Dear PenPal: Reading Conversations Across Boston (Part 2)

Post 2: The Launch

Dear Alice,

What a week! We launched our pen pal letter writing on Friday. One of the biggest changes between independent reading last year and this year is that students are beginning and ending their week with independent reading time in class. On Mondays, students read, and, on Fridays, students are writing letters to your students or taking a field trip to our local Boston Public Library to get new books. This pen pal letter writing relationship is going to help keep this routine exciting and fun for the students.  

To launch the letter writing process, we did three things as a class. First, students read a letter that I wrote to you in partners and discussed and captured what I was doing as the writer in each paragraph in the margin of the letter. Essentially, my letter was the mentor text for their launch letters. Then, we examined a handout that had the components of a strong pen pal letter and discussed sentence starters. Finally, students wrote their own letters to your students using the letter I wrote as a mentor text and the directions and sentence starters as resources.

Dear Anejia

The most interesting part of this lesson was when student interest and engagement really turned on. Some students were hooked from the beginning of the lesson but some either due to trepidation over being vulnerable or a lack of interest in writing altogether spent a few minutes groaning and complaining when they saw how the long the model letter was. It wasn’t until I handed out little cards with their pen pals’ names and addresses at the beginning of the letter writing time that just about every student in the classroom became excited. I realized there was something about the name of their pen pal that made it real and increased the intrigue of this process. Many students spent a few minutes trying to figure out what ethnicity or culture their pen pal is from and if their pen pal was a boy or a girl. The difference in our student populations, GPA being over 63% latino, you have a significantly larger African American and African population. Here are a few photographs of some of my students who were so thoughtfully engaged in their letter writing that they wrote for over 30 minutes with sustained focus.

Another thing that didn’t necessarily surprise me but that I didn’t think about when we initially discussed the project is, what about students who prefer to type their letters as opposed to handwriting? I have two students who struggle a great deal with processing while writing by hand, and another student for whom using a laptop automatically increases engagement in the task, so your students will be receiving a few typed letters.

Lastly, I noticed some students did not write at all about their book, and instead wrote about themselves and asked questions to their pen pals. For a few of these students I think this is an indication that they are lacking an independent reading book that they are engaged in. For a few others, I think I’m going to need to teach into the letter writing process to a deeper level. I hope we can think about this wondering the next time we are together.

I cannot wait to hear about your students’ experiences receiving their letters and continue developing these relationships of readers and writers!

Fondly,

Kat

 

Dear Kat,

My classes loved opening their letters!! Students were up out of their seats showing parts of their letters to one another, commenting with excitement about what “my pen pal” is good at, where “my pen pal” lives, and what “my pen pal” is reading. As soon as they opened their letters, the activity became less “school work” and more about the passion of talking to someone else about life experiences and books. They were ready to write back immediately on their own lives, books, and, of course, to ask lots of questions.

My mini-lesson for their first letter was about direct  response. Our activator (after our 20 minutes of independent reading, of course) was students making two-minute lists of all the questions that they have when they meet someone new. They shared out several of their questions with the class, and we collected the common questions on the board. Then, we talked about how writing back and forth with someone you’ve never met is an opportunity to get to know a new person as well. In these letters, not only were they going to share about themselves and their current IR books (using the same template you gave your students with the three paragraphs and the sentence stems), but they were also going to build their relationship with their pen pal by asking a few questions based on the information they received in the letters. I projected the letter you wrote me on the board and did a read aloud/think aloud, underlining all the questions  that you asked me and writing my own questions and comments in the margins for you so that I would remember to include them in my letter.

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After the Read Aloud/Think Aloud, I asked students to help me figure out which of my comments and questions I should include in my letter back to you. For example, I wrote “cool!” and “me too!”in the margins quite a bit. Through our class discussion, students vocalized that, while your cooking skills are really cool, it was more important for me to share the “me too” moments because it would help you get to know me better and it would build our relationship around common interests. We also chose two good questions to ask you based on your letter, one about your life and one about your book. When we concluded our discussion, we had created a “Criteria for a Great Response Paragraph.”

