Last Day Reflections

Today, the last day of our trip, we are energized by the Borders and Identity Unit that we have built and will use to launch the year with our students. We are flooded with all that we’ve seen in our seven cities. We are entrenched in the creative part of teaching, the part that involves being an interesting, engaged individual to better support the interesting, engaged individuals in our classrooms. The part that means we learn something new in order to teach something new. The experience of being a learner better prepares a teacher to teach, and this summer was an opportunity for us to authentically learn about murals on different borders, to confront not knowing and to investigate, to use art as a lens into community.

This trip made space for us to be learners. After the 12th grade, those opportunities almost always come with one (or many) literal costs. And Fund for Teachers (along with the school year calendar) gave us the time, space, and finances to learn more in a way that will support our students, but also in a way that sustains us as teachers, professionals, and individuals. It made it possible for us to end the trip feeling rejuvenated rather than depleted. There is a constant push for teachers to continue professional development; it is indeed essential. But driving this profession development experience (and literally driving more than 900 miles) meant that we could pace our learning and reflection, and that we could intentionally choose meaningful experiences that hit our “zone of proximal development.”

 

This month, we immersed ourselves in adult project-based learning. We’ve tried lots of new things, from food to cloud-mountain hiking to driving to places we’d never been (while blogging) to talking about art from sunrise to sunset. And we’ve done the whole thing together. Often, in our classrooms, we create groups that we believe will benefit from the individuality of each member. We build in scaffolds meant to allow the group to discover each individual’s strengths and to make empathy a non-negotiable. Though we embarked with empathy and respect already in place, our twenty-six days together have illuminated the strengths and areas of growth (thanks, BPS, for the language) of our partnership. We both value efficiency, and, in the face of less-than-such (e.g., when the internet goes as turtle-pace, when people get motion sick, when you walk up the wrong side of the mountain, etc), we have learned much about each other. That knowledge has made us better collaborators and better friends.

In San Francisco, where we started our trip, we were oriented to the idea of looking. This was not just because there was so much to look at in The Mission, but also because we did our first day with a guide, who was able to re-frame what we had seen and interpreted in the context of history and community. Carla made us cognizant of how much we needed other people’s knowledge and understanding to build our own. The Pacoima (L.A.) murals added a layer of “looking around corners” to that concept. On the hottest day of our trip, we spent the majority of it seeking out art on the walls of automotive dealerships and in the parking lots of community centers. It wasn’t always going to be all in one alley. In San Diego, a park once occupied by people and now occupied by art, had us looking for four hours and not seeing enough. We returned home those nights googling Aztec symbols and stories, trying to learn enough to know something.

Tucson and Dr. Acosta gave us yet another frame through which to experience our learning. Freedom of education does not mean freedom to learn about the American Revolution and the Civil War through a lens of whiteness. Precious Knowledge, to our generation of “urban baby teachers,” is a reflection of our intentions. Though we (the generation of “urban baby teachers”) are in no way united in our vision or our understanding of social justice, the power of conviction in ideas, history, and lifting stories and voices drove us into the work of education. We wonder if he knows how many teachers who are only five or six years in are tracking his legal battle and celebrating his victories.

 

In Santa Fe, we absorbed the International Folk Art Market, how artists envision and reimagine, how tradition can morph modern and can accommodate the present day without reneging its roots. This mirrors the murals we’ve seen and the art of Frida Kahlo, taking symbols from the past and bringing them to life in the now. In Mexico City, we saw so much. Teotihuacan, Frida, Diego, the Anthropology Museum, street art, the culinary art of Pujol, the stained glass and craters of Toluca. With American eyes and feet, we navigated the city, and learned all that we still had to learn.

It is hard to classify this trip, and even harder to know all that it will bring to our classrooms. It falls somewhere in the vicinity of sabbatical–an intentional, purposeful break that brings new insight–but also touches the realm of professional development, continuing education, and creative project. We vision a unit with three parts. First, with our students, we will read several memoirs that broadly address the topic of borders and walls, thinking with our students about potential barriers and how to scale them. Second, we will all generate and share memoirs from our own lives on the same topic. The author of each memoir will formulate his or her own theme about the topic, communicating a piece of knowledge gained from navigating–either adeptly or crudely–a border. Finally, after examining many primary sources collected on our trip and within Boston, students will co-construct a mural combining the themes of their memoirs to create a community creation.

