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April 1, 2014
Vol. 71
No. 7

Tell Me About … / A Writing Assignment That Engaged Your Students

Tell Me About … / A Writing Assignment That Engaged Your Students - Thumbnail

Letters from Santa Claus

The 1st grade teachers in our K–8 school gave me letters their students had written to Santa Claus, and I gave each letter to a 7th grade student to answer. The 7th graders had to use a prescribed format: They could not promise the 1st grader any gift, and they had to write something personal about that child. The 7th graders loved the assignment. They observed the little kids in the cafeteria and at school events so they could write something personal about each one. Even the most reluctant 7th grade writers wrote long, chatty letters. Even better, the assignment helped the older students remember to treat the younger ones with care and kindness.
—Kathryn Roe, assistant professor, William Penn University, Oskaloosa, Iowa

Bringing Immigration Stories Home

Every year, our class does a narrative unit focused on the immigrant experience. We read Frank McCourt's narrative about coming to New York as a poor Irish teenager, and we look at political cartoons of the early 20th century outlining the discrimination immigrants faced. This year, my coteacher suggested we ask students to write an immigration narrative from the perspective of one of their own ancestors.
Students talked to their family members and researched online to learn as much as they could about their ancestor's immigrant experience and country of origin. Then, each student wrote a fictionalized narrative. We had pieces set in the 1600s through 2010. Some students wrote a grandparent's story; some wrote their own story (in which case they did not have to fictionalize); and some invented a story that could have happened. The students applied themselves to drafting and revising for days. We shared excerpts with one another and discussed the different engagement strategies students were using to make their stories come alive. I had never seen this group of struggling students latch onto a long-form writing assignment with such tenacity and grit. In their post-writing reflections, they shared that one of the best parts of the assignment was learning about their family history.
—Brianna Crowley, English teacher/instructional tech coach, Derry Township, Hershey, Pennsylvania

A Note from the Person Who Knows Me Best

I assigned students in my 8th grade AVID class to write letters to themselves that they would read on their first day of high school. It was an opportunity to give their future selves encouragement, advice, and inspiration. By the time they received the letters in their 9th grade homeroom classrooms the following year, many had forgotten about the assignment. Some students wrote to me later that the letters had bolstered their confidence and that they were pleased to see how much their writing had improved over the school year.
I got the idea for this activity while pursuing National Board certification, when our mentors instructed us to write such a letter to ourselves and put it in a self-addressed, sealed envelope. The week when our scores were released, we received the letters. What a surprise and much-needed personal note from the person who knows me best! Five years later, I still read my letter for motivation and encouragement.
—Ashanti Foster, academic dean, Oxon Hill Middle School, Ft. Washington, Maryland

Problems and Solutions

Last spring, my students and I went to a program at a museum that unfortunately could best be described as "death by PowerPoint." When we returned to school, we reflected on the experience, and the students decided to write a letter to the museum during our shared writing time. Working in groups, they listed problems with the presentation and suggestions to solve each problem. For example, one problem was the lack of movement, and the suggested solution was to act out the rotation of the planets. Another problem was that the lesson was not hands-on; my students suggested that the presenter could have had the children build spaceships out of Legos or recycled materials. The students collaboratively wrote a letter expressing these ideas, which they sent to the museum. The museum wrote back, thanking the students for their suggestions.
—Allison Hogan, primary teacher, Episcopal School of Dallas, Dallas, Texas

Writing as Career Exploration

The reporter-at-large research paper our students write in their junior year includes an adult interview as a primary source. I encourage my students to use this interview for career exploration—to talk with someone currently working in a field that interests them and learn more about the role. We research insider vocabulary and resources and then use these to compose questions. I train students on methods of conducting an interview and how to follow up professionally. The end product is always more than just an essay. My joy is seeing students years later: A girl who interviewed a nurse is now a nurse, a boy who interviewed a manager is now in business school, and a boy who thought he wanted to be a surgeon talked to one … and changed his mind. Talk about college and career readiness!
—John Hayward, English teacher, Naperville Central High School, Naperville, Illinois

