When I was little, I was obsessed with letter writing. It began with pen pals at elementary schools in my district, expanded to international pen pals in Turkey and India, and became a weekly habit when my best friend moved across the country. The letters to my best friend, Hannah, were filled with detailed narratives and reflections. Even though I have yet to establish a pen pal program in my classes, my students regularly write letters…to their “invested adults.”
In my middle school classroom, I give my students letter templates filled with sentence frames at the end of each month. The sentence frames prompt the students to talk about what we have learned over the past few weeks and provide scaffolding to make the assignment easily accessible to all students–even my newcomer English Learners are even able to complete the assignment by translating the document between English and Spanish.
Before the students begin the assignment, I help the students to brainstorm ideas for each section. Here are a few of the techniques I have used:
- Docu-Cam Notes: Print copies of the blank letter template, give a copy to each student, project one copy using the docu-cam, ask for students to volunteer ideas to add to the template, write ideas on the template, guide students to take notes of relevant ideas to use in their letters
- Gallery Walk: Create posters for each prompt, organize the students in teams, have each team take a few minutes to respond to each prompt by adding sticky notes to the posters, rotate, and walk around a second time to view responses
- Group Discussion: Organize students into groups; ask each group to open the template document, discuss the ideas, and take notes as comments on their documents or on a poster
- Community Circle: Integrate topics from the letters into community circle discussions for a few days leading up to the assignment (Community circles are also called proactive restorative circles. Here’s my blog post about how to begin using them in class.)
My students complete their letters during the keyboard station of station-rotation or as a traditional whole-class assignment on days when I know I will be out of the classroom. I post the template document, directions, and rubrics as one assignment in Google Classroom. (You can learn more about station-rotation blended learning here.)
When the letters are complete, the students submit them through Google Classroom. I quickly grade each one using a rubric, return any that need further revision, and print copies to send home since many of my students do not have wifi access at home. When I have time, I try to also quickly translate letters into Spanish before I print them for my Spanish-only speaking households.
Monthly Letter Directions
- Use Google Docs to create a letter rubric for the semester or year. Here is an example.
- Use Google Docs to create a letter template for the month. Here is an example.
- Use Google Docs to create directions for the assignment. Here is an example.
- Post the directions, letter, and rubric as one assignment in Google Classroom. Remember to make a copy of the letter document for each student.
- Take a few minutes to frontload the assignment using one of the techniques listed above.
- Add the letter as an assignment for the keyboard station of your station-rotation.
- Read and grade the letters. Return for revision as necessary.
- Print the letters to send home with students. Email letters to school staff, such as case managers and coaches, when relevant. Translate letters before printing for non-English speaking parents.
If you implement monthly letters in your classroom, have tips to share, or questions, please connect with me through Twitter or Instagram (#tvszed and @npriester), or in the Teachers vs Zombies Facebook Group (bit.ly/tvszFB).