The idea of “insider and outsider” has been, in many ways, the crux of our travels. We asked questions and navigated our identity as visitor, as white visitor, as American visitor. In our classrooms we are often the the outsiders to the communities in which we teach. However our ethnicities and upbringing reflect the dominant histories and tools that are demanded from dominant culture. In this unit, we hope to illuminate these walls, supporting students to name them, scale them, and ultimately paint them. As humanities teachers, we believe that providing students vocabulary and time to think and discuss the world and its issues leads to a brighter, more creative, and smarter future than the two of us can imagine. Solutions lie in the writing, in the art, in the conversations, and in the relationships that students create. Just as we wrote in our FFT proposal, students must see themselves reflected in curriculum, in physical space, and in pedagogy in order to be successful. Because we do not physically reflect our students’ identities, we think constantly about how to make all other facets of our teaching affirming. This unit and this project will be a launching point for discussions about personal identity, community, and what comes next.

In Solidarity,
Kat + Alice

Thank Yous:

To Jenn, for extending opportunities and providing support to those who choose them; to Erica Herman and Pauline Lugira, for being principals who support and encourage teacher learning and leadership; to our families and hosts along the way, thank you for your support, trust, and generosity while we adventured; and to the Writing Is Thinking team, whose Mission, Vision, and Foundational Beliefs propel collaboration and innovative teaching.

A History in Pictures

One of the types of murals we’ve seen again and again during our travels is a mural that tells a linear history, from left to right, of a culture or civilization. In San Francisco, it was the mural on St. Peter’s Church (described in this blog post). In L.A., we saw a mural chronicling Filipino history beginning with Lapu Lapu who fought Migellan and colonization. Right as one enters Chicano Park, there is a mural beginning with dark tones of colonization and illustrating the changes and triumphs of Aztlan culture. In Albuquerque, a fresco depicting the history of the world (sorry, no photos allowed), is housed in the National Hispanic Cultural Center. In Mexico City, one of the largest collections of Diego Rivera’s murals, found at the Secretaria de Educacion Publica, fill two court yards, three levels high. Along the ground floor, these murals share the plight of the worker.

St. Peter’s Mural

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Gintong Kasaysayan, Gintong Pamana (Filipino History Mural, A Glorious History, A Golden Legacy)

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Chicano Park, Aztlan History Mural

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Diego Rivera, Secretaria de Educacion Publica

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These murals often begin with the roots of a culture, whether they be figurative or literal. For example, the St. Peter’s mural (which actually reads right to left) shows bodies underneath a field of corn, fertilizing the growth of the culture. In contrast, the murals in L.A. and San Diego begin with more historical representations of figures and events. The middle of the this type of mural usually depicts the battles–literal, civil rights-oriented, social, and otherwise–that the group confronted. In the final panels of these murals are the successes and the community’s visions for the future. In three of the five (L.A., Chicano Park, and San Francisco), the mural also featured little portraits of celebrity community members with little name plates floating underneath.  

When confronted with the Filipino mural in L.A., we were struck by how little we knew about Filipino history and Filipino-Americans today. Besides recognizing one or two figures in the more “present day” section of the mural, we were pretty ignorant of the contributions and impacts that Filipinos and Filipino-Americans have had on the country we live in. For us, it highlighted how much cultural knowledge it takes to read one of these murals. They are so rich, nuanced, and deep; even the two of us, college-educated women with a focus in American Studies/Literature/History, knew only a surface amount of these populations’ historical narratives. We were clearly outsiders entering to examine murals, and the feeling of illiteracy stuck with us (spurring us to check books out of the library and do quite a bit of googling to better understand what we saw, which has yet to be satisfying).

