Ending Your Year with Letters

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_161854607When May comes, and the green starts to overtake the landscape, and the purple lilacs send their sweet smell to my side door, I know that summer is near. When I was teaching, I usually would go through a series of states at this point:

  • Exhaustion from all the testing and planning and grading of essays and after-school ceremonies and concerts and plays
  • Panic that I didn’t get through all of the required curriculum
  • Regret that I didn’t give enough feedback to students or make enough emotional connections with some of my kids
  • Great anticipation that summer was almost here and I could make it through these last five weeks and four Mondays
  • Sadness (or sometimes Relief depending on the group of kids) that we only had a few weeks left together in my classroom

After running the gamut of emotions, I would try to regain some semblance of teaching dignity. This usually took the form of writing letters, as a classroom activity.

Two of my favorite types of activities were Letters to Your Future Self and Letters of Thanks to a Teacher. Neither assignment was very formal. I think I tried to tie in some sort of lesson on letter writing, just to keep it legit. Often the “grade” was based solely on completion of the assignment.

Over the years, I have collected lots of stationery and envelopes (even asking parents for donations at the beginning of the school year) and so I would pull out my box and let students choose their paper and favorite writing implement.

Sometimes, with the Letters to Your Future Self, I would include a stamped envelope and have students write: Do Not Open Until the Year 20XX on them, and have them address the letter to their home address (usually after a short tutorial on how to do this!). I would then mail the letters to students in the summer with a short note from me too!

Lasting Relationships

Letters of Thanks to a Teacher always brought about a lot of questions from students. Can I write to an elementary teacher? Sure – I can inter-school mail the letter to them. What about a custodian or lunch lady or counselor? Of course! How do you spell this teacher’s name?! (List of names goes up on the white board.) Can I write a letter to you? Well, only if you also write one to someone else too. Can I deliver it to the teacher now? Nope, I need to grade them first – so make sure I can read your signature! Can I write more than one? YES! I’m not finished, can I take it home for homework? Yes.

shutterstock_144790756I would have the students keep the envelopes open, so that I could “grade” them and also screen for any letter of bad intent (only one or two in the many years did this, but I’m glad I checked in the end).

The best part about Letters of Thanks to a Teacher came later, sometimes not until next fall, when I would catch my colleagues looking in their mailboxes, sometimes greeted by piles of letters from past students, thanking them for some aspect of teaching–or more often the relationship they had created.

The Importance of Gratitude

Giving students time in a full class period to write the letters in a leisurely and yet thoughtful way always made my students and me feel good. You could tell they were thinking about what they would say and how they would say it, and many of them would ask how to spell words and took care in their writing–more so than any other assignment they had worked on that year. This is the kind of forced assignment I didn’t mind giving or grading.

And what was I doing while they composed? Besides helping any student with their spelling or ideas, I was writing my own letters of gratitude to colleagues and friends who had helped me that year.

File_000Caroline Thompson (@TeacherThompson) taught middle school ELA for twelve years in Lake Orion before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She supports AARI teachers for Oakland Schools as an independent literacy consultant in the areas of digital media, professional development, and non-fiction resources. Caroline is a Reading and Writing Workshop advocate, a 2008 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a 2009 Oakland County Outstanding Teacher of the Year Nominee. She has a BA in English from Michigan State University and a Masters in the Art of Teaching Reading from Oakland University.  She lives in Berkley with her husband and their two year old daughter.

The Power of Teachers’ Words

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

459418871We’ve reached the point in my 8th grade classroom where we’ve modeled, practiced, and established norms that we can use in our workshop classroom. Additionally, I have also conferenced with each student to give them a next step as they continue their reading and writing work. This, however, is not a blog post about effective conferencing, rather it’s about what I’ve learned from conferencing with a particular student. This experience leaves me wondering whether we, as teachers, always realize the effects we have on students?

Kyle sat down to conference with me about his writing. He particularly wanted to discuss one of his poems from the 8th grade CCSS/MAISA Launching Writer’s Workshop unit that focuses on narrative poetry. Anxiety radiated off of him as he explained that he had written nothing that he felt was valuable. With his permission, I looked at his writer’s notebook, and a theme became clear in his writing. He was writing what he thought I wanted. His notebook had seed ideas that mirrored my own modeled topics as well as imitations that stayed in the structure and topic of the original text. I praised Kyle for all of his good work in practicing all of our new class skills. Then, I broke down his next steps for him.

It was apparent that Kyle needed smaller steps than even the workshop curriculum daily sessions offered. So we began with: what story do you want to tell? And later, we discussed: what will be the beginning, middle, and end of that story? Then he was able to write a narrative poem draft. After peer review, he came to me and said that he thought his poem was too long (about 3 handwritten pages). So, again, step-by-step we worked on his poem with ideas like cutting out any repeating words or phrases and details that did not suit his beginning, middle, and end planning. The next day, he came running in to show me that he had cut his poem down to about one page, and he was very happy to tell me that this draft was much better than the previous one.

78745133Amidst these in-class conferences with Kyle, I met Kyle’s mom. She shared a story with me about a 3rd grade teacher who told Kyle that he was not a writer. While I’m not writing this post to place blame, I see that when Kyle sits down to write, he does so with doubt. This doubt may have come from the seed planted by that teacher, but it probably also came from many other writing experiences that perhaps didn’t go as Kyle had hoped. In the end, Kyle had a very successful first writing unit in my classroom, and I hope that he’ll continue to feel excited about writing as we get into argument and informative writing. But this whole episode left me wondering–what effects do we, as teachers, have on students?

This experience with Kyle reminded me of a particularly bad writing experience I had with a college English professor my first semester. The short version is that he told me I couldn’t write and that I could not major in English. This negative experience my first semester was coupled with an excellent grade on a paper in a class taught by a published author. He told me that I had wonderful written ideas and a great depth of thought. I later worked for this professor and even helped him review one of his manuscripts for publication. I am thankful today that these experiences happened in the same semester because I’m not sure I could have moved past the negative professor’s comments. Instead, I decided to work to become a stronger writer. While this work is never over, I feel that I have become a strong writer. I also hope that I’ve given my students the confidence to be successful, independent writers. So, each day I have to consider that the things we say to our students affect them. What conversations will you have with students today?

pic 2Amy Gurney is an 8th grade Language Arts teacher for Bloomfield Hills School District. She was a facilitator for the release of the MAISA units of study. She has studied, researched, and practiced reading and writing workshop through Oakland Schools, The Teacher’s College, and action research projects. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Education at Central Michigan University and a Master’s in Educational Administration at Michigan State University.