Dear PenPal: Reading Conversations Across Boston

We are two middle school ELA teachers who teach in different neighborhoods in the Boston Public Schools. Through our WritingIsThinking collaboration, we created an Independent Reading Pen Pals Program for our students. Beginning in October, students from each class write and address letters to students in the other class across the city several times throughout the year. At the end of the year, the two classes will come together and meet one another. The following is the first in a series of posts about our process of collaboration, the blooming relationships between PenPal writers between our classrooms, and our learnings. 

penpal letters

Post 1: The Preparation

Dear Kat,

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about our conversation yesterday when we talked about creating an Independent Reading Pen Pals program between our classrooms. I’m imagining a new kind of authentic engagement from our students with their independent reading books. Plus, an authentic Pen Pal letter definitely beats a typical reading response that I’ve been using in my classroom the last few years. As we make this idea into reality, we should keep the goals we talked about at the center of our work.

The first goal we set was building a community of readers across our city. We can have our students suggest books to one another, and maybe they’ll read the same book at the same time and compare their opinions. The pen pal relationship could be so crucial to the way that students approach finding their books. Maybe we can even set the expectation that they’ll meet in person before the year is out. We also talked about authentic accountability for independent reading. Because students will be “real” with one another, we will have insights as to how our students are thinking about text  and that they will select challenging texts to impress their pals. They won’t only be doing the work to please us as their teachers, but to be able to have a conversation with a peer. Finally, we spoke about the individualized nature of letter writing, and how we want kids to value the letter because it is something that another person put time into that was created just for them. This will augment engagement and make for long, fluent letters by the end of the school year.

I can’t wait to kick this off! Talk soon.




Dear Alice,

I hope these lines find you well. I am ecstatic for my students to write to yours this week! I have been talking about our upcoming partnership with my students for the last four weeks, and now the time is finally here! To help us match pen pals, I thought it would be easiest to create an excel spreadsheet in Google drive. I have inputted all of my students and some information about them that would help us match pen pals. For each student I included some of their interests based on their “Meet the Author” pieces, the types of independent reading books they have been reading thus far this year, if they have an ELD or SPED code, and some other details about what they would bring to a pen pal relationship or what I would ideally like for them to get out of one.

I have been thinking a lot about the potential these partnerships have to lift many of my students, both in regards of engagement in reading, and friendship. Here are a few of the students I am most excited for:

  • Mitchell: A sweetie-pie. He is a big kid who loves the Celtics and spends all of lunch making free throws. He is a little lonely (social pragmatics challenges) and all of his realistic fiction stories this year center around kindness and accepting everyone. He works really hard and will be a very diligent writer. I think matching him with someone who can really affirm him will be powerful!
  • Daniela: Her disability and language needs are compounded which makes her writing very challenging to read. She does produce a lot of writing in volume though. She loves animals and wants to be a vet. I will provide her with appropriate scaffolding and read her letters with her before she sends them. I would pair her with someone who is either at a similar level or has some empathy. 🙂 She loves and is currently reading the graphic novel Drama.
  • Sergio: Loves football, has a very low self esteem with regard to writing, but is a strong writer. Pairing him with someone who will ask questions and push his writing would be awesome!!!

I have also been thinking about a few of my students who have been struggling to get into independent reading this year and whom I believe this partnership could engage. I think we should be prepared that the first few letters may not be book related at all, but may just get kids writing! They may just want to talk about social topics, but I think that’s ok, as building a sense of community is one of our objectives. I think we can teach into writing about reading comprehension once the engagement is there. One of my students is constantly on my mind when I think about a need for community, and for engagement in text:

  • Armondo: Our toughest Tier 3 kid this year. He needs a lot of love and someone to listen to him. Mom just had a baby. He has been reading the Simpsons comic books this year. He hates doing assigned tasks, but I think will respond well to someone who is focused on just him. 🙂 Would benefit from having a pen pal who models what letter writing should look like. He loves football and basketball.

Since our schedules are so packed and we aren’t able to meet face-to-face before I launch the letter writing in my classroom this week, I propose we use google docs to match pen pals. Why don’t you use your class roster to try and match students based on your knowledge of your students and what I have included in the google doc. If you need any clarification on any of the students, let me know!




Dear Kat,

That google doc was the perfect idea. I matched my students in column D of the spreadsheet and, if I thought there were things that you should know about that particular student, I noted them in column E (IEP needs, language information, etc). I’ve also been talking about this relationship for the last four weeks, so kids are itching to hear from your students.



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Screenshot of google doc used by teachers to match students based on interests, strengths, and needs.

7th Grade Novel Engineering Project: Increasing Rigor Through Writing Across the Curriculum

Check out the 7th graders at Gardner Pilot Academy explaining their Novel Engineering Projects!