By this point, students were getting antsy. They really wanted their letters. I had them take out two blank pieces of paper (raising the stakes on length just to see what they would produce if they knew they could use multiple pages) and their writing utensils and put everything else away. We did a drum roll on the desks, and then a mail call. As I read of their names, students bounded out of the seats to the get their hands on the letters. The build up made it that much more engaging for them when they got their envelopes. They tore them open and, after the initial exclamations and discoveries, got right to work annotating their letters and responding to their new pals.

I can’t wait to hear how your students receive this round of letters!

Always,

Alice

Writing in Science: Persistence Makes Perfect

“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it.  That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.”  –Octavia E. Butler

Writing is an integral aspect of Science. It is embedded within the Scientific Method and the Engineering Process. Like experimentation, writing requires precision, organization, and perseverance. Whether crafting research papers, observations, or lab reports, scientific writing

This is a look at the Scientific Method through a  writing lens.
This is a look at the Scientific Method through a writing lens.

requires students to demonstrate a deeper understanding of many complex procedures and phenomena that people often take for granted. Examining an idea as simple as breathing can lead to an exploration on the human respiratory system, the molecular composition of gas particles, or the interaction between humans and the environment. This curiosity and exploration is a  key element of learning in the Science classroom, as it is imagination that drives Science beyond it’s limits.

Students are naturally curious, and a in my classroom I find that the more knowledge they acquire, the more questions they have. My role as a Science teacher is to bring context and structure to questions students have about the world around them.  The payoff is found in the “Eureka!” moments that students experience during a carefully planned experiment. However, once these students experience these moments, they must be able to go beyond experimentation and explain what it is they learned. This is where the scientific writer is born.

Scientific writing requires students to ask questions and use experimentation, prior experiences, and content knowledge to develop claims that answer the questions. This is a messy process that requires in-depth research, proper tools, and willingness to engage in trial and error to get the desired results. But while students are eager to “get their hands dirty” with Science experiments, they are paralyzed with anxiety when asked to write about them. As many middle school teachers can attest to, this anxiety comes in form of perceived apathy and work avoidance.

Students writing observations as they simulate human digestion in test tubes.
Students writing observations as they simulate human digestion in test tubes.

My philosophy on writing in my classroom is as follows: Question everything, persevere until you find an answer, and record every step of the journey. At the heart of all we do, I want to them to embrace the curiosity of the world around them and articulate the discoveries that they work so hard to reach through experimentation. This is difficult, however,  as the Boston Public Schools’ middle school science curriculum does not have many lessons on explicitly teaching writing.  There is a discrete set of science content standards that I must teach in my subject area, and I struggle with balancing reading, writing, and content specific concepts. Add in the fact that when implementing any new protocols, I also need to differentiate for English Language Learners and students with disabilities, and, as a second year teacher, I feel the same paralyzing anxiety around writing as my students. This has required me to look outside of my curriculum, and seek the guidance of colleagues.

In the upcoming weeks I will be working closely with a team of teachers to document my experiences with teaching writing across the curriculum. I will be guided by the principle theories presented in the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) model in which classroom writing tasks can be presented through two lenses: writing-to-learn and writing-to-demonstrate-knowledge. When writing-to-learn, students will focus on key concepts ideas as opposed to grammar, spelling or style elements of writing. In Science, this form of writing can be used during quick-writes in a lab notebook, observations during an experiment, or sorter vocabulary-driven writing assignments. Other times, students will be asked to demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of concepts covered over the span of several weeks. When preparing these formal writing assignments such as research papers, lab reports and informational papers, students will be employing strategies focused on writing-to-demonstrate knowledge.

Clearly, anxiety is not an issue for this student when examining different types of rocks.
Clearly, anxiety is not an issue for this student when examining different types of rocks.

It is my hope that utilizing these targeted strategies will help to lessen the anxiety many students feel around writing, resulting an ability to persevere when tackling  complex subject matter. I want my students to see that writing is nothing more than thought manifested into a physical form.  If they can think it up, then they can write it down.