We interrupt your regularly programmed Classroom blog post with this mind-bending universe moment, from, the universe.

I just read this blog on movingwriters.org by Karla Hilliard that I feel like I could have written myself.

She started out by talking about choosing mentor texts. Teachers can be overwhelmed at the prospect of finding new, relevant and engaging texts every year to use. BUT sometimes, the magic happens, and the perfect texts FIND YOU.

Well, when setting out to create this Nonfiction Unit, I spent a lot of time trying to pick a topic for my model lessons. I wanted to pick mentor texts to use about this one topic. This topic was going to be the crux of the unit, and if it wasn’t engaging enough for enough students, the whole unit may fail, and my practice would fail and my students, their parents, and all the administrators in my building would all hate me, right?

A lot of pressure.

Well, I went with my gut (the day before I had to choose SOMETHING) and picked space exploration, because I am very interested in it at the moment, and I thought maybe my own enthusiasm would be, contagious.

Then, well, the universe took over. And literally hand-delivered so many sources and pieces of media that I can’t fit them all in!

I wanted to choose a variety of sources that were all different types of media. I wanted a Ted Talk, a news article from a scientific magazine, a documentary film, a video clip from the news, excerpts from recently published books, podcasts, etc. I wanted it all.

I guess I chose the right time.

Last week, the Mars rover Curiosity sent back crazy pictures that made the news; Ellon Musk launched his Tesla Roadster into space with a copy of Isaac Asimov’s The Foundation and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” blaring (music and literature!?!? right up my alley, thank you very much). I found more Ted Talks than I can use, and three books published last year that are mind-blowing AND well-written. The whole unit practically wrote itself.

And then this happened just now:

I checked out Ted Radio Hour, because that is a really well-done podcast that I have used in the past when teaching nonfiction.

And guess what their show was THIS WEEK!?!?!

TED Radio Hour


Peering Deeper Into Space

The past few years have ushered in an explosion of new discoveries about our universe. This hour, TED speakers explore the implications of these advances — and the lingering mysteries of the cosmos.

I mean… C’MON!!!

So, I had to write a blog post right away to say:

Thanks, Universe.



Day 5

What was playing in my classroom as students walked in today?

This is the song that Ellon Musk’s Tesla is playing out in Space right now.

Piece Or Excerpt of Media A Day:

Today’s piece of media was super timely and reinforced two previous teaching points:

Writers of Nonfiction media use multiple strategies and techniques in order to inform, entertain, or persuade readers.


Nonfiction writing has several different media forms.

We have talked a lot about life on Mars in this unit so far; this story just happened, and is super cool and applicable on levels.

Also, it was super fun to discuss the possibility of life on Mars. Even if its just Human Life. lol.

I also mentioned this neat article from Fortune about how Ellon Musk sent Isaac Asimov’s The Foundation Trilogy into space in his Tesla. (such a neat time to teach this unit!!!).


Today’s lesson and activity give students an opportunity to strengthen their understanding of nonfiction writing and media in small groups with less teacher support.

I shared this handout with students on Google Classroom and reminded students about the work we have been doing so far in our noticing of nonfiction writing.



Active Engagement:

Students logged into Chromebooks, and got into small groups to complete the activity. They read three different excerpts (from either the preface or introduction) from Nonfiction BOOKS. The books I used were The Planet Factory by Elizabeth Tasker (2017), The Telescope in the Ice by Mark Bowen (2017) and The Ascent of Gravity by Marcus Chown (2017). Each group read a different excerpt and created a slideshow presentation with their findings. All three texts are VERY WELL-WRITTEN and engaging. This is why I chose them.


I reminded students that we would share these presentations next class, and also finish our research by then. Students are required to have at least 5 sources of nonfiction for their projects by next week.


Day 4

Piece Or Excerpt of Media A Day:

Related image

Today’s piece of media reinforced two previous teaching points:

Writers of Nonfiction media use multiple strategies and techniques in order to inform, entertain, or persuade readers.

Nonfiction writing has several different media forms.

We began by watching the first ten minutes, and the last five minutes, of the PBS documentary (on Netflix currently) The Farthest: Voyager in Space. This sets up the story of the Voyager 1 and 2 launched in 1977 to explore the outer planets and beyond.


