The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.


My mother-in-law is a fourth grade teacher in Champaign. While I was a substitute teacher, I subbed for her many times. (If you are interested in what that was like, you can browse any of these posts.) She is also the one who came to my class a couple of weeks ago to share some self-defense lessons to my students.

She taught fifth grade last year, and we came up with the idea of having our students write to one another as penpals. We started during the second half of the year and it went pretty well, so we decided to to it again this year. (She is teaching fourth grade now.)

Her class wrote to my students first. I didn’t tell anyone about this until today. Before even telling them they were going to have penpals, I taught a brief lesson on how to write a friendly letter. I asked the students to raise their hands if they had ever written a friendly letter to another person. Almost everyone in the class said that they had, so I asked them to walk me through the steps of writing one.

Many students said that the first thing you do is start with your greeting (Dear…).  A couple said that you actually start by writing the date. We discussed writing a heading and how the person sending the friendly letter includes his or her address as the first thing to make sure that the person receiving it will be able to write back. (I explained that envelopes often get damaged when they are opened, so having the address on the outside doesn’t guarantee they’ll know it.)

Then we reviewed appropriate salutations, the body of the letter, and the way to close a letter. After doing all that, I began to hand out penpal letters. I am amazed that, despite all the changes in our world and our society over the past several decades, the way students write to their penpals never seems to change.

I gave my students time to read their letters, talk about them, and then write their own responses to their new penpals. Several asked if they could send pictures or meet their penpals. I told them that we were going to focus on just writing letters for now. My mother-in-law and I will have plenty of time to think up ways we can further this project beyond letter-writing. At present, my top goal is to give my class as many authentic writing experiences as possible!


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