Thanksgiving is the perfect time to immerse students in an authentic writing experience. In my class, we write friendly letters to give thanks to a family member, friend, neighbor, or former teacher who has had an impact on our lives. Although my goal is to teach the friendly letter, the students learn the value of taking the time to let others know how much they inspire us and how much we appreciate them. Included in this article is a SMART Notebook lesson and a video that illustrates how to use the interactive components.
“Letters are among the most significant memorial a person can leave behind them.”
~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
With text messages, email, and online social networking, are we behind the times when we teach friendly letters? I feel it is an even more valuable lesson. The modern avenues of informal communication are quick, but the words can be lost forever with a click of the delete button. On the other hand, friendly letters are keepsakes. They become historical documents or primary resources.
I begin my lesson with the question of the day: “Why is it important to write letters to our family and friends?" I share my experiences of letter writing with my students, and explain that since my daughter was young, I have written her a letter every Christmas. In each letter, I capture our family history for the year, elaborate on her many accomplishments, and remind her of how much I love her. She is 18 years old now, and it is still one of her favorite Christmas gifts. As Goethe says, these letters will be my memorial, a primary document containing our family history. Once my 6th graders see what a gift words can be, they are excited to participate.
This activity takes about four 40-minute class periods. When we are finished, my students will have written a friendly letter, addressed an envelope, and mailed their letters. I have them mail the letters from school — even if the person they are writing lives in the same home. Many of my students come back to school and share how their loved ones cherish the letters. Many recipients of these letters (parents, grandparents, and teachers) have stopped by my room at school to share how much they treasure them.The video below provides an overview of the lesson and illustrates how to use the interactive components.
Although all traits of writing are important, I created a friendly letter weighted rubric (PDF) because I feel some traits should weigh more than others, depending upon the goal. For instance, some students are more skilled at conventions, sentence fluency, and presentation, but they misinterpret the task or get confused. Others get the ideas, but struggle with conventions and presentation. The weighted rubric for the friendly letter gives more weight to the traits that are more significant at this point of the school year: Ideas, Organization, Sentence Fluency, and Conventions. Please feel free to download the rubric in Microsoft Word, so you can edit it to fit your classroom needs.
- Friendly Letter SMART Board Lesson (Includes all handouts listed below)
- Parts of a Friendly Letter (Student handout)
- Friendly Letter Editing Checklist (Student handout)
- Friendly Letter Weighted Rubric (Student handout)
- Addressing an Envelope (Student handout)
- "Be Brief" Postal Abbreviations (Scholastic Printables)
- Fall Stationery: Boy Raking Leaves, Thanksgiving Feast, Turkey (Clip art used by permission of Phillip Martin)
DAY 1: Brainstorm
Ask the students if they have ever received a letter. If they have, how did it make them feel? Explain the significance of letter writing. Show the music video,"Letters From War" by Mark Schultz. Another option is to watch the trailer from a recently released movie, Letters to Juliet, starring Amanda Seyfried, Vanessa Redgrave, Gael García Bernal, and Franco Nero. Discuss how the letters are important to the people who wrote them and to the people who read them.
Brainstorm (Think-Pair-Share Activity)
- Have the students brainstorm a list of people in their life who are important to them: parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, teachers, and neighbors.
- Ask them to put a star beside the person’s name who they feel has had a positive impact on them.
- Guide them in writing down one or more reasons this person is important: inspiration, encouragement, friendship, understanding.
- The students turn to their neighbor and share the person they picked and why they are special to them.
When writing the first paragraph, I tell my students to use their manners and start the letter by inquiring about their friend first. They can voice any concerns or ask about recent events in their friend’s life. I have them focus on one or two things that stand out the most.
- Ask how they are. How have you been feeling?
- Inquire about his or her travels. How was your trip to _____________?
- Thank them for something they've done recently. Thank you for ________. Or, Thank you for helping me ______________.
Before closing the first paragraph, I tell them to explain why they are writing. You might want to guide them by saying, “I am writing this letter to thank you for ____________.”
In the second paragraph, the students talk about themselves. They explain why this person is important or how the family member or friend inspired them. The letter is more meaningful if the students share a story and/or memory, explaining their feelings of excitement, joy, acceptance, understanding, comfort, peace, security, confidence, etc. They close the paragraph by thanking their friend once more.
If students require more guided support, the Friendly Letter Graphic Organizer will help them put the details in order according to the parts of the letter.
Day 2: Rough Draft
- SMART Board lesson to review the parts of a friendly letter.
- Review the friendly letter weighted rubric.
- Fold a sheet of paper in half (a hot dog fold).
- Unfold the paper and use the folded crease as a guide to indicate where to start the heading, closing, and signature.
- Review the friendly letter format. Pay particular attention to the capitalization and punctuation rules.
- Look at the model letter to see how it is formatted and punctuated. Note that the ideas are interesting to the reader and the details are descriptive.
- Students follow their notes to write the rough draft of the letter.
Day 3: Final Copy
- The students use the friendly letter checklist to revise and edit the letter.
- Because the letters are personal, they assess their own writing using the rubric.
- When students finish assessing their own writing, they sign up for a teacher conference.
- After the conference, the students make necessary revisions and/or edits.
- The students use their best handwriting and write the final copy of the letter on stationery.
Day 4: Addressing the Envelope
- Use the SMART Board Friendly Letter Lesson to instruct the students on how to address an envelope.
- Give each student directions on using the addressing an envelope handout.
- Emphasize the capitalization and punctuation rules.
- Explain the state abbreviation guidelines. Ask them if they see any patterns that might explain how the United States Postal Service (USPS) created these abbreviations.
- If your students need additional practice, use the activity "Be Brief" from Scholastic Printables.
- Making sure the students position the envelope with the top up, guide them in addressing their envelopes.
- With the print side of the letter up, fold the letter into thirds. Fold the bottom of the paper up to 1/3 of the page. Then fold the top down. The top part of the letter should be on the outside.
- Slide the letter into the addressed envelope, seal it, and then put it in the outgoing mailbox.
- Closure: Why was writing a letter to our family and friends important to you?
After we finish this project, students use the friendly letter handouts to guide them in independent letter writing activities. They continue to write family and friends whenever they want. In addition, they have the option of choosing friendly letters for writing assignments and contests, such as:
- The Letters about Literature Writing Contest (Deadline December 10, 2010)
- Write a letter from one character to another character (alternative book report)
- Write letters to favorite authors (extra credit)
- Microsoft Stationery Templates
- U.S. Postal Services Postal Addressing Standards
- Thanksgiving Clipart used by permission of Philip Martin for nonprofit eductional purposes only.