I started today, by asking students to continue reading nonfiction texts they encounter as writers, instead of readers. We reviewed: In order to read nonfiction like a writer of nonfiction, students can:

  1. Notice something about the writing.
  2. Name it, using words that make sense to you.
  3. Come up with a theory that explain why the writer used this technique.
  4. Try it in your own writing.

Today, we watched our fourth mentor text, The Farthest. I asked them to jot down things they noticed during the film. Then we made a list of characteristics we found in the piece (I added this to the list we began with our last mentor text). These are the things we noticed today:


  • Crafted a narrative. Created a story. Complete with a plot, and characters and themes.. Etc.
  • For the most part, in chronological order
  • Writers use metaphors- the golden record was a message in a bottle- bottle getting dropped into water at beg. Of movie and at end.
  • Showed diagrams of the solar system.
  • Showed real footage and pictures and audio of people talking from the time when it was happening
  • People were talking about why and how- this helped to construct a narrative
  • People were saying their thoughts about everything- same idea from different perspectives of the professionals and experts who made this happen
  • They used a timeline- to show the impact it made and how long it took-
  • Personification- the voyager is just a machine, but it felt like so much more. A few of them referred to it as their baby-

Next, we discussed the media of a documentary film, and how that media gives certain freedoms and restrictions for conveying information. I encouraged students to consult DIFFERENT TYPES of nonfiction sources in their own projects. I reminded them that the sources they use will end up being their own, personal mentor texts from which they can pull writing techniques to try.

Active Engagement:

Students logged into Chromebooks, got into Google Classroom and continued searching for sources and recording information in their own Sources and Notes doc. 


Students were reminded to continue researching and taking notes. We will wrap up the research phase of this unit next week.



Day 3

Piece Or Excerpt of Media A Day:

efezgnrqfi223akawqgbvoepieToday’s piece of media hit on TWO different teaching points.I used the print version of this article that was published in the Washington Post yesterday called “Curiosity’s five-year journey across mars — in one stunning photo” as well as the digital version which I later displayed on the smart board.

This is an article about the Mars Rover Curiosity, and I used it for multiple reasons, as a mentor text for this Nonfiction unit. It was the basis for the following minilesson.


I started today, by asking students to begin reading nonfiction texts they encounter as writers, instead of readers. In order to read nonfiction like a writer of nonfiction, students can:

  1. Notice something about the writing.
  2. Name it, using words that make sense to you.
  3. Come up with a theory that explain why the writer used this technique.
  4. Try it in your own writing.

Today, we started with our third mentor text, “Curiosity’s five-year journey across mars — in one stunning photo” I handed students the print version which has only one picture (the one at the beginning of this post). We read it together as a class, and I asked students to think about it like writers of nonfiction. Then we made a list of characteristics we found in the piece (these exercises with all of these mentor texts will help us to construct an understanding of what nonfiction is, and what kinds of things we can try as writers of our own nonfiction in the latter part of the unit).These are the things we noticed (in two different classes):WRITERS OF NONFICTION…

  • Use organization to make his point clear and to deliver evidence that supported his wacky claim (ted talk guy)
  • They added humor with the whole “selfie” line- hip and current and relatable to young people.
  • Personified the rover- happy birthday, “if the rover could breath, it would gasp.” Instead of saying the rover took pictures, the rover “saw this and that”
  • Used very recent information, within the past few years. We care more because it is relevant today.
  • Talks about the mistakes made, “the rover found its own plastic” silly robot. Not a perfect mission, but still remarkable – like that whole thing where they found organic material for the first time ever.
  • Crafted a narrative. Created a story. Complete with a plot, and characters and themes.. Etc.
  • Use personification to create an impact on the reader, so that the reader relates to the subject “if the rover could breathe, it would gasp.” This was to create a feeling of awe, or of the magnitude of the photo they are describing, which captures the Rover’s long journey so far.
  • Instead of using boring words, this writer used interesting language, or “buzz words” like “postcards of eclipses, dust devils, and shimmering sands showed the world its a beautiful place, even now.”
  • Used words to make Mars sound more appealing and exotic like “blue sunsets, sand dunes and small, lumpy moons.”
  • To keep the reader interested, in the third paragraph they said “in one image was its whole story” and this makes you want to read the whole story.
  • “The soil data collected suggests Mars was once a beautiful planet of rivers and lakes” they told us sometihng NEW and kind of, EXCITING, with like, some… implications.
  • “Naturally, it made time for a few selfies on the way.” humor, personification, its alone- one sentence, short, punctuated moment.