Let the Object Speak to You

I keep a collection of "found objects" that I have picked up on the ground. I tell students to reach into my collection and "let the artifact choose you." They must hold onto the object and allow it to speak to them. They can begin by writing a physical description, letting the object jog a memory as they capture its essence. Then the real writing begins; usually, memories pour out of the students faster than they can write them down. I have done this lesson with 3rd graders, high school students, and adult learners. It has never failed to turn even my most reluctant writers into more confident ones, believing that they have important stories to tell.
—Kathy Moore, curriculum coordinator, San Ramon Valley Unified School District, Danville, California

An Open-House Brochure

My 1st grade students always enjoyed making a brochure for their families at our open house year-end celebration. Our class collaboratively determined which learning experiences we wanted to highlight, and students worked in pairs to describe them. Together we gathered evidence of persuasive language from mentor texts and applied what we found to our descriptions. Finally, we designed the layout of our brochure, using other community brochures as models.
As the open house approached, students practiced guiding tours through the classroom, using the brochure as a springboard for discussion. By the big day, my students were ready to dazzle their families, and their families did not disappoint! Our informative brochure gave parents an opportunity to ask detailed and insightful questions, and the children rose to the occasion with thoughtful answers that demonstrated real learning. Connecting classroom learning with an authentic audience and purpose makes for valuable writing lessons for life.
—Julie Webb, reading specialist, Davis Joint Unified School District, Davis, California

A Personal Issue

Recently, there was a lot of controversy when the mayor of Springfield, Massachusetts, called for a freeze on the number of refugees being placed in the city. Many of my students' families were immigrants themselves, so the students felt strongly about the issue and asked many questions. With the help of the Lutheran Social Services, my students facilitated interviews with several refugees and then wrote narratives in the first person chronicling the refugees' journeys from their home countries to Springfield. In preparation, students read several first-person narratives and discussed how they engaged the reader, sequenced events in a logical order, and so on. Throughout the process, students were deeply invested in interviewing and writing narratives to show how the United States provides an equal opportunity for everyone to succeed and should continue to provide that opportunity.
—Craig Wisniewski, instructional coach, Newington Public Schools, Newington, Connecticut

Musical Prompts

Music is powerful. It motivates us, saddens us, creates joy, stirs memories, and more. To start a personal narrative unit, I played 10 to 15 short clips of memorable songs in quick succession. After a selection played, students wrote for 2–3 minutes—describing what the song brought to mind, a memory of an event, a feeling, a critique, anything. Then I played the next musical clip, and they wrote furiously for another few minutes. After all the clips were finished, I gave students some time to discuss and reflect on what they had written and then asked them to choose one response on which to write more. During the next couple of days, volunteers shared these responses with the class. Each student then chose one piece they had written and used it as the basis for a personal narrative; the rest of the pieces went into their writing binders for later reflection.
—Shannon Bosley, technology and curriculum coordinator, Diocese of Covington, Covington, Kentucky

The Art of Persuasion

During one of my first teaching assignments, I was puzzled about how to motivate my students to write meaningful persuasive essays. Realizing that students have passionate feelings about issues of everyday importance to them, I instituted a letter-writing campaign to major corporations. Students wrote to one company to persuade it to make a new flavor of chips and to another asking it to improve the quality of the school binders it manufactured. When the students saw the responses coming in, some with coupons for free products, the light bulb went off: Writing can have a purpose and direct effect on their lives. It was empowering!
—Kerrie McDonnell, director of curriculum/instruction and special services, Spring Lake Heights School District, Spring Lake Heights, New Jersey

How to Build a Musical Gourd

My students were intrigued with the gourds they were using as musical instruments during music class. So as a class, we learned how to turn gourds into musical instruments. Now, we are writing how-to books from our personal experience. My students are excited with the results of their work, and they are very motivated to express what they learned through writing.
—Sonali Deshpande, 2nd grade teacher, Mitchell Elementary School, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Family-School Connections

My students wrote a New Year's resolution letter to someone they cared about, expressing appreciation and urging a change. The recipient was ideally a family member or, failing that, a school or neighborhood acquaintance. The letter had to begin with a thank you and a specific illustration of why the recipient was significant to the writer. The middle of the letter was a description of a concern or problem, such as lack of quality dinner time, a health habit, or a perceived unfairness, followed by a possible solution. Many of my students received letters back, and parents or guardians told me the letter opened channels of communication. Given the high participation rate, I repeated the home-school connection through "success letters" before the end-of-year exams. Parent letters described ways they saw their sons or daughters succeeding, and how they would support their success. Local politicians or business people supplied checks or gift cards and chose the three best letters, whose receipt of awards and inspiring quotes were announced at the spring concert.
—Helene Alalouf, consultant, New York, New York