These murals exist in neighborhoods that the people represented in the murals fought to establish and maintain. After seeing these murals in many different neighborhoods, we are left wondering: What role they play in the continued preservation and maintenance of these neighborhoods as the generational gap between those who fought for them and the youth widens? In Filipinotown, as we looked and photographed, there were five young children playing in the park near the mural. Is the mural a talking piece that parents and grandparents use to engage children in stories about their history? Do kids internalize the experience of seeing their culture on the wall in a most familiar space? Are they inspected and seen often, or are they a backdrop as the community works, plays, and lives? Do they play a role in preserving communities that are under threat of gentrification? While we don’t have the answers to these questions (and expect that no one really does), the asking makes us look again and again and again, working to unearth the knowledge “written on the wall.”

In Solidarity,

Kat + Alice

“Reading” Murals

As a part of taking this project back to our Humanities classrooms in Boston, we are always thinking about how stories, quotations, and language arts connect to the imagery and symbolism in the murals we see. In Chicano Park especially, we noticed the use of single words, short quotations, slogans, and longer poems/pieces of writing on the pylons. Reading these words directs a viewer’s seeing of the mural, both narrowing and widening what can be seen, providing a focus through which to view. Below are some examples of how words are used by Chicano Park muralists in their designs.

A portion of the identity unit that we are designing based on our travels and learnings this summer will include reading mentor texts on the theme of borders and walls, followed by students writing their own personal memoirs rooted in this theme. Inspired by the murals in the photos above, one strategy we plan to use with our students is to ask them to choose the words and phrases in those mentor texts and the narratives they themselves (and their peers) create to bring to life in mural form, to be displayed on walls in our Boston communities.

In Solidarity,

Kat + Alice

 

Quetzalcoatl in Chicano Park

We pulled into the parking lot of Chicano Park in San Diego’s Barrio Logan, situated under the elevated on-ramps of the San Diego-Coronado Bridge. Immediately, there was so much to see. We got out of the car and began taking photographs, talking about the murals on the pylons closest to us, their intricacies, symbols and colors. After just a few minutes, it became apparent that if we tried to analyze the 50+ murals in the park in that way, we would never leave San Diego. So, we put our cameras in our pockets and walked the circumference of the park, looking for the through-lines that connect the murals to each other and to the Barrio Logan community.

The history of this park is one of community action. Mexican-Americans began to settle in this specific area of San Diego in the 1890s, and at one point Barrio Logan was home to the second largest Chicano Barrio population on the West Coast. However, a series of government projects began to invade the neighborhood’s physical space. The US Navy and defense industry took over the shoreline that once was part of Barrio Logan. A re-zoning law (residential to industrial) allowed mostly Anglo-owned auto junkyards to move into the community. The I-5 was built, bisecting the community, and on-ramps for the San Diego-Coronado Bridge were planted in the middle of the community. Each of these actions took land from homeowners, local businesses, and public spaces at the heart of Barrio Logan, and by 1979 the population of the neighborhood decreased from 20,000 residents to approximately 5,000.

The government did not consult with the community before enacting these projects with such high stakes for Barrio Logan residents. In 1967, community leaders stood up and asked the city for the land underneath the Coronado Bridge on-ramps for a park. Two years later, the state of California agreed to lease the land to the City of San Diego for a community park and the residents of Barrio Logan were ready to begin transforming the space. Soon after that announcement, the Highway Patrol began construction of Patrol Station on the land designated for the park. Citizens were outraged and protested, surrounding the bulldozers so that construction would have to halt and occupying the park space until the City agreed to renegotiate the use of space. Barrio Logan residents have time and time again stood to defend the space that this now Chicano Park and the murals within it. Knowing the history of the park enabled us to better see themes and connections as we walked among the pylons and concrete walls. (Almost all of the historical knowledge came from the two webpages linked above. Thank you to the Chicano Park Historical Documentation Project for compiling all of this history for visitors like us.)

