Reflections on a Year in 6th Grade

At the end of every school year I ask my students to reflect.  They look back on the last ten months and write me a letter where they reflect on what they learned, what is still challenging for them, the best parts of my class, and how I can improve as a teacher.  While many people may think it is silly to ask your students how you can improve, I learn a lot from my students each year.  This year I was especially interested in my students’ viewpoint because so much changed in our school.  I lost half of my teaching time and how to rework my yearly plans.  While I reflected on my practices I was also curious to see how my students viewed the year.

I spent a good portion of my evening reading their letters to me.  Wow!  I wanted to share some of my favorite portions of a few letters.

….I love the read alouds because every one you pick out is amazing.  I love coming to class and hearing you read.

Read-alouds helps me explore more genres.  The genres I didn’t want to read I enjoyed the most.  Books like Also Known as Harper and All the Broken Pieces surprised me that they were good.  This helped me find new good books.  Also, read-alouds helped me relax.

Boom!  That’s right, more vindication from actual. breathing. middle school students.  They are not too old to be read aloud to!  In fact, they enjoy it.  And I am so happy to hear that the read-alouds introduced a few students to new genres that they didn’t think they would enjoy.  Plus, who doesn’t like a little time to relax?

I would like to tell you one more thing.  It is that I hope you continue doing letter essays.  It is great practice for writing essays.  I like telling you about the book I am reading and my opinion on it.  Letter essays are important to me.

Writing the letter essays was one of my favorite activities this year.

Now, I will be honest- there were also many students who suggested that I skip letter-essays next year because they are too much work.  But I figure hey, work is good!  Plus, a few of the more reflective/mature students saw through the work and realized how important the letter-essays were.  A few of them even enjoyed the process.  As a teacher, I love watching them grow as the year progresses.  I also love the chance to correspond with each student one-on-one.  It’s a great way to get to know my students and have deep discussions about books.  Needless to say, letter-essays will remain a part of my class.

The 40 book list was a huge help to get me interested in different types of books.  In the beginning of the year when you hit us with a 40 book list I felt like how am I going to read that many books?!

I had a very huge accomplishment  This was the first year I read over ten books.  Last year I read maybe eight books.  This year I read in the thirties.  I feel like I was pushed to read more by the forty books list.

This year was the first year I instituted the 40 book requirement/challenge.  Previously, I just required my students to read, without giving them any requirement beyond reading at least 2 books from each genre.  I was very happy with how the list worked this year because a lot of my students were very stuck in one genre and the requirement forced them to branch out.  It also gave my more concrete students an actual number to aim for.  However, I’m not sure if I will approach it the same way next year.  I’m working on a few ideas and will be sure to update when I come up with a final draft.

Booktalks are awesome because I really got interested in the book you’re talking about , and I keep thinking about getting that book.

The more you booktalk, the more we read.

That last sentence sums up intermediate/secondary students.  They may think they hate reading, but it’s usually because they don’t know about the books that are out there.  We, as teachers, must be engaged in reading and publishing.  We must be able to share books with our students.  Reading is a social experience, especially for young readers, and under our guidance they can and will find books that they love!

Some suggestions:

- I think next year, at least once every 2 weeks, you should dedicate an entire period to reading.  Most of the time should be spent reading the read-aloud and the rest for reading independently.

-We should be allowed to vote on read alouds.

-More time in-class for reading would be great.  (Independent reading time in school really suffered when I lost half of my teaching time this year and it made a huge difference in my class/teaching).

I highly recommend having your students reflect on their academic year before the school year ends.  It is eye-opening for the writer and the teacher.

Why I Love Letter-Essays

Around December each year, my students are ready to begin writing letter-essays (usually after a few weeks of learning how to write literary essays and respond to our reading).  While responding to almost 50 letter-essays is enough to drive me crazy, not to mention the thought of having 100 of them next year, I love it.  

In their letter-essays, my students write me friendly letters about the novel they are reading or just finished reading.  The letters must be a page long and are not book reports- very little summary is included and there are no strict guidelines to follow.  Instead, I ask them to tell me about their thinking.  We have studied literary essays and spend the first half of the year working our way up from short responses to longer ones, so by December they are ready.  I also include a list of sentence starters for talking about reading and metacognition (in case they get stuck).  While they are usually hesitant at first, the letters are always awesome!  And there is very little pressure- I grade on a 4-point scale.  

