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Giving Thanks

Showing gratitude is one of the simplest yet most powerful things humans can do for each other. 

~Randy Pausch

When was the last time you received a handwritten thank you note or wrote one? As Thanksgiving approaches, I am reminded of one of my favorite writing activities – writing thank you notes. My classes spend some time discussing the importance of saying thank you. We talk about reasons why you would send someone a thank you note, and of course, the students usually say, “When you get a birthday present.”  When I ask how many of them write handwritten thank you notes, very few of them raise their hands. Since the world moved to electronic devices and social media, a handwritten note has become a lost art, but one that is very satisfying when resurrected. 

To get started, I have the students brainstorm a list of people in their lives who deserve their thanks but are often taken for granted.  The list includes obvious people like parents and grandparents, but as we continue to talk the list grows to include bus drivers, crossing guards, maintenance staff, school secretaries, coaches, neighbors, and even siblings.

Once we have our list compiled, I introduce the activity.  Each student will write a handwritten note to someone they need to thank. Some of them still aren’t sure, so  I read a few picture books for inspiration. I have included a shortlist below. If you have a favorite, please add it in the comments.  I am always looking for more.

Ten Thank You Letters by Daniel Kirk 

I Am Thankful by Suzy Capozzi

Thankful by Eileen Spinelli

Being Thankful by Mercer Mayer

Grateful: A Song of Giving Thanks by John Bucchino

Thanks a Million by Nikki Grimes

Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco

The Thank You Letter by Jane Cabrera

Next, we talk about what should go into a thank you note, such as: tell your recipient what you are thanking them for; be sure to expand on why you are thankful for the gift or act and add a closing statement that is directed toward the recipient. Students then write their rough drafts.

I provide the note cards.  I try to get a variety so that everyone has a chance to choose one that suits their personalities.  You can get note cards on sale during the year, purchase them at the dollar store, or use those spare ones hanging around your house.  The kids provide the addresses and the stamp.  

Lastly, the students write their letters (I take a quick peek to make sure there are no glaring errors), address the envelopes, (which is a lesson in itself), and affix the stamp (another lesson). I am tasked with dropping them off at the post office.  

The kids always look and feel satisfied with themselves as they hand me their letters, but that is nothing compared to how they look and feel when they receive feedback from the recipients.  They learn that small gestures can make a great impact on someone else.

I can’t tell you what a difference thank you notes made in my life a few weeks ago.  After a few rough days at school, I was surprised by a large yellow envelope in my mailbox.  Inside were these lovely thank you notes from some teachers in Springfield Delco School District.  In early October, I presented in their PAWLP class, and they sent me handwritten thank you notes. The evening I presented they were all so gracious and said thank you which I appreciated, but the fact that they took time to write me a personal note really made me feel special and lifted my spirits at the perfect time.

Thank you notes

Who is on your thank you list?  Whose life will you or your students brighten with handwritten notes?  I look forward to your ideas in the comments, and thank you for reading this post!


NCTE November: NWP Brunch and Beyond By Mary Buckelew and Janice Ewing

Whether attending or facilitating sessions, listening to the keynote speakers, or catching up with familiar colleagues and connecting with new ones, we always look forward to and enjoy the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the National Writing Project (NWP) combined conferences.

This year, we have a unique opportunity. Elyse Eidman-Aadahl extended an invitation for us to present at the NWP Brunch on Sunday morning. We were humbled by this invitation but gladly accepted it. Elyse was one of the advance reviewers of our book Action Research for English Language Arts Teachers: Invitation to Inquiry (Routledge, 2019). Her view was that the thinking and work that went into this book would be a good fit for the theme of this year’s conference – Spirited Inquiry. Our overall focus for the brunch presentation is connecting and highlighting some of the principles and practices of the National Writing Project with action research as we present it in our book. We will focus on the inquiry stance, reflection, collaboration, and publication.

It seems only fitting that we have invited several PAWLP fellows and friends to contribute to the NWP brunch presentation. Our book was inspired by their thinking at Continuity sessions, on the PAWLP Blog, on Twitter and in the many venues in which Writing Project folks interact to write, collaborate, reflect, and publish – all to improve their practices and the literacy lives of their students!

While we look forward to all of the conversations and learning the NCTE/NWP conference will inspire –we also look forward to embracing another important “R” — relaxation. Whether a communal meal or an opportunity to get to know our host city better, our community extends beyond the classroom. Here’s a memory from Atlanta — looking forward to more from Baltimore!

