When Magic Happens

I’m back, and I want to tell you about what’s been happening in my new workshop world. We’re two weeks into the school year, I’ve learned all of their names (okay, I know 100% of their names about 97% of the time in my classroom. Out in the “wild” of hallways and lunch duty, it gets a bit sketchy.), and I’ve collected and graded their first writing assignment.

First, some background on the assignment. As I’ve mentioned probably too many times before, I wrote a letter to my students and read it to them on the first day of school. This assignment grew out of that letter: after spending some time looking at and writing about my letter, I asked students to write their own letter. In the spirit of choice, they got to pick who the letter was to and what it was about. Together, using my letter as their mentor text, we settled on some parameters:

  • Their letter should have a saludo and a despedida.
  • Their letter should include some kind of introduction explaining why they were writing it.
  • Their letter should have, at minimum, 3-5 points (bullet points or a numbered list were fine)
  • We agreed that grammar and spelling are important, but since I haven’t taught them any grammar or spelling, they would not be graded on those things. (I added that part, because many students suggested that “good grammar” be required, but I know that most have had no formal education in Spanish.

I was worried that this assignment might be too open-ended for students who are used to a lot more structure and used to responding to very specific writing prompts in their other classes. Certainly there were many students who needed some time to get started. I simply told them “Think of someone you have something you want to say to, and write to them.” Through lots of idea sharing and examples, everyone eventually came up with an idea and got started writing.

So let’s talk about the magic that happened last week. Students asked a lot of questions that started with “¿Puedo…?” and I said yes to everything. Can I write a letter to my mom? Yes. Can I write a letter to the freshmen? Yes. Can I write a letter to myself? Absolutely! What about a letter to you, Miss? Yep, I’d love that! I only said no once, when the student asked if he could write a letter to his dead dog. (It seemed like a thinly veiled excuse to write “Querida perra” in his letter.) Everyone else was surprised that the answer to all of their queries was an excited yes.

A few days ago, a quiet student stayed after class to ask if she could write her letter as fiction. I asked her to explain what she meant. “Well,” she gushed, “I created a fictional character and then wrote the letter from her point of view, of what she wanted to tell someone.” What do you even say to that? All I came up with was, “That sounds really great. I can’t wait to read it!”

I don’t want to give the impression that every single student wrote something amazing. Of course they didn’t. Not everyone is ready to open up, not everyone is drawn to this type of writing, not everyone is completely bought in. But EVERY. SINGLE. STUDENT. turned in the assignment, on time, and that in and of itself is pretty remarkable.

So what did they write about that was so magical? One common theme was letters of agradecimiento to parents, especially mothers, but also many to fathers. These were so heartfelt and honest that many brought tears to this mother’s eyes (yes, I know, I’m a total sap.) Another was letters of advice and encouragement to younger siblings. Many students wrote letters to me, often because they couldn’t think of anyone else to write to, or just weren’t ready to get very personal. Those letters were still very revealing, both in what they shared and what they chose not to share. Finally, many students wrote really amazing letters to themselves, where they gave their future selves advice or reminded them of who they are and what they want to achieve. They were heartwarming and really helped me get to know my students better.

Some of their letters were so incredible that I wish I could share them with you here. Unfortunately, in my rush to grade them and return them to students, I didn’t have time to take pictures of them. Here are a few that I’d like to highlight:

  • A student wrote a letter to her dad, who had abandoned her family years ago. In it, she not only spoke to the hurt and anger she still feels, but also detailed her hope that her father does not do the same thing to his new family. “Ya no sigas lastimando a gente inocente.”
  • A student wrote a letter to her foster mom who died of cancer before she started high school. This is the second time in our two weeks together that she has written about her mom, so I know that this is important to her and something she seems to be ready to talk, or at least write, about. She mentioned on day one that she could relate to my experience of losing my mom, another example of how powerful my letter to students was in setting the tone and letting my students get to know me.
  • A student wrote a letter to herself, talking about her sexuality and other things that are important to her right now. In the letter she made some comments that raised concerns about her safety and well-being, so I have referred her to social work. This is another important aspect to giving students choice: sometimes they may send a cry for help. Make sure you are listening and know how to respond appropriately.

In a team meeting last Thursday, as our social workers talked about several students who are going through difficult situations, and our dean detailed IEPs and 504 plans, I came to a beautiful realization: I *knew* something, beyond the name, about every student they talked about. I don’t think I could ever have said that less than two weeks into the school year before.

I should probably write a post about all the mistakes I made during this unit, all the things I learned, and all the questions I still have. That would likely be more useful to help me reflect on my practice and improve the process going forward. But right now, coming off the high of reading, and really enjoying, my students’ letters, I wanted to share the end result. For now, it feels really good to have a successful first foray into writing workshop.

7 thoughts on “When Magic Happens”

  1. Hi Jen, I love reading about the progress in your writing workshop. I hope that you’ll continue sharing with us some of your writing units. I am sure that your students appreciated using your letter as a mentor text. What a great idea! It creates a unique bond with your students.

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    1. Thank you, Nelly! I’ve found that writing the blog really helps me reflect and process what I’m doing. And I enjoy sharing what I’m learning as I go. Thanks for taking the time to read it!

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  2. I am so excited to spend the year reading your blog and vicariously getting to know your kids. Serious suggestion: this is the first draft of a book that many teachers would be interested in reading.

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  3. Loving all of your ideas! I really like that you started off the year with this assignment. Did you have students type their letters, or did they hand write them? What is your reasoning for your choice? I always have my non-Heritage Spanish students hand write during class so I know that they are doing their own work (no help from friends or electronic translators), but I wasn’t sure if I should do this differently with the Heritage class I will teach next year. I would love to get your thoughts on typing versus writing with pen/pencil. Thank you!

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    1. Hi Hollye. I had students write their letters in their notebooks. Especially being early in the year, I wanted them to get in the habit of writing and revising in their notebooks. We aren’t a 1-to-1 school so typing means booking a computer lab, getting everyone there, etc. I try to avoid that as much as possible. We only type one major assignment per quarter. Next year we may move to 1-to-1 devices so that might change how I do things. Writing notebooks were really a great addition to my class this year, though, so I’d like to keep that going.

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