We recently finished the first month’s letters and I am thrilled with the work my students have done so far!  They explain why they are reading what they are reading, what they like about it, what they don’t like about their books, how they choose their books, and so much more.  It’s a window into their world and the thinking that they do.  And I love that this is an assignment that my best readers and more reluctant readers can both do with ease.  No one is right or wrong.  And I learn even more about my students as readers, so I can help them pick books they will hopefully love.  

One of my students is reading The Luxe and she had this to say in her letter-essay:

Thank you for recommending The Luxe by Anna Godberson. This book is by far one of the best books I’ve ever read. It is full of romance, mystery, and even some jealousy. By reading this book, it has made me realize that I love mystery books, because it starts out at her funeral, I wonder how that happened. And, this really looks like a series that you could be getting used to seeing me read. 

And the best part is that she has been watching me read Envy: A Luxe Novel and she mentioned how it inspired her to pick up The Luxe.  That makes me one proud teacher!

Writing Letter-essays

One of my favorite reading units is Letter-essays.  Based on Nancie Atwell’s The Reading Zone: How to Help Kids Become Skilled, Passionate, Habitual, Critical Readers, letter-essays are letters that students write to me on a rotating basis about the book they are reading or have just finished reading.  I love the interaction that the letter-essays breed and the growth I see in them across the school year is phenomenal.

This year I started my letter-essay unit about 3 weeks later than last year.  My students need more scaffolding this year and I felt it would go better if I had a little more time to work up to it with them.  I am also altering my unit a bit.  For the first time I am using Lucy Calkins’ Literary Essay unit of study to guide the unit.  While my students won’t be writing literary essays, the unit of study provides a perfect backdrop for the letter-essays.  It does a great job of getting students to think about their reading and start responding to it deeply; something they haven’t done much of until now.  

It’s always a struggle in the beginning because students are used to answering straight comprehension questions about their reading.  Thinking deeply is difficult, but the results are always awesome!  At the end of this week I will introduce an example letter-essay from a former student and have students begin writing a rough draft of their first letter-essay.  By Winter Break the students will have a schedule of due dates and the first letter-essays will be due in mid-January.  After that, they will write me a letter once a month, which I will respond to.  

For the first time I am considering having students write letter-essays to a classmate also, on the alternate weeks.  I think it is so important for students to see the social connections books bring us, and letter-essays are a non-threatening way to do this.

Reading letters/essays

On a recent post about my reading workshop, Jenna asked how I handle letter essays in my class:

I just finished The Reading Zone Recently. I”m curious to hear how you handle the reading letters. I have such a hard time keeping up with the grading. How do you do the reading letters with your class?
Jenna

Now, keep in mind that I have anywhere from 35-50 students for language arts each day. When I read The Reading Zone: HOW TO HELP KIDS BECOME SKILLED, PASSIONATE, HABITUAL, CRITICAL READERS
I knew that I wanted to begin using letter essays in my class.  However, I also knew that I could not handle responding to almost 50 letters on a weekly basis (without losing my sanity).  So I modified the assignment for my classes.

At the beginning of the year I introduced the letter essays by letting my students know that we would be working towards writing them independently.  However, I did not begin assigning them until closer to December.  My students do not come from a workshop background, so I had a lot of work to do before they would be capable of producing the type of letter essay I was looking for.  We spent a few months really digging into talking about reading and then writing about reading.  I shared examples of letters I wrote and examples from Atwell.  Together, my students and I developed a list of sentence prompts to help with their thinking/talking about reading.  I typed the list up and it was placed in their binders.  Finally, I began assigning the letter essays.

I divided each class into 4 groups.  In my morning class, Group 1 was due the first Tuesday of the month.  Group 2 was due on the second Tuesday.  Group 3 on the third Thursday, etc.  My afternoon class was divided the same way, except their letters were due on Thursday.  This allowed me to collect between 5-7 letters on Tuesday, respond to them, and return them before getting the next class’ letters.    It was overwhelming at times, and I admit I often fell behind.  But each student always received a letter back from me, with a response to their thinking, my thoughts on the book, and sometimes a recommendation.  The kids loved it.  And their letter essays only got better as the year progresse.

In order to keep them accountable, I assessed each letter essay out of a 4-point rubric.  The rubric was very simple- 0 meant no letter essay was handed in, 1 meant there was no thinking (just summary) and it didn’t follow the directions (at least 3 paragraphs), 2 was a good effort but not quite there, 3 was almost there, and 4 was perfection.  I do my grades on a point system, and the letter-essay grade worked out to be about 20 points/marking period.  Just enough to make the students accountable.

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