Next, we looked at the same story but online, in its digital format. This time, I asked students to notice ways nonfiction writers use digital media to infuse their work with even more information. 

  • Immediately, students noticed that the article begins with a 3 minute, informative video of the actual picture and how Curiosity took it, and his journey the past few years.
  • Next, students noticed the hyperlinks embedded throughout the article which takes the reader to TONS of more information about Curiosity’s trip, including this great graphic:msl_traversemap_sol1949-full
  • There were lots of pictures of the things referenced in the article like the Rover’s selfie, a blue sunset, the rover’s second “birthday photo” and the photos it took of an eclipse.

I wanted to encourage students to attempt to make a more interactive type of nonfiction in their own projects because they are so much more engaging and informative.

Active Engagement:

Students logged into chromebooks, got into Google Classroom and continued searching for sources and recording information in their own Sources and Notes doc. 


I reminded students that they should all have their topics chosen, guiding questions asked, and at least three sources found by our next class.I also emphasized that moving forward, students should read their own source materials as “writers of nonfiction”. This way, they have double the mentor texts for this unit.


Day 2

Piece Or Excerpt of Media A Day:

Image result for scale of the universe

Infographic: The Scale of the Universe

This is a pretty mind-blowing infographic that takes you from the smallest elements of the universe, to the seemingly-infinite magnitude of the universe.

In my last lecture, we talked about the difference between fact and truth, and we worked hard to construct an understanding of the fallible nature of both terms. I gave the students a few examples:

A chair: Image result for chair

I had a chair just like this one in front of me, and I asked students if it was solid. In other words, if I sat in the chair, would I just fall right through it, or would it hold me up? They all said: it is indeed solid and will hold me up. I asked them, “how do you know?”

They said a lot of things, like, well, we are all sitting on chairs, and we aren’t falling through, and everyone who sits on a chair doesn’t fall through, etc.

I emphasized that we know the chair is solid because the theory has been tested billions of times, by billions of different people, and the observed outcome is consistent. This makes for a fact.

But I wanted to emphasize something else: That facts are tricky and change depending on perspective.

Next, I told students that if we zoom in to an atomic level, we see that the chair is indeed not solid. It consists of atoms surrounded by empty space. At this level, the chair is not solid, and this is still a fact.

Then, they all held their breath as I attempted to sit on the chair and see what would happen. It was hilarious. For some reason, they suddenly thought I was magic, and that I would fall through the chair, despite the solid evidence they had earlier about the fat that the chair is solid. In one class, a kid got out his phone to take a video, “just in case”. hahahahah. (I didn’t fall through the chair, in case you were wondering).

Today’s POEM backs up the lecture from the other day, and is also about Space. This was meant to reinforce ideas from last class, AND, show a new media type of NONFICTION. 


Today I taught students how to create hyperlinks, and how to organize their research as we embark upon these epic projects. 

First, I wanted students to learn how to make hyperlinks as these are really an updated way to cite source information in the body of an original piece of nonfiction in the real world. While MLA citation is useful to know for writing for school, hyperlinks can be great ways of citing information in stuff these kids might write for the real world (or digital world they are forever connected to in their real lives).

Next, I wanted to emphasize how important it is to take notes as they do research for each source.

All directions for this are in this Google doc that I shared with each student on Google Classroom; they are using their own copy to record their notes and create their hyperlinks (this will be invaluable to them as they move forward in their research, and INVALUABLE to me as I attempt to keep up with all of their projects).

Active Engagement:

Students logged into chromebooks, got into Google Classroom and began recording information in their own Sources and Notes doc. 



I reminded students that they should all have their topics chosen, guiding questions asked, and at least one source found by the end of class.


