Towards the end of the school year I give my students a letter writing assignment. This cumulative project requires my students to apply all that I’ve taught them in writing. I share with my students how I plan to use their letters with my next group of 4th graders on the first day of school. They get excited about this project because it has a real purpose for a real audience. It’s a great way to end your year and gives you an insight into their perspective of your classroom.
Letter Writing Project
Here’s the set-up:
- Topic: 4th grade in Room 411
- Format: friendly letter
- Purpose: to inform or explain
- Text Structure: central idea and key details
- Audience: next year’s 4th grade students
By this time of year we no longer need a printed graphic organizer, so my students draw a Four Square in their Writing Notebook. Then they put their pencils down and we brainstorm together: “How is Room 411 special?” Students volunteer their ideas about the events and routines that are unique to our classroom. After almost 9 months, they had a lot to offer. The dry erase board was full of their ideas. Great!
Organizing Our Ideas
After extensive brainstorming, students are ready to begin organizing their ideas on paper. Using a big, but simple Four Square they first choose at least four of the subtopics we just finished writing on the board. Most students stayed with four subtopics, but a few chose to include more. Subtopics included – playing kickball at recess, our Whole Brain Teaching routines, assignments in all subject areas and, perhaps not surprisingly, me.
Details, Details, Details
Next, they drew in three bullets in each square on their graphic organizer. These were to represent three key details about each subtopic. Under each bullet they then drew a star to represent vivid words and language for each key detail. Since we used the Four Square method all year, my students were very familiar with this organized approach and needed very little assistance. It certainly didn’t hurt that they were definitely “subject matter experts” on the topic!
Letter Writing Revisions
Upon completion, the next step was to go back to the subtopics in each square and expand them into complete sentences. A mini-lesson was required, but not to teach them how to write a complete sentence. They know how to do that quite well. We focused our mini-lesson on avoiding “telling statements” such as, “Now I’m going to tell you about recess in Room 411.” Or, “Here are a few facts about math in Room 411.” Yuck.
Throughout this writing project several opportunities for mini-lessons appeared.
- Avoiding a “telling” sentence as the main idea sentence of each paragraph. I required my students to include prepositional phrases since we had recently finished a unit of study on that concept. This helped them make the connection between grammar and better writing ability.
- Students in my class know my dislike of the words “stuff” and “things.” This writing project really seemed to bring out their tendency to rely on such useless words, so we had a mini-lesson about concrete nouns.
- A mini-lesson on writing a brief introduction to their letters followed. I had them visualize themselves meeting the student who would be sitting in “their” desk next year. “What would you say to that person? Make that your introduction.”
- Letter format was another mini-lesson. Here we could look at a story in our reading series that was a collection of letters and imitate the author.
Author’s Purpose from a Writer’s Perspective
I remind them that now they are the author and their purpose for writing is to give information. “Remember, you are writing to students on their first day in Room 411. They don’t know what you know. Make sure you share with them information they need to know. What information do you wish someone had told you about Room 411 on the first day?”
Once our final copies are written, I save them for my next year’s class. Just in case I have more kids next year, I have my fastest writers write two copies. These letters also make great resources for podcasts. This gives students a chance to hear the ideas of many other students and not just the one letter they received on the first day.
New Developments Coming Soon!
Next Friday I will conclude the Writing 101 Series by writing about my year-end anthology project. Hard to believe that there are only 2 weeks remaining in my 2012-2013 school year! I will soon be shifting the focus of this blog slightly in an exciting new direction involving Whole Brain Teaching! More details to follow in a few weeks!