Tag Archives: Writing

Favorite Letter-Writing Books

This is the time of year (Valentine’s Day) when many preschool classrooms explore themes related to writing notes and letters. For many programs who have a policy of not explicitly celebrating holidays, this is a way that teachers address the seasonal topics that can arise. I’m of the opinion that letter-writing at any time of the year is one of the very best activities to incorporate into your household or curriculum. It’s a unique way of connecting with people we care about while developing literacy and community skills. In our age of technological communication, there is something extra-special about putting pen to paper, sticking a stamp on a letter, and visiting an actual mailbox or post office! Allow me to put on my grandma hat for a moment and ponder whether kids today will learn how to properly address an envelope, look up a name or number in the phone book, or write an actual check. Are these lost arts? They don’t need to be.

Every preschool classroom (and home) should have a well-stocked writing center as well as a system in place for exchanging messages. In general, children love exchanging messages. In fact, who doesn’t? When I sift through the mail and find a hand-addressed card from my mom among the bills and junk mail, my heart skips a beat. If you need ideas and inspiration for creating, expanding, or maintaining a writing center, I suggest taking a peek at Pinterest (search terms: preschool writing center, writing center, preschool mailboxes), with the warning that you can easily lose hours down this rabbit hole.

There are countless beautiful books for all ages that center around writing letters or exchanging messages. Below you’ll find some of my personal favorites for preschoolers.

Dear Annie by Judith Caseley. Our heroine, Annie, has exchanged letters with her grandpa since the day she was born. This is a lovely catalog of their relationship, as well as providing great examples of the process of sending and receiving mail. A simple story at its heart, it provides rich fodder for class discussions about writing, adventures, and grandparents. Every child will be inspired to write a letter of their own to someone special.

Dear Juno by Soyung Pak tells a similar story of a grandmother and grandson, with the twist being that the grandmother writes in Korean and the little boy expresses his message with pictures. This is a gorgeous story about cross-culture communication (and cross-generational) that speaks to preschoolers who can’t fully “write” their messages. It’s an essential addition to the classroom library of every diverse program.

Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin. Farmer Brown’s cows have begun sending him typed messages with their requests. This is a laugh-out-loud funny book about some ingenious barnyard animals and their sophisticated negotiation tactics. Children who feel empowered by putting pen to paper will particularly enjoy the message and the story can prompt some wonderful conversation about how to peacefully express wants and needs and how to meet in the middle. I have found this book to also be a great springboard to talking about different ways of communicating (what if you couldn’t speak? how would you communicate?) and what typewriters and keyboards are for.

A Letter to Amy by Ezra Jack Keats. This is the story of a boy who wishes to invite a girl to his otherwise all-boy birthday party and he wants to send her a written invitation. On his way to mail the invitation, he runs into the girl and knocks her down. He worries that she won’t wish to attend the party. The story may not seem highly relevant to today, but I think the work of Ezra Jack Keats is timeless. Preschoolers in particular are at a heightened awareness of boyness and girlness and that storyline will appeal to them. It will prompt passionate discussion about what should be done when you knock someone down, accidentally or not, and how friendships can start in the most unlikely of ways.

From the Frog and Toad Are Friends story collection by Arnold Lobel comes the perfectly lovely story, The Letter. Toad mournfully describes the time of day when the mail is delivered as the saddest part of his day, as no one ever sends him any mail. Frog immediately realizes what needs to be done and he sends Toad a letter. This is a classic tale of friendship for any age but resonates with particular meaning for small children. This short story is best for small group readings and is really enjoyable as an audiobook.

Send It by Don Carter follows the journey of a package cross-country. The simple but engaging book is wonderful to have on hand for independent reading while a classroom explores the ideas of writing and sending.

Tell me: what are your favorite books about corresponding?

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The Nonfiction Debate

This morning I read a piece in The New York Times about the Common Core Standards‘ nonfiction requirements: What Should Children Read? With the implementation of Common Core Standards, the article reports, fully 70 percent of the 12th grade curriculum will consist of nonfiction titles, which is quite a shift from where the focus seems to have been in recent years. My memories of assigned readings throughout my public and private education, from elementary school through university, primarily involve works of fiction (one notable exception being The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank). I do have fond memories of reading Scholastic’s Weekly Reader publication in class, as well as reporting on “current event” articles from the local newspapers from time to time in fourth and fifth grade.

