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?
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.