Whole Class Poem: A Publication Celebration

This year, instead of a publishing celebration with food and a stage for students to stand on while reading their writing, I tried out a new approach: the Whole-Class Poem. The gist of the celebration is that each student chooses the best line (best can be defined by the teacher, by a rubric, or by the students) to add to the whole class poem. We begin by sharing the lines. Then we read the poem aloud. Students offer changes to the order of the lines, and we read through it again. We repeat the order-adjusting step until we all feel satisfied with the sound of the work. Then, we do read in unison.

For the first full week of school, my students read “My Name” by Sandra Cisneros.  Together, we analyzed the text for meaning, structure, and style. After, I modeled how to brainstorm ideas for each of the three sections in the piece, and then brainstormed about their own names and drafted a My Name piece with three sections.

Students then draft their pieces based on their brainstorms, and I have writing conferences with each. This gives me a better pre-assessment of where their thinking is and where their writing is, so I can problem-solve around closing the gap between thinking and writing, and push both forward. We revise and edit, using the same structure as Speed Publishing Week. Then, we celebrate!

My goals for the celebration were:

  1. Every student reads aloud at least one sentence.
  2. Every student reads the finished pieces of four other students.
  3. Our class experiences the draft-revise-final writing process in real time, together.

To begin, the desks and chairs, usually situated in groups of four, were rearranged into a large circle. Each student found the desk with their name on it and sat down with their final draft, reading it silently in their heads.

After three minutes of silently reviewing their own drafts, I taught them about the post-it compliments that we use to praise one another’s writing. All students wrote their initials in the corner of five post-its. I introduced students to three sentence stems they could use to comment on one another’s writing.

Community Reading + Compliment Post-its

We practiced writing two compliments together for a selected piece of student writing–I chose one that had a few mistakes, and we practiced pulling out the positive. Then, each student moved three desks to the left. They had four minutes to read work and write their compliments. We rotated through four different drafts. Students could use their fifth post-it to write an extra compliment for a draft when they had extra time. Finally, students returned to their own drafts and read through their compliments.

Whole Class Poem: Drafting

In the second phase of the celebration, we created a whole class poem. The title of the poem was “Our Names” and the byline was the class’s cohort title. First, each student used a colored highlighter to highlight the most descriptive line from their writing. Many students were guided by their peers’ compliments. For example, “The most descriptive part of your writing is…” stem supported students who were not as easily able to choose the best line for themselves.

After highlighting, the whole class stood. I asked students to raise their hands if they thought that their line would be a good start for our whole class poem. That student read her line out loud and I typed it into a google document that was being projected in real time. After reading, that student sat and the student on the left of her read her best line. We repeated this pattern until every student had contributed a line to our whole-class poem.

Whole Class Poem: Revision

Once the poem was drafted, we moved into the revision stage. One student volunteered to read the poem aloud, and other students were prompted to listen for lines that could be moved to make the poem flow more naturally. As the student read, other students were tracking with their eyes and making mental changes based on the projected poem. After the read-aloud, four students suggested changes, and I copied and pasted in the google draft to accommodate their recommendations. We repeated the read aloud and revise process one more time to get a final draft.

Once we had a final draft, we did a choral read of our whole class poem, and the next day it was posted on the bulletin board for the whole student body to read. Each student contributed a piece of their writing to the whole-class work, and each student could proudly explain the content of the board and how the work was created. Not only had students completed one piece of writing in the first two weeks of school, they had contributed to two, framing writing as a large part of the work that we will do together throughout the seventh grade.

At the beginning of each school year, all teachers have the responsibility to build a classroom community that is a safe place to learn and grow, to make mistakes and take risks, to make new friends and try out new sides of oneself. I find that I come to know students better as whole people by engaging them in writing tasks that encourage them to share dimensions of their stories and identities. What’s more, when the time for celebrating finished pieces of writing arrives, students have the opportunity to learn new things about one another, to ask questions, and to find similarities and differences that encourage an empathetic classroom. This sets us up for a year of productive learning and growing as a community.

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.

Teotihuacan, or What We Don’t Know [Yet]

Our first day in Mexico City was a Monday, which is the day that most museums are closed. We decided to spend that day touring Teotihuacan, ruins located in the Basin of Central Mexico. After visiting Chicano Park and seeing so many symbols for Aztlan and Aztec history that we didn’t have schema for, we knew we had to learn much more. Teotihuacan is one of many places housing the historical knowledge essential to the unit we are planning.

