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.

Interesting Book Projects

I am trying to come up with an interesting yet not overwhelming book project to assign. I know what I want my 6th graders to read- an award-winning book. I will let them choose ANY award-winning book, whether it be a Newbery, Printz, etc winner/honor book. However, I don’t know what I want them to do with the book once they complete it. I am leaning towards a paper bag book project, yet I hate book reports.

In the next few weeks, I will be modeling and assigning our first reader’s responses. I am thinking I might have my students write me a letter about their book (to serve as a jumping off point for their bi-monthly letter-essays) and design something artistic. Maybe a story quilt? That sounds like it could be fun. Well, at least not torturous!

Any ideas out there???

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