason, compromise, collaborate and ultimately understand how informed decisions impact us all.
After completing the class, a teacher who I’ll call Marla asked if I would come work with her in her classroom as she implemented the learning from our workshop sessions. She majored in history so she felt comfortable with the civics aspect, but wanted my help with the reading and writing components. I was excited. We decided to focus on “Whose Rules?” a similarly constructed civics project and culminating essay that asks the students to “identify a problem and a policy or law that attempts to solve it.” We chose to focus on seatbelt laws. We knew this was a topic that would engage opinionated fifth graders.
It was a Tuesday and Marla invited me in to watch the kids set up their notes on the first stakeholder in the debate about seatbelts: The Safety Restraint Coalition. The task was to be able to provide information about how this group participated in the law-making process. She’d done a great job of selecting texts that the kids could comprehend and provide definitions for words like restraint, manufacturer and citation. Walking them through the note-taking process, it was a focused, intentional lesson and the kids were enjoying themselves.
Two days later I was back and she gave them a short practice write to use those notes and state what role the Safety Restraint Coalition had had in the law-making process. During their lunch we looked over the student work.
“It’s like they’ve never written before,” she moaned.
I considered the three types of student writing: verbatim sentences from notes (most) to opinion-only writing (many) to explaining the purpose of a seatbelt (just a couple). I wondered. “Do kids know how to use paraphrasing, quoting, and summarizing?”
“Apparently not, according to the writing in front of us,” said Marla.
As we moved into the “what to do” phase of our conversation, I sketched a little matrix to guide our conversation:
Alongside our sandwiches, Marla and I noted that the purpose was the same for all three strategies of information sharing. We moved into discussion about how we as adults make decisions about when to paraphrase, quote or summarize.
|What To Do|
|Paraphrasing Nonfiction||Quoting Nonfiction||Summarizing Nonfiction|
|Purpose: share information without altering the meaning of the original text||Purpose: share information without altering the meaning of the original text||Purpose: share information without altering the meaning of the original text|
|Source: Needs to be cited||Needs to be cited||Needs to be cited|
|When do we use it? When our reader would appreciate us putting it in our own words.||When the source is well-known and or credible. We may choose quotes when they are technical, catchy or very important.||When we can select or write a sentence or sentences that capture the author’s most important and repeated ideas.|
We narrowed our instructional focus to paraphrasing and quoting, since Marla’s fifth-graders had spent several weeks on summarization of nonfiction text. Marla said she was going to do a review of summarization, and asked me if I would model how to quote and paraphrase from the Safety Coalition text.
To Quote or Not to Quote
Through a think-aloud, I lifted off the top of my head for the fifth-graders and shared how I make decisions about quoting and paraphrasing as a writer. I wanted to make it clear that there was no definitive right or wrong, but some information was a better fit for one or the other. Then I read this Safety Coalition statement:
One of the students said, “Well, it just makes sense that you would quote that one.”
“Why does that make sense?” I asked.
“That’s their whole point . . . that it’s safer.”
“True,” I said. “So a simple sentence that is a very important point is a good one to quote.”
A few days later students re-did the assignment, and we saw beginning evidence of the strategies of paraphrasing, quoting and summarization.
Then Marla said, “Okay, so what about citing?”
When I was a teacher-librarian I came up with the acronym TAPCC (we referred to it as ‘tap-ka’) to capture the five parts needed for most citations:
P ublisher (Publishing site for electronic)
C ity of publication (URL for electronic)
C opyright (Date site accessed for electronic)
We began incorporating TAPCC into our note-taking sessions. Because we were using both book and electronic resources, it was great to show the kids how to gather the same information from such different sources. This became the template for our citing expectations.
Marla reflected at the end of our coaching cycle, “At first I was wondering how the writing and assessment was going to take as much time as you were planning, but then as we got into it, I realized how many sub-skills we needed to teach kids to help them toward independence. In the past, I think I would’ve been frustrated with their early attempts and thought it wasn’t possible. I’m going to be able to use those lessons on quoting and paraphrasing in all different areas now, and TAPCC is stuck in my head for good.”
Consider these questions:
- When you look at writing in social studies, which underlying subskills might students need?
- When you write information from nonfiction texts, do you (as a writer) use paraphrasing, quoting or summarizing most?
- What ways can you help make the task of citing sources accessible to students?