Who knew letter writing could be so fun?
After the weeks of state testing and end-of-the-year projects, I was trying to find some shorter, fun ways to engage students in writing at the end of the year in order to avoid complete sixth grade melt-down as the year was winding up. And (let’s be honest) some shorter assignments gave me time to get the bigger ones graded before grades are due!
So I borrowed an assignment from my brilliant colleague Tiffany, and asked the students to write a letter to a former teacher. Yes, it was after Teacher Appreciation Week, but I just reminded the kids of the major research papers that they were working on during TAW, and set them free after introducing letter format (date, address, salutation, body, signature…)
They were SO excited! Students discussed their choices in table groups and several students asked if it was ok to write more than one. (Of course! Who am I to deny anyone the chance to do extra work?)
I asked them to let the teacher know what had mattered to them, and why they chose the teacher as letter recipient – the letter version of “be specific” and “include evidence” which happen in most other assignments.
They wanted to know if I would actually send them (yes, even out of district – if they gave me the school and enough info to locate the address) and if I would read them. I told them that I would read the letters before I sent them, just so I could make sure they’d met the parameters of the assignment (letter format, thank you, and specifics), and everyone was ok with that.
I learned some new things as I read – some had struggled with moving to a new school or new country, one had lost a parent, several had struggled with different subjects until they had a particular teacher…and students were thankful that a teacher had helped them overcome a struggle.
Most of the letters were a full page long – in some cases, longer than their research essays had been. <sigh> And…almost every single one included lots of specific examples of how a teacher had helped them. (Specific evidence included, with no teeth pulling and revision, on a rough draft? Wow!)
That assignment went so well, and they enjoyed it so much, that a few days later I decided to have them write another letter – this time to a “future sixth grader”.
I asked them to think back to that first day of middle school, when they were all so tiny (lots of laughs here – some of them are still tiny) and scared. What would have helped them to read that first day? Reassurance? Advice? Warnings? I suggested that they could advise students about things so next year’s kids will be successful in Faircloth’s class (“don’t throw things”, “bring a writing utensil every day”, “don’t lean back in your chair”, “Faircloth likes chocolate”…)
Again, awesomeness erupted!
Their writing voices were clear, and they had fun with deciding what to include. Some earnestly reassured the new student that locker combinations would get easier as the weeks went by, or that they would get used to the floating schedule by the end of the month.
Others gave advice about not just my class, but about my colleagues as well (Exclamation points abounded!!!!!):
- “Don’t ever tell Mr. P that you don’t like BACON!”
- “Don’t take your phone out in the hall by Mr. L’s room, he’ll take it!!!!”
- “Mrs. W gives you LOTS of projects, but she’s still chill!”
- “Don’t chew gum in Mr. G’s room!”
And about the 8th Grade hallway:
- “Don’t ever go down it or they will shove you in a locker and leave you!” (Not true, but apparently it is funny to perpetuate this myth.)
And then there were the friends who created warnings about throwing things in my class (I really hate that). One group of boys explained how I once threw one of them out the window, and he “broke every bone in [his] body! Thank goodness there (sic) was snow out or [he] would have died!”
Then, his friends made sure to include a warning: “If you throw things in Mrs. Faircloth’s room, you will get in trouble. Just ask my friend W – she threw him out a window!”
The stories-as-warnings continued, though most of the letters ended with a caveat not to take the letter too seriously.
(After I stopped laughing, I went downstairs and let my principal know that he might be getting some concerned parent phone calls during the first week of school, and showed him some examples so he can reassure parents that the students had their first lesson about satire in sixth grade.)
This is all going so well, that I’m not done yet. I’m going to try this letter thing one last time – taking a cue from Dickens – and have them write a letter introducing themselves to their 7th grade teacher. I will give those to my colleagues when the schedules are done in the fall. I was telling that brilliant colleague who got this started (remember Tiffany?) about the letters and she actually requested the letters of introduction to help her get a sense of the students she will have next year.
The kids are enjoying writing, learning the conventions of a letter, and I’m loving this way to end the year!