NCTE Atlanta.png

Reflections on Assessment

By Lynne R. Dorfman

In education, the term assessment refers to the wide variety of methods or tools that educators use to evaluate, measure, and document the academic readiness, learning progress, skill acquisition, or educational needs of students. A good part of the school year in most districts has focused on student assessment as well as in the teaching and learning in higher education. Student assessment is a critical aspect of the teaching and learning process. Whether teaching in elementary school or at the undergraduate or graduate level, it is important for educators to strategically evaluate the effectiveness of their teaching by measuring the extent to which students in the classroom are learning and applying the concepts and strategies.

Understanding our purposes for assessment and thinking about how we collect rich data to drive our instruction is essential. Assessment should always be purposeful, informative, and useful to us as facilitators of learning. Martha L. A. Stassen et al. define assessment as “the systematic collection and analysis of information to improve student learning.” (Stassen et al., 2001, pg. 5) This is the most important task of student assessment in the teaching and learning process – to improve student learning. Here are some thoughts about assessment. Can you add to these lists? Read more

NCTE November: My First NCTE

By Jolene Borgese

NCTE 1982 was in Philadelphia, two years after our first writing institute at West Chester University. Martha Menz, Lois Snyder and I had all attended the institute the summer of 1980.  We submitted a proposal for a workshop on Revision since NCTE would be in our home town. These two women were the stars of the project. They were smart, fabulous teachers and able to get along with the director Bob Weiss. Martha Menz was a high school History teacher at Upper Darby High School. She had earned an undergraduate and graduate degree at the University of Penn. She would go on to become the supervisor of Staff Development and the Curriculum Director for UDSD. Lois was an elementary teacher for Upper Darby SD and would later go on to become the superintendent of Interboro SD and earn a doctorate from Widener University in record time! I was in great company.

Our presentation was accepted and scheduled for Saturday morning. The day before I had attended my first National writing Project (NWP) meeting and met the director James Gray. He was a former high school English teacher from Berkley CA. He was a big man, a little gruff- not the serene college professor type at all. He ran an efficient meeting with maybe 50 sites. I was excited to meet other writing project site directors and learn what they were doing. We were all so new and didn’t really understand the power or impact our sites would have 40 years later! Mary Ann Smith, a co-director of NWP took me under her wings.  She became a role model for me and I treasured our time together at NWP meetings.  

 We arrived at the convention center assigned room and were amazed they gave us such a large room – we were sure no one would attend. We did our own sound check by pretending to be the three Supremes singing “Stop in the Name of Love!”  Little did we know the convention center had real sound check men who caught us in the middle of our song! To our surprise and delight over 50 people attended our first national presentation including my English college professor from Lock Haven State – Dr. Vaughn. She sat smiling through the entire presentation – she was so proud of me.  Any fear or nervousness I had quickly dissipated. I can’t remember anything we did or said that day – just a warm feeling when you know you are in like minded company.  

For the next 30 years I would attend every NCTE annual convention. In the 90’s I presented many presentations with a writing project director Lela Detoye from Illinois on using picturing books in the secondary classrooms as mentor texts. We received a book contract from Stenhouse but for a year we tried to come together on a book format. Unfortunately, we couldn’t so the book was never written.  But the number of secondary teachers hungry to use picture books in their classrooms grew every year. In San Diego we had over 200 teachers attend our presentation – sitting on the floor, standing – the room was packed. 

I also was appointed to the executive committee of Council on English Leadership (CEL) – for ten years as the membership chair. The CEL conference was held the two days following the NCTE convention so I would have two more days of presentations and learning with new friends. NCTE was my home for many years and I learned so much from the convention and the journal. I owe NCTE a huge thank you for my career and teaching. 

Dr. Jolene Borgese began her career as a middle school English teacher before moving on to teach English and writing in high schools. Trained by the National Writing Project (NWP), Borgese aims to increase students’ pleasure and confidence in writing by helping educators teach the skill as a process and a tool for learning. Borgese served as codirector of the NWP for 15 years, where she taught the NWP model to, and developed writing courses for, teachers. In addition, she created the Young Writers summer camp for students from elementary through high school.

NCTE November: Magical Moments

Happy November! With NCTE right around the corner – physically and metaphorically – we want to dedicate this month’s feature to the conference. Please check back regularly to enjoy posts about NCTE past and present as our teacher consultants reminisce about past conference experiences and share their plans for presenting at this year’s event.

With the flip of my calendar page, my excitement for this year’s conference became palpable. As I count the days until my next NCTE experience, I can’t help but think back on past moments that are filled with memorable encounters and game-changing presentations.