We entered the archeological site of Teotihuacan near the San Juan River and the first thing we saw was a large statue of Chaciuhtlicue, the Aztec water goddess. Our guide explained that the original statue is in the Anthropological Museum, but that this goddess was a foundational part of daily goings-on in Teotihuacan. We started our tour in the Citadel, then walked down to climb the Sun Pyramid, and then climbed half-way up the Moon Pyramid. 

As we went through Teotihuacan (and actually since we left Mexico City at 5:45 that morning), we were led by Gersom, our fearless guide. He led in us English and Spanish, and UDLed his tour, using a whiteboard and marker to draw the concepts he most hoped we would understand. For example, each pyramid is actually five layers of pyramid, one on top of another. He also illustrated for us several of the sacrificial rituals believed to have been a part of the city’s daily routine. One of the principles we were left thinking about, however, was Gersom’s insistence that everything we would read on a sign at Teotihuacan was outdated and false. He told us that, since they had been posted, several large anthropological studies proved the signs inaccurate. He spoke of teams coming in from other countries and excavating, all at once discovering new truths and destroying the site. While it is often true that to gain knowledge, one must destroy a little, it caused us to question how the Mexican government is vetting international exploration, especially that which causes the Moon Pyramid to be so unstable.

To complement our trip to Teotihuacan, we went to the Anthropology Museum in Mexico City. To say that it was informative would be an understatement–there was enough in that museum to occupy two or three days of learning without stop. We spent the majority of time in a few rooms including “Introduccion de la Anthropologia,” “Poblamiento de America,” “Teotihuacan,” “Mexica,” and a few others, doing our best to learn the what and the how of ancient life in the places that eventually gave life to murals we had seen.

While visiting Teotihuacan and in the museum alike, it was clear to us how much we didn’t know. Teachers spend quite a bit of time knowing, being the authority on a subject or a book. Spending this time as learners, we acknowledged just how much we did not know, and how much we wanted to understand but didn’t yet have the tools to get.

In Solidarity,

Kat + Alice

Street + Art (en Roma, Cuidad de Mexico)

What are the differences between murals, street art, and graffiti? And do those differences matter? While walking Mexico City (and we have definitely walked it–the Fitbit tells us we’ve walked 48 miles in the last five days), we’ve seen all kinds of work, from tagging to fully painted blocks of buildings. After our tour in The Mission District, we really recognize the value in having a tour guide when looking at street art in new cities. Our knowledgeable hosts at The Red Tree House directed us toward the organization Street Art Chilango, which did not disappoint. When we met our tour guide Abril Trejo, she started the tour by stating three defining characteristics that separate street art from graffiti.

Chilango heart
Kat and Alice in front of an original Street Art piece by Street Art Chilango Artist in residence Franc Mun (2017) where we met our guide Abril.

The first, she told us, is material. Graffiti artists use only spray paint. Street artists, on the other hand, may use spray paint, paint brushes, markers, and other types of tools to put art on the walls. She mentioned that, though many street artists are former graffiti artists, others come from graphic design, architecture, or even illustrating backgrounds and thus have less experience with spray paint cans. Second, while graffiti is mostly word-based, street art is image-based. The image allows for more interpretation of art, whereas graffiti is literal whether the viewer understands it or not. And third, street art is created legally. Business and property owners in Mexico City often ask street artists to design on the walls of their buildings because otherwise they will be full of tagging. Graffiti artists suppose that, by tagging a space, they are taking what is rightfully theirs. In contrast, street artists make arrangements with owners to legally secure a space to work.

During the tour, our definition of street art expanded as we thought more deeply about the interaction between street and art. We learned from our tour in The Mission in San Francisco that murals are less likely to be defaced or tagged if the community respects the art on the wall. This is also true in Mexico City, but our guide gave us even more to think about. We saw the tension between street and art, in which the art pushes on the street, and, at times, the street pushes back. We saw mutual respect, lack of respect, and one benefitting the other. We learned that street artists in Mexico City are often commissioned to do advertisements or more directed work, which in turn supports their ability to do their own designing and artistry on walls around the city. Another facet of the interaction between street and art is that sometimes art groups encourage taggers to come over to “the good side,” finding them walls to paint themselves rather than tagging over others’ work. However, these invitations are not always accepted.

As Abril led us through the streets of Roma, Mexico City’s hipster neighborhood, every piece we encountered added nuance to our understanding of street art in this city.