Objective: I can use the steps of the Engineering Process to engineer an original solution for one of the challenges a character faces in A Long Walk to Water.

Stay tuned for our upcoming blog on our collaboration process as teachers to create this amazing learning opportunity for our students!

Students Benefit from Writing is Thinking.

The following is Katharine Atkins-Pattenson’s elaborated speech for the Leadership Lab hosted by Teach to Lead, the US Department of Education, and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards on Friday, June 26th, 2015. 

Tell me your story. What if others told it for you and you were never given the chance? Screen Shot 2015-06-23 at 9.53.35 AMWhat if the labels and codes ascribed to you by the public education system spoke for you? ELL. IEP. Low SES. Communication impairment. ADHD. Austistic. When our students’ stories go untold, these terms usurp their identities, and we fail to recognize the intellectual capacities and unique abilities of Andy, Wilmar, Shabin, Genesis, Andre, and Zion. All students are capable intellectuals who deserve to tell their story and for it to be heard.

Genesis using her voice to speak for the importance of continuing history education in Boston Public Schools’ core curriculum
Andy using a graphic organizer to plan his argumentative essay.

Tell me your story. My story begins with this very question and two students: the Aguilar twins. I met Noe and Claudia the fall semester of their senior year of high school in rural Adams County, Pennsylvania. Noe and Claudia had crossed the US/Mexico border four times and numerous state borders with their mother following agricultural work. Their guidance counselor didn’t know what to do with two English Language Learners who had interrupted schooling. I met with Noe and Claudia to discuss their post-secondary plans and both expressed big dreams of attending college. Noe envisioned himself as a probation officer and a football coach and Claudia dreamed of becoming a pediatrician and helping immigrant families raise healthy babies. Neither of them had taken the SAT’s or the TOEFFL, or had met with a guidance counselor yet. I told them they would have to write a college essay, and it would be essential to tell their story. Claudia looked at me quizzically and said, “No one has ever asked me to tell my story.” For homework that night, I asked them to go home and write the story of how they got to be where they are today.

Noe, Claudia, and I on Decision Day celebrating their college plans.

The next morning when I arrived at school, Claudia and Noe stood waiting outside my office door, clutching several sheets of lined paper. Their drive to go to college was so great that they had each written five single spaced, handwritten pages that detailed their journey. Sitting at the table in my office, I read each of their stories aloud with them. I only made it through two paragraphs of Claudia’s essay before tears pierced the back of my eyes and slowly rolled down my cheeks. Claudia’s words painted images that lept off the page of the two of them as five year olds playing under a shady tree in Texas while their mother picked fruit under the scorching summer sun. Noe’s anguish and assumed male responsibility when his father left their family gripped my heart. Although their writing had errors in grammar, syntax, and word choice common in students learning to speak and write in standardized academic English, thematic threads of sacrifice, humility, perseverance, relentlessness, and drive were woven throughout their stories. These are the ingredients that every college admissions counselor seeks in a prospective college student. Noe and Claudia’s stories prove that all students are capable intellectuals. This picture, taken on the day Noe and Claudia signed their college acceptance letters is framed on my dresser and I look at it every morning as a reminder of how high the stakes are if our students’ stories go untold.

Senior year is too late for students to begin telling their stories to engage communities of intellectuals. The themes of Claudia and Noe’s college essays are common to many immigrant and first generation college students. My 7th graders spend the year exploring the theme of survival and focusing on the essential question: How do individuals survive in challenging environments? We begin our 7th grade year reading Linda Sue Park’s novel, A Long Walk to Water, and analyzing how geographic environment and access to water impact the war torn tribes of the protagonists Nya and Salva. Then, we travel to 19th century Lowell, MA. Whilereading Katherine Paterson’s novel Lyddie, we meet the protagonist, a 13 year old factory worker in a textile Mill. We make connections across time and place between the working conditions and labor organizing in the textile mills of the industrial revolution, Cesar Chavez and the UFW, and our responsibility as consumers today. We end the year, examining what gives stories enduring power, and transforming excerpts of Frederick Douglass’s Narrative into children’s books that deliver messages about the power of literacy.

I am From poems mapped on my classroom wall.
Students referring to their poems throughout the year.

My students consistently rise to the challenge of identifying common themes and connecting their character traits to the protagonists in the novels we read. Writing is their access point. Their first assignment of the year is to write an I am From poem and to share it with their class. We map where we come from and keep this map and our poems up for the entire year as a living, breathing primary source document. Through this project every student in my room successfully publishes a piece of writing and develops a voice in my classroom. These poems are sources of strength that we draw upon over the course the year: a reminder that we are each capable writers, and to make connections between our stories and the character traits and themes in the stories we read. We began today’s presentation with student voice and I think it is fitting to end with it as well. This is an I am From poem written and performed by Junior Polanco, a 7th grader in my class this year from the Dominican Republic.