There was the elevator ride with Matt de la Peña. With my infant daughter wrapped to my chest, we chatted about our children, bed time stories, and his books. I was able to thank him for creating the sweet story, Love, which without fail lulls my daughter to sleep each night while bringing tears to my eyes.

There was the Kylene Beers’ presentation when we were asked to share memorable reading experiences with someone nearby and I turned to find Bob Probst standing to my left. We introduced ourselves and chatted in response to Kylene’s question for a bit before I let my excitement take over and I gushed about his influence on my teaching. I was able to thank him for his reading signposts, which have changed my reading instruction and strengthened my students reading engagement.

There was sitting next to Nic Stone as she read aloud from Dear Martin and led us in a book discussion. Afterwards, I was able to thank her for writing a book that made my husband, a strict nonfiction reader, fall in love with fiction again.

There was meeting a friend for dinner, and upon arrival being introduced to the “kind person who kept her company while she waited” – Linda Rief. We chatted about books and writing and our kids and her grandchildren until our tables were ready. Before we parted ways, I was able to thank her for her quick writes, which have made my students and me better, more confident writers for years.

And there are the countless hard-working, thoughtful, innovative educators who take the time to share their craft. From them I have gained new insights into teaching poetry, fiction, nonfiction, writing, reading, and, of course, my students. Because of them I am a better teacher.

Finally, there are my colleagues and friends, who have co-planned, co-presented, and collaborated with me. They have invited me to join them in sharing our voices. They have pushed me out of my comfort zone. They have encouraged me to take chances on my own. And they have celebrated every success along the way. I cannot wait to make more memorable experiences with them in just a few short weeks.

If you have attended NCTE in the past, what magical moments happened for you? If you are attending this year, please stop back later and share your experiences. Please also stop by the PAWLP roundtable – How Can We Help Our Students Establish and Maintain a Writer’s Identity? – and say hi!

Prompt-ober: Short Stories as Writing Prompts

Nearing the end of October, when the leaves shift hues, the temperature dips, and Halloween dances in the near future, the students of room 294 venture into the haunting short story, “The Landlady” by Roald Dahl. This is the perfect story to revitalize our energy, coming fresh off our memoir unit, and to continue the practice of sensory details and imagery in writing.  

Throughout Roald Dahl’s famous piece, images and details such as “paint was peeling from the woodwork,” and “She had a round pink face and very gentle blue eyes” cover the pages. One of Dahl’s most detailed descriptions occurs when the main character, Billy, peers into the window of the Bed and Breakfast:

“Billy caught sight of a printed notice propped up against the glass in one of the upper panes. It said BED AND BREAKFAST. There was a vase of yellow chrysanthemums, tall and beautiful, standing just underneath the notice . . . Green curtains (some sort of velvety material) were hanging down on either side of the window. The chrysanthemums looked wonderful beside them. He went right up and peered through the glass into the room, and the first thing he saw was a bright fire burning in the hearth. On the carpet in front of the fire, a pretty little dachshund was curled up asleep with its nose tucked into its belly” (Dahl).

During class, a discussion on the use of details and imagery that Dahl utilizes in creating this passage ensues. After some time, the students sketch and color their depiction of this room. From here, we use Dahl’s passage as a model to create our own descriptions of a window we are “peeking in.” In the student’s Google Classrooms, I post about fourteen different photos of unique and colorful rooms (as seen below).

After the students have taken some time viewing the various images, they choose their favorite photo and write a passage to describe the room, just as Roald Dahl in “The Landlady.” The key to this prompt is adding details and imagery. The end result is wonderfully descriptive passages that further emphasize and practice the use of sensory details and imagery in writing.

A Giraffe stood in the middle of a tiny room, too tall for his own good. His neck bent at a 90 degree angle with his front feet. The giraffe stood on a worn out turquoise rug, that covered the whole ground. The walls glowed a beautiful tan, with pictures framed with gold along the back side. A green silky chair lay aloft the ground in the back left corner. The chair has an intricate design, with x’s stitched across the whole surface. In the bottom right corner, adjacent to the chair, stood a brittle old table, with four drawers that curved like a wave. An old time radio stands tall on top of the table. The giraffe has blobs of brown, that lay upon the white fur of the giraffe. Although the giraffe doesn’t stand tall, the hair on the back of its neck stands tall. Imprints of feet align the floor, turning the worn out turquoise rug into a white one. The phrase Getty images is what it said in the top left corner, in a white color and big font.” Period 7 Student