Abril explained that when an artist has a wall, it is expected that the artist invite a colleague or two to share the space. In this way, artists get on many more walls. Plus, they work together, styles mixing. One of the first pieces we saw was a collaboration between Martin Ferreyra, an Argentinian artist, and Revost, a Mexican artist whose name is a combination of revel (rebel) and ghost. Revost only paints animals that are or were considered spiritual, and his contribution to this wall is the dragon on the left that wraps around the human-esque figure on the right. This work is a stellar example of artists melding styles to share a wall. It is also when Abril began to tell us about identifiable styles. Since street artists do not always sign their names, tracing their style (material, kinds of images they paint, etc) is a reliable way to identify an artist. It is also a reliable way to recognize taggers or bombers (tagging is usually thin letters noting the tagger’s identity, whereas bombing is much larger, often bubble letters perhaps accompanied by an icon). This piece of artwork has been bombed by a few, but the most notable is the cat-shaped signature in the middle.

In 2014, ten works of street art were painted as part of Roma’s Art Walk. Artists were brought in from other countries, including Aaron Glasson, originally from New Zealand, now living in San Diego. Glasson’s work most broadly addresses his lived experiences, including the pieces that cannot be seen or explained. Abril told us that instead of a heart inside of the horse (titled Ano tel Caballo), he inserted a moon to illustrate the connection between the universe and living things on Earth. She also pointed out the rectangle that is slightly darker near the bottom in the background of the work. The work was tagged previously, and the neighbors decided to restore the background, in effect to remove the tag themselves. This is one example of neighbors defending the beauty of street art.

Another example of street and art interacting to add beauty is a red and pink mural that says “La vida esta completa cuando se comparte”/ “Life is complete when you share.” This work was done as a community project, and it is based on the broken window theory. The theory states that when a place is nice, the community and passersby keep it nice, but when there is already a broken window, litter, crumbling buildings, the community and passersby leave trash and add to the mess. In an effort to make this corner a cleaner space, the community painted the wall. The same group is in the process of putting up two more works in the Roma neighborhood for the same purpose.

Ericailcane, an Italian artist sponsored by Galeria Fifty24, came to Mexico City and painted this work, titled “The Bunny and the Fox.” With the help of one assistant, it took him one week to complete. The artist did not volunteer the meaning of the work to the community, so, like much street art, it is up to the community to interpret what they see as they walk by. Our guide’s interpretation, based on her understanding of Ericailcane’s previous work and politics, was that the bunny represents small business, and the fox represents large banks. The fox is pleading with the bunny to let it go, making promises of kindness. However, it is in the fox’s nature to eat the bunny. The viewer watches the interaction between the bunny and the fox literally unravel, as the bunny eats the ropes that bind the fox, anticipating the harm that will befall the bunny once its work is done.

Street art also provokes a sense of nostalgia from the community. These two pieces, painted side-by-side by the same artist, Noble, evoke memories. Looking closely at the woman wrapped in the blanket, we could see that the blanket has fifty white stars set on blue, just like the American flag. Instead of red and white stripes, however, the blanket is a Mexican print. Designed by Nacho Becerra, this flag and the street art resulting from it, are reminiscent of a time in which US-MX relations were better. (Note how the caption reads Estamos Unidos Mexicanos, just one letter off from Estados Unidos Mexicanos.) Next to the woman wrapped in the blanket is a separate work by the same artist depicting the green taxis that used to flood the streets of Mexico City before they were deemed unsafe and not energy efficient (they had only two doors, and often a whole family would get into a cab, sit the children on the floor, and go to the park on a Sunday afternoon). They have been replaced with pink CDMX cabs. Above the cab is the phrase “I [broken heart] D.F.”, alluding to the moment in January 2016 when the capital city’s name was officially changed from Distrito Federal to Cuidad de Mexico. There is no more DF to love.

BlanketTaxi

Neither the cab nor the woman in the blanket have been tagged at all. When Noble signs his art, he signs “NobleKFC.” KFC stands for Kings Forever Crew, a graffiti crew in Roma so large that other artists do not tag over their work in fear of retribution from one of KFC’s members. Noble’s art is protected by his old graffiti crew, keeping his artwork, for the most part, clean.

Below are several other pieces of art Abril showed us. Many of the artists were brought in by galleries for exhibitions and painted one piece on the street so that the community did not have to pay to benefit from the artist’s presence. Scrolling through, so many artists’ styles are evident.

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Walking the streets of Roma with Abril, we saw more evidence of artists interacting with one another and the community than we ever would have on our own. We now know what to look for–be it the material, the specific tag, or a technique or style of a particular artist–when we come across art on our own. Abril mentioned at the beginning of our tour that graffiti art has an inside crowd. It doesn’t care if other people get it or not. Once doors started opening to allow us to understand the interaction between the art, the street, and the artist, it is impossible not to want to know more.