NF UNIT P1 Day 1

Image result for What is true?

Day 1

Piece Or Excerpt of Media A Day:

“Eclipse” Pink Floyd. After reading the lyrics, I told students we were starting a new unit today about nonfiction.

I chose this piece because we are going to try and define “truth” today. I like the lyrics of this song for that goal. Also, throughout this unit, I will be modeling the project goals for the unit with my own research project about space. This song was a no-brainer for me. (more details about the project and my modeling below).

Then as a class we mocked up a definition of non-fiction. They called out several examples and I recorded them in our google doc notes.


Once students understood that we were going to be learning about a new genre, nonfiction, I asked students to define the following two terms in their notebooks:



This obviously opened up a lot of great conversation. Kids love prompts like these that open their minds and challenge them.

Active Engagement:

I gave students this handout which outlines the learning objectives for the unit, and also introduced the project they will complete throughout the unit. 

Next, I told students how I came to choose my topic: space exploration. I chose the topic, simply because I am currently really interested in space exploration. Crazy, right? I recently watched a documentary on Netflix about the Voyager 1 and 2. (one of my many sources for my project) and told students WHY exactly it struck a chord in me. It sparked my intense curiosity and excitement about the endlessness and possibility of our universe. I wanted to know more.

The goal here is that students choose their own topic that they actually WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT.

Next, we watched the first piece of media that I found for my “model project.” We watched James Green’s Ted Talk called “3 moons and a planet that could have alien life.”

I gave students the transcript for the talk and this sheet of questions to answer in order to foster analysis of the media. This gave students an opportunity to practice close-reading of a nonfiction text. They will use the same handout to read their own pieces of media for their own projects.


I asked students to begin considering what topic they might want to explore for this project.

HOMEWORK: Bring in a list of at least 5 topics you want to learn about for next class.



New Semester. New Unit. Nonfiction.

Image result for nonfiction

Part One: What is true?

The nonfiction unit I have designed to use with my kids this year can really be adapted to any classroom, at any age. Most of the unit is driven by student choice, and teacher modelling, so really you can use any materials to model any of the skills you are interested or called to teach. This is a highly student-centered unit, so it is important to remember that you are assessing skills. Not content. Of course, there is no lazy way to execute this. It will require a lot of modelling, reading and taking in a lot of information, but I mean, isn’t that the fun part? I don’t know about you, but my favorite thing about teaching is that I am in a classroom where I learn every day. As a fan of learning, and a believer that I do not know it all (or much, really, in context), I enjoy units like this that keep me on my toes, teach me a lot, and where the students are engaged, and learning, and teaching.

The Particulars:

  1. This unit was taught over 13 80-minute blocks that meet every other day.
  2. At the beginning of the year, I set up this routine. I play a song or read a poem to the students every single day. I cannot stress the success I have had with this (it’s my first year trying this, even though I have wanted to do this for years). These can be used in any way, to develop and deepen themes, to explore character development, to review figurative language. I mean, really, the list goes on. I like it because every single day, my students walk in happy and excited to see what is going to happen. They are called to the music that can be heard in the hallway, and when I hand them a lyric sheet and say hello as they walk in, students know that I care about them. They come in and talk about the song with their peers and then take their seats and get out their notebooks. Every day, the routine is the same, and they actually do it. Once the bell rings and I take attendance, we listen to the song again, and depending on the day I will give them a prompt about it to respond to, or just ask them to jot down things they like or notice. It is low-stakes writing that I do not grade. It gets them engaged, and thinking, the second they walk in the door. No time is wasted. It’s brilliant. Try it, and use it in a way that makes sense for you.  FOR THIS UNIT, the POEM A DAY will be instead a “Piece Or Excerpt of Media” A Day. I want students to know just how many types of media nonfiction can take. So, every day the media will be something new.
  3. In this unit, students will create their own piece of nonfiction that reveals what they believe to be true about a topic of their choice, after doing a ton of research and critical thought. Every day, I will teach a mini-lesson wherein I model for them how I would conquer this project. I will model the entire project from start to finish, and each day, students will take my teaching points and use them for their own projects.