After studying a concept or event for several days/weeks, a fun way to assess students’ understanding is to have them write letters from a different perspective. West Vigo Middle School teacher Melanie Beaver had great success with this in her ELA classroom. She had students write Dear Supporting Sentences, From Topic Sentence or Dear End Mark, From The Sentence.
The students demonstrate their knowledge of two concepts and the relationship that exists between them all in one writing assignment.
The options are limitless! You could have students write Dear Pilgrims, From The Mayflower (social studies), or Dear Cigarette, From Lungs (health), or Dear Answer, From Order of Operations (math).
After having so much success, Melanie went in search of content-area colleagues who were willing to try this writing strategy. She found Alice Shorter, a WVMS seventh grade science teacher. Alice told her students they needed to demonstrate their knowledge of (1) the functions of the cell, (2) the functions of the mitochondria, and (3) how they work together. Here is one student’s letter from that assignment:
Dear Miss Mina Mitochondria,
As the leader of this cell, I would like to thank you for being such a great energy source. Since I spend most of my time directing activities along with the traffic that leaves me, I would not be able to work without you. Holding all of the cell’s DNA is also a very hard job. You see, the hair and the eye color genes just don’t get along!
As powerhouse of the cell, I am sure you are very tired at the end of the day, but you never show it. Breaking down all of the food in the cell and then releasing all of the energy can’t be easy. You must be totally wiped out at the end of the day. I can’t imagine storing all of that energy also. Thank you Miss Mina, for all that you do. Without you, we would never make it as a cell.
Isn’t that fabulous!? The kids love it because it’s different and fun. Teachers love it because it targets content comprehension and academic standards. And administrators love it because you’re incorporating content-area literacy. WIN-WIN-WIN! Add to that the fact that students are utilizing the highest level of Blooms’ Taxonomy (analyze/evaluate/create) and you can really see the power of such an assignment.
Another adaptation to the initial idea would be to read aloud the letters during class without mentioning the Dear ___ and From ___. Using the details in the body of the letter, have students guess the Dear ___ and From ___ concepts.
What outstanding ideas! Thanks Melanie and Alice for sharing.
GREAT Teacher Comments:
Writer voice shouldn’t be absent from content-area or nonfiction writing, although it often is. To encourage a more descriptive and engaging lead from her students, Claudia Jackson shared a writing sample from Ralph Fletcher’s Teaching the Qualities of Writing.
The class discussed how the descriptive lead sounded like fiction, despite the abundance of facts and information about dolphins. The students all raved that there was strong reader interest.
Claudia then transitioned this idea to her students’ writing in science. They quickly reviewed all they had recently learned about the digestive system. Using the science information, Claudia challenged her students to think about something they would/wouldn’t want to eat and then explain the digestive process of that food item using a more descriptive lead.