The strength of ancestral knowledge was prominently displayed in so many murals. We saw figures such as Cuauhtli, Coatl, Xochitl, and Itzcuintli (as well as many others, some of which we recognize and some of which we definitely missed) across the park. They tower over passersby, a symbol of the power that Chicano history (narrative, knowledge, and figures that lie outside the bounds of what is most taught in public schools) holds in Barrio Logan, magnificent and enduring. The imagery is deeply rooted in the land itself. Throughout Chicano Park, there are references and maps to Aztlan, which means “the land to the North, the land from which we, the Aztecs, came.” Maps in the Park show the fifty states with Colorado, California, Arizona, Texas, Utah, New Mexico, Oregon, and parts of Washington marked with red to indicate the ancestral land of the Aztec people. Just as many of the murals in the park tell the story of claiming the space under the pylons, Aztlan calls attention to reclaiming Chicano ancestral land. This is one example of how murals can capture and tell histories that lie outside the lines of the dominant historical narrative.

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The Chicano activist legacy and its leaders occupy many of the pylons as well. There are numerous visual references to Cesar Chavez, the United Farm Workers, Che Guevara, the Mexican Revolution, Frida Kahlo, and many others who fought for Chicano rights. These murals serve as a tribute to the hard work and progress made possible by those who came before.

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And then there are the murals that memorialize and celebrate the community effort that created Chicano Park itself. These murals reference the Navy Yard, the highways, the pollution, the park’s earliest muralists and defenders (Salvador Torres, Victor Ochoa, and Jose Montoya), and much more more. They celebrate the victories, including several that reference “Varrio Logan,” the victories of Barrio Logan. Many of these murals also call attention to the ongoing action needed to protect Chicano Park and Barrio Logan’s residents from government and capitalist encroachment. Around the edges of the park are luxury apartments and new storefronts, ominous signs of gentrification and a warning that this community is under siege.

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Chicano Park, full of art and Mexican-American pride (evidenced by red, white, and green benches, play structures, and decorative rocks), is a place where the community continues to gather. On October 15, 2016, a car drove off of the Coronado bridge and killed four Barrio Logan residents. There is an ongoing vigil in the park in front of one of the pylon murals, and the morning that we were there, a memorial service was held for the victims of this tragedy. A mural was also put up in their memory. One reflection of the strength of a community is its public space, and Chicano Park exemplifies the power deeply rooted in Barrio Logan.

In Solidarity,

Kat + Alice

***We tried diligently to collect the names of artists and activist organizations involved in the creation of the murals pictured above. Documenting it all was impossible, however, due to worn paint, unsigned works, and sometimes the inability to connect a signature to a work of art (the pylons had many sides, and, when they were signed, it was not always obvious which piece the signed artist had worked on). To this end, the Chicano Park Historical Documentation Project Library, Walter Otto Koenig’s documentation, and this San Diego Reader Article about original artists restoring the murals.

Balmy Alley: The Desire Path

The Mission District, the historic Latinx neighborhood in San Francisco, is home to officially 99 (but arguably many more) murals. Murals are part of the literal and figurative color of The Mission community. Wednesday morning, joined by Kat’s parents, Phil and Wendy, and sister Liz, Oakland natives and our generous hosts, we began our mural learning with a guided tour. Artist Carla Wojczuk, a Precita Eyes muralist, led us down 24th Street to Balmy Alley, which, Carla says “is the grandmother to the mural alleys in the Mission.”

Precita Eyes Shopfront

Precita Eyes Tour SignBalmy Alley Street Sign

 

 

 

 

 

Carla began by pointing out a blank wall and saying that it all began with the children’s mural, which is now hidden under layers of paint. The story goes that the first mural was painted by kids who came to 24th Street Place, a community center for neighborhood children. The mural that they painted has since been painted over, but that mural, that history, still exists under the new layers of paint. The history is part of the art. Carla’s knowledge of the murals in Balmy Alley and the larger neighborhood refined and directed our process of looking for the day, and probably will for the rest of our study.

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The looking can be difficult. How far away is the viewer standing? From which direction does she approach? What does he see first? How does her personal experience inform her viewing?

