July 29, 2014

Using Weekly Letter Writing In the Classroom

Guest blog post by Mary from Teaching With a Mountain View.

I vividly remember my first day student teaching... not the details of what I was teaching or the clothes I was wearing, but the way my cooperating teacher captivated her students. She handed them their first homework assignment— writing a letter in response to a letter she had written to them—and explained that it would be a weekly assignment. They groaned, but she didn’t miss a beat. “You’re going to grow to love this!” she told them. They trusted her, and she couldn’t have been more right.

Since that year, I have always written weekly letters to my students and required that they respond to me. It has become a part of our weekly homework routine, and it is the one thing I most look forward to grading every single week. It builds community among the class, my students (and their parents) get to know me, I get to know my students, it is an excellent way to review material from the week or let students get creative, and kids learn to love writing in a totally nonthreatening environment. 

How It Works 

Every Sunday evening, I curl up on the couch with my laptop and write a letter to my students. I do a quick recap of anything entertaining from my weekend (kids love to know you’re human, too!), and I may ask them to share something about their life with me. Then, I give them a prompt or two that they must answer in a letter back to me. 

For example, if we focused on a specific character trait the previous week, I would ask them to give me examples of how they embodied that trait this week. When we were studying regions of the United States, part of their letter back to me would require them to tell me where in the world they would go if they could go anywhere. 

Typically, I would give them each a copy of the letter on Monday morning, and they would turn in their responses (in letter format) by Thursday. At the beginning of the year, we spent time reviewing the format and conventions of a letter.



You Can Do It!

I know what you are thinking: This sounds like a huge amount of work. I promise, it’s not! It took me less than 10 minutes each week to write my letter. You could even assign a monthly letter if weekly sounds overwhelming, or if you have younger students.

When my teammates got on board with letter writing, we would take turns writing the assignment part of the letter and just add our own introduction. I would also jot down topics all week so that it wouldn’t take me long to write my letter when it came time. I tried to include different types of writing (persuasive, informative, descriptive, narrative) throughout the year. My two all-time favorite prompts were the one where students had to argue for or against a weekend of shopping and the one where they had to come up with 5 pieces of advice that started with “Never” and 5 pieces of advice that started with “Always.”

Here are some topic starters or themes to get you thinking:

• Current Events, Sports, Holidays

• Funny or Bizarre Holidays and Dates

• Current Classroom Topics of Study

• Follow Up or Reflecting on Read Alouds or other Books

• Reading Responses 

• Weekend Recaps



Believe it or not, students look forward to receiving their new letter every Monday. They equally look forward to the (very brief) notes I jot on their return letters. In addition to writing short notes (Wow! Awesome! Did you really do that? I totally agree!) on their letters, I used a half-page grading rubric to hold them accountable for their writing. 

Weekly Letter Writing Freebie
You can download the free grading rubric, example letters, an information sheet, and monthly topic ideas at my Teachers Pay Teacher store


Letter writing is a wonderful way to keep even the most reluctant writers writing and to hone those writing skills all year long! 

Mary teaches grades 3-5 in beautiful Colorado and has a passion for creating differentiated and engaging assignments. She creates teacher resources and blogs at Teaching With a Mountain View.

28 comments:

  1. I love, love, love this idea and never would have thought of it! What a neat way to connect with your students and also reinforce writing skills with built-in purpose, audience, and authenticity. Thank you so much for sharing!

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  2. Love this idea! I've started planning out the first few days (mostly all those great ideas I've been finding the past couple days) so that I don't forget things I've seen. I have this down to start our first full week of school! Thanks for sharing and for the freebie!

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  3. I love this idea, too! I can't wait to use this with my 5th graders in the fall. Thank you!

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  4. What a genuine way to connect with each student. Mary, you are so creative. I love following your blog, too. Thank you for sharing.

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  5. What a wonderful idea! Thanks for sharing it and the free download too ; )

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  6. In terms of organization, do you have students place your letter and their responses in a duotang or notebook?

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    1. Hi there! I have them answer on an individual piece of a paper (and a lot of students choose to type it). I have considered the notebook option, but I wanted to give myself a little bit of flexibility in responding to them. It was always my goal to return it by the following Monday, but sometimes that wasn't realistic. If I still had their notebook, they wouldn't be able to work on the next week's letter. :)

      I staple a rubric to the top of each letter they write back to me. The expectations get laminated (with a copy of the rubric on the back) and stay in their homework folder throughout the year.

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  7. What a great idea! I'm off to download your freebie and read all about it, I think this would be great to help build community. I would love to hear about your complete homework routine for ideas of how I can work this in. Thanks!

    Adrienne
    Having Class

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    1. Hi Adrienne!

      Along with this, I do weekly reading responses and/or logs depending on the grade level and have students complete a math module on IXL. I hope that helps. :)

      Mary

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  8. I have the same question about organization and management of their letters. Do they write in a notebook? Do you see parents help affecting the grades of those with a lot of parental support and those without as much support not doing as well? Or do you even use this as a grade?

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    1. I would also be interested in knowing the answers to your questions.

      I think it would be nice to have students write their letters on an individual sheet of paper - it makes it more authentic to me for some reason - but we also need to take into account that some families might not have sheets of paper for students to use. So notebooks would be the way I go…or maybe I could send them home with a sheet of paper...

      Also, parents should make an affect on their children, they are, after all, the primary educators. I think it would be great if parents were to help their children with homework/the letter but not too much help. You should be able to tell if the parent is writing the letter for the student through diction and clarity. If it is looking like the parent is doing all the work I would probably talk to the parent and try and dissuade them from over-helping.

      As for your final questions, I don't think I would use the letters as graded material. If they are writing one letter a week, their writing ability should improve and spread to other school work so I would use their other work for assessment and keep the letter fun and personal.

      What do other people think?

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    2. Hi Julianne and Lindsey!

      They write on individual pieces of notebook paper or type their letter. This gives me a little bit more flexibility in how much time I have to grade and return them.

      I talk to parents about the letters at back to school night. I actually encourage them to proof read their letters with their child and chat about them.

      As far as grading them, I only mark each part of the rubric and do not give a "final" grade. I keep record of their marks in my grade book so that I can see where they need improvement, but I rarely use it as a final grade on the report card. Also, on the rubric when it mentions grammar & spelling, I base it off of grade level expectations. If we just worked on contractions, and they forget an apostrophe, that would be wrong. If we have never covered conjunctions and they forget a comma, I wouldn't count that as an error.

      I hope that helps a little bit! Thanks so much.

      :) Mary

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  9. I used to do this, but stopped when our district adopted new literacy materials. I have decided that weekly letters are worth doing again this year. I keep a notebook with my letters and show them on the document camera. I have my students keep their letters in a notebook. It also shows growth in their writing over time. Thank you for sharing the freebie on TPT.

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  10. What a beautiful idea Mary. Thanks for sharing!

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  11. I LOVE LOVE LOVE this!!! thanks so much this is going to be a great addition to our homework.

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  14. Thanks for this idea. In the past I have had journals where I respond to each child individually. The kids always love this but writing 26 mini letters every week almost killed me!

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