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.

Teacher Leadership In Action

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 9.09.01 AMThe Writing Is Thinking team is a group of dedicated teachers who deeply wish to help our students express their incredible ideas, thoughts, and opinions. We want our students to have a voice and to be heard through writing. When our team arrived at the 2015 Teach to Lead Summit at the Wharf Marriot in Boston, we only had a rough question: How can teachers systematically support English Language Learners and students with disabilities to express their understanding by thoughtfully implementing writing across the curriculum?

This question has transformed into an exciting project in which the middle school teachers at two schools in Boston Public Schools, representing multiple contents, are collaborating to design thoughtful Writing Across the Curriculum strategies and artifacts. In this way, we seek to accomplish two main goals: increase teacher capacity to implement WAC and increase the capacity of all students to express their understanding. Despite the fact that we represent different contents, we do share one common belief:

All teachers are writing teachers; all students are writers in all content areas. Writing experiences and opportunities must be deliberately planned in all content classes.

In addition to refining our idea, during the summit I had the opportunity to attend seminars focused on teacher leadership. It was during this time that I had a career changing realization: I need to aspire to be more than a great teacher; I need to aspire to be a great teacher leader. Not because I crave power or want to be in a leadership role. For me, teacher leadership is not done for power but for our students. Our collaboration with colleagues, quest to improve our practice, and influence on educational policy and instructional decisions are done, first and foremost, with our students’ best interests at heart. And who better to know the best interest of our students than us teachers?

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Our project is ultimately for our students but it is inherently teacher leadership in action. In the September 2007 issue of Educational Leadership: Teachers As Leaders, Cindy Harrison and Joellen Killion list and explain the “Ten Roles for Teacher Leaders.” The ten roles include:

  • Resource provider
  • Instructional specialist
  • Curriculum specialist
  • Classroom supporter
  • Learning facilitator
  • Mentor
  • School leader
  • Data coach
  • Catalyst for change
  • Learner

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 9.06.24 AMWhat I love most about this article is that teachers are providing these resources and services for teachers. These roles can occur organically, through the collaboration of colleagues or they can be formally implemented. We as teachers need to share the things we do and open our classroom doors; we need to make it a point to go into our colleagues’ classrooms, notice what they are doing, and learn something new. This action will help to shape our school and professional culture, it will positively affect student learning, and we will share practices among colleagues. is inextricably connected to teacher leadership. We are sharing resources with each other, colleagues, and the community by starting a blog. We are affecting instruction and curriculum by planning WAC in our classrooms and sharing our work at conferences. We are learning from each other by meeting once a month at each others houses, reading books together, looking at student work together, and video recording each others’ classes and practices. Most importantly, we are doing this to ignite student learning and expression in classrooms across Boston.