The fourth grade students file into the classroom with a happy buzz of anticipation and delight. The students are excited; it is Friday, which means that new letters await them in their penpal binders. The students are writing back and forth with a teacher candidate, Ms. York, to develop their literacy skills through a meaningful activity. In this post, we’ll describe Ms. York’s work with one specific student, James.
James, a student in the class, has not yet had successful experiences reading and writing. He often engages in avoidance tactics when asked to engage in literacy activities. Ms.York gained his trust immediately during their first interaction and he blossomed through one-on-one interactions with her.
The penpal project really sparked James’ interest. He appeared eager to engage in a back and forth dialogue with a student teacher. In the beginning, he read Ms. York’s letters and responded with drawings. James first ‘letter’ was a pop out picture of a person riding a bicycle. The only words on the page were “to you.”
Ms. York responded to his drawings by offering him positive praise and asking him probing questions about himself. She also offered gentle nudges to James to expand and elaborate on his ideas by conveying them through written expression. Over time, James’ letters evolved. In his third letter, James drew a picture of himself and Ms. York on a trampoline. James used labels to identify the sun, the trampoline, and the people in the picture, demonstrating a growth in his use of words in his writing. James growth reflects Marie Clay’s findings that penpal exchanges result in a gradual increase in writing by children (1998).
During the semester, Ms. York offered encouragement for James to follow the guidelines to craft a friendly letter to her. She helped him to set a goal of writing a letter to her before break in December. James submitted his formal letter to her on November 9, well before the goal date. The letter was on a blank white page, and he formatted it using all of the standard conventions for a friendly letter. In the letter, James described his Halloween experience to Ms. York. By engaging in the penpal project, James gained comfort and confidence with written expression. He expanded his writing from pictures, to labels, to a letter in a few short weeks.
As for Ms. York, she notes several important takeaways that she’ll carry with her into the profession. Through this experience, she developed a rapport with her students and gained their trust. She has also gained experience with portfolio assessment by collecting baseline data, helping students to set goals, and monitoring their progress. Through the penpal project, Ms. York learned the importance of providing positive support to students. She shares, “This project taught me to differentiate since the students’ abilities were different. I had to learn where they were at and how to respond in a way that they would understand.”
The authors acknowledge individuals from Westview Elementary in Platteville, Wisconsin, who made this project possible through their support and participation: Karen Utley, media specialist and ReNah Reuter, principal.
Clay, M. (1998). By different paths to common outcomes. York, ME: Stenhouse.