I haven’t read the new standards in their entirety myself, but I imagine that teachers will have to take the good with the bad. One question that the debate over fiction versus nonfiction raises is why we want children to read certain titles and genres. As we engage in necessary and important debate, we must never lose sight of the fact that we want, more than anything, for children to read, full stop. A quote that particularly jumped out at me from the article this morning was the following:

David Coleman, president of the College Board, who helped design and promote the Common Core, says English classes today focus too much on self-expression. “It is rare in a working environment,” he’s argued, “that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’ ”

My initial response to this is visceral and biased because I have a deep and abiding passion for fiction and children’s self-expression. There is nothing like sharing a wonderful work of fiction and fantasy with children. It could be considered an imperative of human tradition, if we trace back fables, fairy tales, and oral storytelling through the ages. Nothing compares to the feeling of being carried away by imagination. And, as we know, if we want to successfully compete in the world of tomorrow, we need creativity! Additionally, fiction is tied inextricably to reality. It allows for seeing events and challenges through different lenses and can help children to develop theory of mind (that is, being able to see things from other points of view). The most successful schools will balance the development of all of the unique strengths and skills of children, including those who will one day lead us in business and those who will one day lead us in the arts. Our emphasis on self-expression does not need to undermine an understanding of facts and figures. In fact, self-expression can make for mathematicians and marketers who can reach other people more effectively.

I personally don’t relish the thought of living and working in a world devoid of self-expression. I prefer to engage with other people with rich imaginations and passionate interests on diverse topics. I love it when someone can share with me something from a book or article they’ve read. We’re so much more interesting, on the whole, when we’re reading and writing and just generally expressing ourselves.

The benefits of reading and writing fluently are seemingly endless and it is always a top priority in education, no matter your educational philosophy or stance on fiction versus nonfiction. We can all agree that we not only want children to read and write, but to enjoy doing so (because it is with this enjoyment that they will be most successful). Coming from a preschool education background, I find the debate a bit — dare I say?– silly. I believe that by the time children reach high school, it’s getting a bit late in the game to light their fire. By this stage of development, they should not only read and write fluently, but be able to select quality fiction and nonfiction that sets their minds and hearts ablaze. By this stage they should have encountered and been guided by numerous teachers, mentors, and librarians, showing them the tremendous diversity available in the written word and engaging and challenging them with discussion.

In preschool circles, we talk about creating for children a “text-rich” environment to encourage early literacy. This means that children see examples of text in many different contexts, from labels and signs to books and magazines. They have the opportunity to read recipes and follow printed directions. They read and draw maps. They observe teachers taking notes and writing reports and they have the opportunity to dictate descriptions of their own artwork and projects. When I was teaching preschool, I would often check out adult reference books from the library on topics my students were interested in, from sharks to rabbits to construction to pies. As passionate as children are for stories, rhymes, and imaginary pursuits, they are passionately hungry for nonfiction — for understanding exactly how real things work and fit together and what it all means. (Have you ever shown a princess-obsessed four-year-old girl a book of real castles or shared stories of true royalty? They’re hooked from the word go. Even infants prefer books with pictures of REAL faces, real foods, and real objects, as compared to illustrations — the very earliest level of nonfiction available in bookstores and libraries.) Based on my own experiences as both teacher and student, I don’t think it would be too much of a challenge to apply the same principles as children grow. High schoolers too have passionate real-world interests that teachers can cultivate and pursue through examples of nonfiction texts. Nonfiction and fiction sometimes compliment one another, as my own recent research into the life of Mary Todd Lincoln (my interest inspired by watching the movie Lincoln) has revealed — I have dipped into both fictionalized and fact-based accounts of her life to try to gain a better understanding of her as a complete person. Here is what appeals to me: an articulate, compelling piece of writing that invites me to learn something new.

We bathe young children in dozens and dozens examples of texts so that they will know what is available to them and how written language is utilized; so that they will see its value, I suppose. By the time we’ve grown up a bit more, we should be sold on it. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need to be convincing high school students that reading is really a very good and important thing to do — they should by that time be fully invested themselves, as well as competent in researching topics of interest. Wouldn’t it be something if we weren’t telling them what to read but instead they were telling us what they’re reading?