What We Learned About Looking: Where to Start

Enrique's Journey Whole

Some murals unfold their stories from one end to the other. The mural Enrique’s Journey (2009), painted by Josue Rojas who was assisted by Maria E. Garcia, is read from right to left. It depicts the story of a young boy’s journey from Honduras to the US (also chronicled in a biography/memoir of the same name by Sonia Nazario). At the far right, a train–La Bestia–steams downward through the rolling hills. In the foreground on the right, Enrique stretches his arms out as if he is flying toward the US. La Bestia, otherwise known as el tren de la muerte, is infamous for horrors such as robbery, injury, police encounter, and death that migrants experience on their trip northward. On the left is Enrique’s mother, who he imagines will be waiting for him as soon as he arrives, arms wide open. The heart outlined on Enrique’s mother’s chest is echoed by the heart over the Honduran countryside (top right). Between Enrique and his mother are the very real obstacles labeled “ICE,” “La Migra,” “Fear,” and “Unjust Immigration Policies.”

In contrast, some mural themes radiate from the center. Victorion: El Defensor de la Mision (2007), created by Sirron Norris, does just that. The strength of the transformer-esque figure in the foreground draws the eye first. With each step closer, the viewer uncovers new evil that Victorion (composed of Victorian houses historic to the neighborhood) must guard against. For example, the building at the bottom left appears so overcrowded that arms and legs burst from the windows. Meanwhile, the “Organic, Fair-Trade Condos” above do not have the same problem. On the street corner behind the pink bunny are two stores, The Cornerstore Classroom, advertising beer, wine, candy, pain, revista, lotto, and soda, and Hipster Unique Together. In front of the stores are two newspaper holders labeled “Lies” and “More Lies” and a trash can with an arrow pointing towards it indicating “Blanco Basura.” Carla told us that the man on the skateboard holding the dog is the artist himself, a part of the community. His image, in relation to the people at the bus stop, is huge. Carla reminded us that the choices artists make about scale are all intentional, reflecting the message of the overall mural.

Victorian Whole

Zoom in Skateboard VictorionZoom in Victorion

What We Learned About Looking: Seeing the “Trapdoor” Images

Norris’s mural, located toward the start of Balmy Alley, is one example of the ways in which mural artists communicate an obvious message with many subtle secondary messages embedded in the scape. Often, the viewer needs both context and a good eye to notice these embedded symbols and coded messages.

As we continued down the alley, we talked about the details in these murals that connected to our personal experiences and knowledge. In Carla’s introduction to The Mission: Photographs by Dick Evans, they write “Within each mural, there are myriad ‘trapdoor’ images –hidden visual details that lead the viewer down secret pathways of local and ancestral knowledge.” These conversations made us wonder what other viewers notice when they see these murals, and the intentions of the artists. Who are the details for? Are they for the artists themselves? Are they to affirm the experiences and knowledge of the community members? Are they to shock or humor outsiders? These are questions we will continue to explore along our journey.

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Mission Makeover Adam and EveWe found this to be particularly true for a mural located a little further down Balmy Alley called Mission Makeover (2012) by Lucia Ippolito and Tirso Araiza. At first glance, the theme of this mural is gentrification; however, a closer look reveals the specific agents responsible for the forced displacement of this Mission residents. Mission Makeover StarsucksAt the top right, the muralist has included logos of Google and Facebook, and a lightly penciled in Twitter logo on the riot gear of the officers forcing Adam and Eve out of Eden. The tech industry has raised the cost of housing in the Bay Area to a level that squeezes long-time locals out of the city or into homelessness. Featured in the lower right panel are logos such as “Starsucks,” Wealth Foods,” and “Trader Foes,” establishments that pop up as neighborhoods gentrify. A white cop and a well-dressed white woman share a cup of coffee, oblivious to the man sleeping on the sidewalk to their left.

