This summer, part of my job was helping some 4th and 5th graders hone their skills at writing persuasive essays. This essay form is often seen on standardized tests and is the style kids tend to hate the most. The format must be strictly followed and the rules can be intimidating. There must be five full paragraphs: Introduction, Reason 1, Reason 2, Reason 3, and Conclusion. Yes, each essay must state three reasons and you have to write a full paragraph elaborating on each reason.
Boy, kids really hate this. Can’t you hear the whining now about how they can only think of two reasons? Even though the essays are usually about “kid friendly” topics, they’re not the kind of subjects kinds enjoy pondering, especially when faced with the pressure of writing five paragraphs in 30 or 40 minutes. Honestly their feelings about whether there should be vending machines in school or all students should wear uniforms is usually rather limited and their fear about if they will have enough to write seemingly never ending.
So instead of rote practicing, I used non fiction books to get them thinking. After we talked about the life experiences of a certain bird in New York City, my students had a much better understanding of perspective and point of view. And once we put those things together, their essays really started to flow.
I chose I.N.K. books about a bird named Pale Male, a hawk who chose to build a nest on a swank 5th Avenue Apartment building near Central Park in NYC. This was fascinating to city bird watchers because Hawks were rare in the area but it became a full blown news story when the ritzy apartment building removed the hawk’s nest because of the resulting mess in front of the building and the constant peeking eyes of the bird watchers with large telescopes in Central Park.
There are at least three good non fiction children’s books that I know of about Pale Male. The story and illustrations are a great way to introduce the concept of perspective. The hawks fly high above Central Park and the buildings, giving them a perspective to search for their prey, see the natural beauty of the city, and keep away from the crowds. In the trees or lower on the ground, they can be vulnerable to large groups of crows or people touching their nests. These books also open up a conversation about perspective’s cousin, point of view: what did the hawks want and need, how did the bird watchers want to help them, and how was this the same or different from how the people living in the apartment building thought about birds nesting there?
I ‘ve also found it effective to read two of these books and compare and contrast. What points of the story did each writer focus on? What were some details that were included by one writer but left out by the other? Are there any facts that were absolutely necessary in order to tell the story?
These discussions translated easily and naturally to the persuasive essay form. The kids began to understand that students will often see an issue differently than a teacher or parent or the Principal based on their point of view. They could expand their reasoning when seen from another point of view and based on whom they were trying to convince. Is the letter to a friend or relative? Lets talk about how you could have fun and do things together. If the letter is to the Principal, you can focus on reasons such as safety, health, learning, and community.
From my perspective, using non fiction is tremendously effective in helping kids expand their own way of seeing things and how others see things. This enables them to feel much more confident about their reasoning and, ultimately, helps them express that more naturally in their writing.