Readers are better writers. If this is what we want for students (and I hope we do), we can certainly agree on Sara Mosle’s statement:

What schools really need isn’t more nonfiction but better nonfiction, especially that which provides good models for student writing.

In all areas of curriculum, it would behoove us to focus on quality over quantity. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I would also like to suggest taking a grand leap and trusting in students to pursue areas of personal interest — be it fiction or nonfiction — because it is then that true, meaningful learning begins to happen. We need to lay the groundwork, issue the invitation, and then give students the space for the magic to happen. When we want to learn something, when we feel that spark, the sky is the limit and even the most well-written standards can’t hold us back.

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October 20, 2012
National Day on Writing, via the National Writing Project.

“At the National Writing Project we believe that writing, in its many forms, is the signature means of communication in the 21st century. We envision a future where every person is an accomplished writer, engaged learner, and active participant in a digital, interconnected world.”

It’s strange: I distinctly remember the process of learning to read, from pretending to read aloud from books to actually recognizing singular words (I was four when I was sitting in the waiting room of a vet’s office with my mom and the family cat and realized I could make sense of the animal names spelled out on the walls), but the events surrounding learning to write are much fuzzier. I do have a clear memory of sitting at my desk in first grade — how I loved my desk! — looking at the tag taped to the top edge with my full name spelled out across it, first and last. I had become accustomed to writing “Jenni” on all of my papers in kindergarten, but now I would have to write the full eight letters of my surname each time as well. To my then five-year-old brain, this seemed incomprehensible. How would I ever learn to write all that by myself? And how would I have the patience for such a daunting task? I’m pleased to report that within a few short weeks I had figured out that my surname was comprised of two smaller words that I already knew fairly well, so I had my name writing down (and could move on to sorting out that whole number line thing come math time). When I got married, years later, I increased the length of my surname by a letter but also made sure it was a name comprised of two smaller words to keep the task of writing it down manageable.

I’ve always been in love with the tools of writing, from crayons to pencils to pens to calligraphy brushes and markers. When I was growing up, I loved playing “office,” laying out my writing tools, an old rotary phone, and tapping away on my mom’s electric typewriter. For a period of time, I practiced typing on an Atari keyboard-console that plugged in to our TV. I loved seeing the words I chose to type on display across the blue screen. Sometimes just my name, sometimes a message to members of my family (plenty of, “Hi, Mom!”).

I had a small chalkboard in my bedroom, perfect for playing school with my stuffed animals, where I would sometimes write messages to my family as well. One day when I was about six, I was angry with my mom for something (funny that I don’t remember what) and scrawled, “I hate you,” across the board. I’ll never forget the expression on my mom’s face and the quiet way she said, “That’s hurtful.” I soon erased it and wrote a note of apology, but I can still feel the deep pang of empathy and guilt I felt in that moment. I understood early on that there is power and responsibility in writing things down.

I’m required to do a fair amount of writing at work each day, but I also delight in it. I still love the act of writing things down, although I have learned to weigh and measure my words a bit more than when I was six. I write anecdotal notes on the children in my care each day, daily reports for the families, emails to parents, co-workers, and administrators, and love notes to my co-workers. I write Facebook status updates, text messages to my husband and friends, and I write blog entries. Inside a journal, I write down the things I most want to remember and the things I want to reflect on. I jot down to-do lists, grocery lists, titles of books I want to read, quotes from books I’m currently reading, and little things I observe that make me happy.

Yesterday I wrote down two different observations of two different children. I am recording them here as well because they were both special moments in their own right and I don’t want to forget them.

R. hit M. in the head repeatedly with an empty box. I said, “R, I can’t let you hit M. That will hurt him.” R lowered the box, looked at me for a moment, and then walked over to where S. was sitting. R held the box over S.’s head and looked at me. “It would hurt S. too,” I said. R then carried the box over to another box on the floor and began to bang one with the other, smiling.

I was holding M. before his nap and he turned his face towards me, smiling. He reached towards me with one hand and tugged on my hair very gently, then held his hand towards my mouth. I made a kissing sound and he laughed and held his hand to my mouth again before pulling his blanket to his cheek and closing his eyes.

Those are two quick moments in a chaotic day that struck me as important to record. Moments like that fill me back up to the brim when depleted. I write them down as a record of development and as a note-to-self to pick me up in trying times. I write them down throughout the day to model writing — I want all of the children in my life to be writers.

What do you write?

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