Teachers must own this passion that our immigrant and second-generation students possess. In teacher preparation, all teachers must be writing teachers because student voice will be the voice of our society in the future. Developing student voice and equipping students with the tools to tell their stories in ways that are appropriate to audience and purpose trains students to be future teachers, city leaders, and community organizers. It equips them to talk back to the status quo with confidence and persuasion. It buys them a seat at the table, from where they can create relevant change from the inside, not from the outside. As teachers we must recognize and honor this passion in each of our students and capitalize on every moment of instruction to accomplish this goal.

Students using their voices to keep history curriculum alive in Boston Public Schools.

Facilitating the Writing Process in Early Career Teaching: When Students Lack Confidence

I will never forget the first major writing assignment I gave back to my 7th grade history students. It was late September, and we were mid-way through a unit on the local election for the new mayor of Boston. Students had drafted a letter to the new mayor presenting their concerns for their communities. They had spent several days typing letters full of passionate ideas and suggestions for the new mayor. I burned the midnight oil to return their drafts promptly so we wouldn’t lose momentum in our unit. I wrote all over their papers in brilliant fuschia, mint, teal, and tangerine hues, thinking these colors would evoke more positivity than the dreaded red markups I remembered receiving from teachers when I was their age. I underlined persuasive phrases and wrote encouraging comments like “Wow! This suggestion is so innovative!” and “What an awesome insight into your community!” I also looked for places where students could elaborate on a need in their community and inserted questions to prompt further explanation.

Sleep deprived from staying up so late providing written feedback, but excited to give them my thoughtful suggestions, I stood at the door, smiling, and enthusiastically welcomed my students into class. What transpired next could not have gone more differently than what I had envisioned. I handed back my students’ work, and even before I could utter how proud I was of them for producing their first draft of the year with as much creativity and passion as they had, one of my students threw her paper on the floor, pushed back her chair, and with a large “humph” sound, buried her head on her desk under her arms. This young lady’s response to receiving her work knocked the wind out of me for a moment. And she wasn’t the only one! Looking around the room, I saw many faces fall, a few students began to well up with tears, and some students tore their papers into confetti sized pieces, scattering them across the floor in their haste to get rid of the revisions. In hindsight, handing back student work without prefacing my takeaways, process for providing feedback, and introducing what we would do with the feedback, was a “rookie” mistake.

I was confused by their reactions, given that much of what I had written on their papers was positive acknowledgements of what they had done well as writers. When had their relationship with writing gone wrong? Was this developmental? Did they take feedback as a sign that they were poor writers? Did they know how to respond to or implement feedback? Was this my fault? All of these thoughts ran through my mind, as I quickly strategized to salvage the block of time and also their fractured scholarly egos in that moment. I told the students to put their papers in their desks for a moment, asked each of them to look at me, and told them how proud I was of them. I also told them that we all need at least a second set of eyes when we are publishing work. I said something like, “We want the Mayor to respect our voices when he receives our letters and thus, we need to make sure that our voices are as professional and polished as possible.” I told them that we would spend the next day working on revising our work. I told them to read my comments and circle three comments of praise they agreed with and two revision suggestions where they were going to further their work.

Once the majority of the room was focusedon the task I had given, I was able to work on soothing the few students who were still visibly upset. In talking to the young lady who physically shut down when she received her work, I realized that she had been unaware there would be more than one draft of the writing assignment. She had panicked when she saw all the writing on her paper because she thought it meant she had done lots of things wrong. She couldn’t remember ever writing more than one draft of a piece of writing. As a side note, it should be acknowledged that this cohort of students experienced a lot of schooling disruptions during their 6th grade year. I know from cross-grade collaboration with herprevious teachers however, that she and her peers had experienced the steps of the writing process in earlier grades. The more students I talked to, the more a trend began to emerge. Although students had completed steps of the writing process in previous grades, the majority had not internalized or engaged in metacognitive thinking about the steps in the process enough to implement them with independence and confidence.

Over the course of the remainder of the year, I tried different peer and teacher feedback protocols. I tried a 3, 2, 1 peer revision protocol where students use the rubric to choose three things their peer writer did well, two copy edits, and one suggestion to add or delete a piece of their writing. I used different types of rubrics, both teacher generated, and student created through examination of mentor texts and class discussion. I ended the year with one major question: How could I build a classroom culture where students had confidence in, internalized, and were able to apply the steps of the writing process to a myriad of content related writing tasks? Experiencing moments of frustration, confusion, and struggle are essential for student growth, academic confidence building, and transference of skills. I wanted to ascertain how to provide the conditions for productive struggle, not defeat.

Example of feedback provided for student on assignment rubric.


This article is the first in a series of articles that will address facilitating the writing process in early career teaching.