Mission Makeover Top LeftIn contrast to the mainly white figures on the right panel of the mural and the signature businesses of gentrification, the left panel features businesses and landmarks native to The Mission, such as Discolandia, papel picado and a piragua cart. The house behind the bus on the left panel reads “Eviction.” A family exit, holding heavy bags and boxes. Most prominent, police hold two young Latino men in handcuffs in the foreground. The officer’s hat has Mickey Mouse ears on it, signifying “Mickey Mouse Cops,” and his nameplate reads “Rentacop.” The cop’s crossed out eyes and the graffiti on the bus were added by members of the community.  An additional piece of political significance in this mural is the bag of Skittles falling from the jacket of the young man on the bench.  This mural was painted right after Trayvon Martin was murdered and the Skittles are a marker of the danger all young men of color face. These details make a viewer stop to look a 4th, 5th, 12th time.

Misson Makeover Mickey Mouse Cop

 

What We Learned About Looking: Finding the Links

Rainbow Connection.jpg

Near the end of the alley, we spent a long time looking at Culture Contains the Seed of Resistance, Which Blossoms into the Flower of Liberation (1984 and 2014) by Miranda Bergman and O’Brien Thiele. We will discuss this mural more in an upcoming post. However it is an example of the awareness these muralists have about the work surrounding their spaces. Featured prominently on the right panel is a sweeping rainbow connecting the hard-won resources in the woman’s basket to the joyful music of the man’s guitarra. Lu_The WandererThe rainbow extends, appearing in the mural directly to the right, called Lu/The Wanderer (2011) and painted by our guide Carla Wojczuk (!!!!) and Julian Roward. Traces of the rainbow can be seen up and down Balmy Alley. The ways in which artists connect their pieces to those of other artists are subtle, but speak loudly of the respect that the artists hold for one another and the power of many united voices.

As we approached the end of Balmy Alley, we heard a camp counselor shouting “If you need to use the bathroom, use it now,” in the park across the street. Carla told us that in the early 1970’s, when kids were making their way to 24th Street Place from the housing projects behind the park, they were often warned that the alley was unsafe. Despite the warnings, kids continued to take the alley as opposed to longer routes. Carla told us architects refer to this phenomenon as the “desire path,” a path created as a consequence of human foot traffic. As the desire path leads to a more responsive architectural layout, the art in Balmy Alley is about embracing and responding to the beauty that is The Mission.

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A HUGE thank you to our guide, Carla Wojczuk. At the end of our tour, Carla told us that the more a community loves a mural, the more likely it will be protected. After spending time with Carla, we can tell how deeply loved and protected these murals are by Precita Eyes and The Mission community.

In solidarity,

Kat + Alice

Life Under a Dictatorship – UDL in Action

Over April Vacation, I taught English Language Arts to 7th grade students for four days at the Timilty Middle School in Roxbury as part of the Acceleration Academy program. The Acceleration Academy is an additional week of academic instruction and enrichment activities provided for students at selected schools

While I have taught in the Acceleration Academies for several years, in both Boston and Lawrence, this year was quite different in terms of curriculum. In the past, the Academies have focused on preparation for the MCAS exams, and each teacher planned his or her own sequence of instruction. This year, however, a group of teachers (including myself) participated in Universal Design for Learning (UDL) training provided by Goalbook and created a set curriculum for the academies based on pre-selected texts .

This UDL-based curriculum proved wildly successful for my 7th grader scholars. Every scholar, within the span of the four day program, completed a final project that expressed understanding of Life Under a Dictatorship. They garnered their knowledge of this topic from selections from Julia Alvarez’s YA novel Before We Were Free and non-fiction articles on the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. I particularly enjoyed teaching with the curriculum because it allowed for inclusive classes in which all students, including students who are in substantially separate special education and SEI classes, could complete a cognitively demanding independent project without any teacher hand-holding. The students’ pride in their work was evident as we did a gallery walk-final circle in which each student presented his or her project to the group. One student announced over and over,”This class is LIT!”, which he explained to me meant that it was an exciting experience.

Curriculum Planning Resources

Gr. 7 Before We Were Free Curriculum Resource Document

Gr. 7 Before We Were Free Final Project Lesson Plan

Final Project Gallery

Life Under a Dictatorship Podcast

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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