Writing Biographies

Each of my 3rd grade students selected an important figure in history or a famous person within popular culture. One of my male students chose to research the author Jeff Kinney, who writes the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. I was pleased that the student completed a biography on an author whose books had boosted his love of reading. In addition to having the students write a biography, I organized a biography day in which each student orally shared information about his or her famous person with the invited audience. Several students dressed up as their selected subjects. The students enjoyed biography day because it involved choice, visual and kinesthetic learning, and role-play.
—Todd Feltman, network literacy achievement coach, New York City Department of Education, New York

Reflections on a Science Topic

One of our high school's goals was to increase students' reading of informational text in their academic and elective classes. So to start off the year, I gave students in my chemistry class the article "It's Time to E-volve: Taking Responsibility for Science Communication in a Digital Age" by Christie Wilcox (Scientific American, August 2012) as a writing prompt. The author writes that all scientists should blog, tweet, and throw themselves into the social media revolution. Students read the article and wrote papers agreeing or disagreeing with the author's argument and citing evidence from the article to support their position. Students reflected on their own use of social media and how it could affect their future careers.
—Stacie Ferrara, vice principal, Manchester Township High School, Manchester, New Jersey

Creative Writing Group

As a teacher/librarian, I sponsor a creative writing group for students after school hours. I always plan a writing warm-up, time to share, and a major writing activity students can continue working on between meetings. I am continually amazed how well the students who join the group write. In addition, they are so dedicated that this year they have been pressing me to change our schedule from meeting every other week to meeting every week. Just recently, they unanimously voted to come together every Friday. It is a very rewarding experience, and I love hearing them share what they write.
—Mary Long, teacher-librarian, McMillen High School, Murphy, Texas

Examining Community Traditions

I teach 7th and 8th grade English language arts in a rural community. Recently, we completed a project that required students to interview a "tradition bearer" and describe an ongoing tradition in their community. My students captured the interviews on portable recording devices at home and then transcribed the recorded material using a laptop at school. Similar to the Foxfire project, this assignment yielded an amazing array of cultural gems that showcase the rural experience. The papers these students wrote are enduring documents that have archived important elements of their cultural legacy. Many of the papers became Christmas presents for the tradition bearers.
—Chris Casey, English language arts teacher, Saint Marys Area School District, Saint Marys, Pennsylvania

The Little Writer That Could

When I taught kindergarten, my students and I seemed to always enjoy reading the classic book, The Little Engine That Could. I used the book to discuss with students the importance of trying and to encourage them to have confidence in their growing abilities! One day after this activity, I was talking with individual students about their writing as the class was writing in their journals. I was surprised by the writing of Melanie, a very intelligent child who loved to share her ideas and experiences with her classmates and me in class but who was a hesitant and resistant writer. She had written a lengthy piece that demonstrated many of the writing skills I had thought she had but had never observed in her. As I shared my delight with her, she beamed and said that she was thinking of the little engine saying, "I think I can," and she knew she could do it! For the remainder of the year, Melanie's writing continued to flourish—and her positive writing attitude influenced her classmates' writing, too.
—Kyle Rhoads, principal, Windham Primary School, Windham, Maine

Mentor Texts Boost Personal Narratives

Our personal narrative unit needed some pizzazz! It doesn't seem like a difficult assignment, and children typically have many stories to tell. However, not all can articulate their thoughts and feelings with vivid language. We changed all that with a series of reading and writing minilessons designed to engage learners in searching for interesting language in mentor text. We model what authors did well by sharing passages in interactive read-alouds. Then, students practiced those strategies with their own choice of reading text. When writing, we asked them to try to emulate the expression these authors used. Their stories became rich and interesting, were connected to their experiences, and were written with purpose. Wow, we have some amazing writers!
—Sherri Morgan, 3rd grade teacher, Le Roy School District #2, Le Roy, Illinois

This article was published anonymously, or the author name was removed in the process of digital storage.

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