February 7, 2015

Authentic Writing Experiences: Student-Created Birthday Book

Writing is a craft and a life skill. Aren't we lucky to teach young writers "tools" to creatively bridge the gap between what develops in the mind to what ends up on the paper? I hope you've witnessed a child who struggled with writing and then turned the corner.

As kids work on paragraph writing, providing authentic reasons to write become a big motivator. In my opinion, an authentic writing experience is writing for someone other than me. I must be someone the child cares about - and cares about them -  who will enthusiastically read what they've written. That is a 'real' purpose and puts your efforts into context.

This Birthday Book is a simple way to incorporate authentic writing.

At the beginning of the year I mark each child's birthday in my planner. Summer birthdays are celebrated as a half birthday. I make unbound copies of a book for each child - cover and blank letter templates for the number of kids in the class - and paper clip those together. On the Word Bank I plug in my current class' names and copy on bright card stock. This allows me to pull a birthday book and easily find a word bank as indicated in my planner.

When it's someone's birthday I make my Work on Writing rotation "Write a nice birthday letter to ________". Each child gets a letter template and goes to town writing a letter to their classmate. I expect my students to incorporate compliments, specific things they respect or admire about the child and a wish for them. Along the way I expect kids to use the Birthday Word Bank as a spelling resource and proofread for spelling, mechanics and structure.They will quickly (or slowly) internalize parts of a letter.

At the beginning there is lots of coaching and instruction. Over the year, confidence grows and the process helps with writing fluency and word choice.  An illustration box and caption is a non-fiction text feature allowing the birthday child to get lots of 'gifts'. The two examples below are middle of the year second grade Birthday Book letters.
 Second grade work

As Editor-in-Chief I scan letters before binding 1. to be sure they are all appropriate and 2. to hand back letters for improvements when needed.

I'll admit some years there is a lil' stinker in the class. Hopefully you'll know in advance when classmates will be at a loss for compliments. To be proactive, those occasions are great opportunities for a mini lesson on word choice before the birthday letters. Together we brainstorm things the lil' stinker is good at - then discuss words to describe them. This way you have compliments written on the board ready to go and your writers have an easier time.

What does the birthday child do during Work on Writing? They design the book cover and do a birthday word find.

What started out as an experiment during my early teaching years turned into a huge success. Kids love reading their classmates' letters. Parents tell me their child's Birthday Book is going in the Memory Box. The Birthday Book is an authentic writing experience builds classroom community and motivates kids to improve their writing skills.

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