In Solidarity,
Kat + Alice

P.S. After we left our tour, we went to Holly Waffle, a Belgian Waffle storefront run by Bue the Warrior, one of the street artists whose work we saw with Abril and then several times more on our walk toward breakfast. Abril mentioned jobs of street artists ranging from musician, Coachella poster designer, clothing designer, label-maker for a Mezcal company, and graphic designer. She emphasized that the talent of these artists cannot be confined to street art, but instead enriches the city’s culture in multiple ways. Look out for a new Holly Waffle location in Guadalajara coming soon.

Paredes Que Hablan: Language Arts on the Borders

Happy summer, everybody! Our brilliant WritingIsThinking colleague-friend Christina Kostaras once wrote a post about teacher summers and how they are a necessary part of the work we do. We use them to get smarter at our jobs, to make ourselves better for our students in the coming year. Christina says we do this because our students deserve “absolute greatness. Always.” I couldn’t agree more.

FFT-Fellow-PlacardThis summer, my colleague Kat and I received a Fund for Teachers grant for our project Paredes que Hablan. Here are some excerpts from our proposal that explain what we plan to do:

As urban teachers for Boston Public Schools, we work with a diverse student body. Over 80% of our students are classified as high needs, over 60% of our students are English Language Learners, and over 40% of our students have special needs. Our students cross borders every day…Every time these young people change spaces, they must reconcile their identities and pasts with their presents and futures. We know that in order for our students to truly succeed academically, they must see mirrors of themselves in our curricula–art, poetry, and text–and validation of their identities in our classrooms.

…This project seeks to build a robust first unit across two schools in Boston that will provide students opportunities to explore the multitude of ways that activists develop their messages and make themselves seen and heard. Students will begin to understand how the personal is political while exploring multimedia resources, all the while developing visual thinking, close reading, questioning, flexible thinking, executive functioning, understanding of audience, and empathy skills that will serve them as they explore texts for the rest of the school year and the rest of their lives.

Our project proposes, at its culmination, to surface these crossings and to give students critical thinking tools, opportunities, and resources to grapple with the complexity of personal identity in multiple spaces. Through art, poetry, and text, students will have multiple ways to enter this conversation about identity, simultaneously seeing themselves–their ideas, their pasts, their futures–in literature, the school community, and each other.  At the end of this unit, students will create multiple responses to the question “How do we show other people the depth of our past and the strength of our future?” that leverage the knowledge collected during this project. They will write, draw, compose, and record their responses.  They will also design a mural that encapsulates the border crossing they do each day.

To gather resources and knowledge for this project, we propose to spend 22 days exploring “literary arts on the border” with a focus on mural creation, zooming in on the many Latino cultures from which our students are rooted. Our project will take us to California, Arizona, and New Mexico to examine murals and artwork that are products of, and in many case images of, immigrant experiences. Along the way, we aspire to interview artists and collect resources about the artists’ diverse creative processes. During the first two weeks of our project, we will visit San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tucson, and Santa Fe, visiting murals and the artists/artist collectives from which they originated. We will also visit museums that capture different experiences of immigration, as well as centers of immigration in different cities.

The second part of our project will take place on the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where a mural project was completed in 2014. We will spend a week in Haiti and the DR discovering everyday culture that will allow us to better understand both the artwork created on the bridge between the two countries and the identities of many of the students in our classrooms.

…Walls and borders often give people places to hide. We hope to use this project to reframe the divides that exist in our classrooms, school systems, and cities, so that students can see how sharing identity and stories creates rather than destroys.

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Above is a map of each of our stops, and below is an overview of our itinerary with some of the highlights from each stop. We’ll post in detail about each stop along the way.

Location/Dates Important Stops
San Francisco, CA

July 4th-7th

Precita Eyes Murals

Galeria de La Raza

67 Suenos

The Mexican Museum

Los Angeles, CA

July 7th-9

The Art of Indigenous Resistance Exhibit

Los Angeles Mural Mile

Los Angeles Immigration Center

San Diego, CA

July 9th-11th

Hands of Peace

Chicano Park (and this link, too!)

Galeria de la Raza

Tucson, AZ

July 11th-13th

Meeting with Dr. Curtis Acosta

Tucson Mural Arts Program

Santa Fe, NM

July 14th-16th

Indigenous Arts Festival

Art and Remembrance

Mexico City, MX

July 16th-23rd

Museum with Indigenous Ruins

Teotihuacan Ancient Ruins Day Trip

Toluca Day Trip (50 mins) Stained Glass Murals

Frida Kahlo Museum

Diego Rivera Museum

Puerto Plata, DR

July 23rd-30th

Border of Lights

 

Here’s to a summer of sunshine, new places, and teacher-driven learning,

Alice + Kat

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