Monday, June 18, 2012

Writing to Assess: Diaries and Letters

I had a lot of fun learning a few new ways to assess student writing across the curriculum.  These ideas are geared to my fourth grade friends, but can be modified to use in any grade level.

Michelle walked us through lessons that she teaches with her kids in social studies to assess student writing.

Writing Diaries:
Michelle prefaced this lesson by telling us she would teach her fourth graders about different religions in early colonial times and about the travels to America before she taught this lesson.

We each created a bio about ourselves.  We chose the following for ourselves pretending that we were living during the 1600's:

  • Our age
  • Occupation-she discussed several options of colonial jobs
  • Family-married or not/number of children
  • Religion-choose from a type of colonial religion
We were told that our colonial family has traveled across the ocean and settled in America.  We were going to be shown a movie about a family living in New England.  After watching the video, we were going to write a diary entry about meeting the family in the video when we arrive in America. Click here to view the webpage for the video.  (

When your students are writing their diary entries, remind them to think from the perspective of the character, not their own.  Have your students date each entry.  They will continue to add entries to their diaries as you teach the next historical period.  The student will follow the character's life through the times.  If the time shifts or you have a break in the time periods you are required to teach, you can pretend that the diary was lost, someone else found it, and they start writing about the next time period from a different characters point of view!

Writing Letters:
To teach this concept with students, choose several photographs (primary documents) from a specific time period and display them for your students.  Have each student choose a photo and write a letter to that person.  The student should ask the person questions that they would like to know about the time period, their occupation, their family, traditions, customs, etc.  If there is specific information you want the students to learn, lead them towards those types of questions when you give the assignment.  The kicker is that after the student writes the letter with the questions, they have to research and find the answers to them!  Amazing, right?  Spoiler alert:  Do not tell them this before they write their letters with the questions.  After your students have found the answers to the questions they wrote in their original letter, they write back to themselves as the character.

To try out this strategy with a different twist, Michelle read an excerpt from Tennessee Studies Weekly titled "Saved From the Cherokee."  After she read the article out loud to us, we wrote a letter from one character in the article to another.  Ex:  Write a letter from John Sevier to Catherine or from Catherine to John.

I LOVED both of these ideas!  Add a comment and let me know what you think.


Chandra Verbic said...

I did something similar to this with my first graders when we studied the first Thanksgiving. I had them write letters to the Wampanoag tribe and the pilgrims in the area after we watched a video from Scholastic about how they lived. They had to describe in the letter how life had changed since then, and many of them did research to further sites to write their letter. We worked on it for about a week and they really enjoyed it!
Mrs. Verbic

Sarah Svarda said...

Mrs. Verbic,
Thanks so much for sharing how this strategy can be used with first graders!

LjP said...

Hi Chandra! And Sarah!
That is a great idea! I collaborated with 3rd grade last year for Thanksgiving and we did a dramatic re-enactment of coming to America. I assigned the students to a character (we used real names from the Mayflower!). Some of them died along the way of after they got to America. Then I had them get back with their family and write a letter back home either encouraging their family to come to America, or warning them not to. It was so fun and I want to extend it this year!

Laura Filtness said...

I love having the student's write from a character's perspective and not their own. It really forces them to put themselves in someone else's shoes and develop empathy.
Very good idea!