I love everything that the first day of school brings: new school supplies, new bulletin boards, and most importantly, new students! I always find myself full of excitement the night before the first day and I basically wake up like Nemo here on day one.
My favorite first day/week activity to get to know my students is something I call “Letter to Mrs. Penrod.” I can’t remember where I found the inspiration for this activity, but I am so thankful for it.
“Letter to Mrs. Penrod” is a very simple activity that produces one of the most honest and insightful writing pieces you’ll ever get from the learners in your classroom. If you are looking for a way to get to know your students, both in and outside of the classroom, this is something you must try. If you want to do more than the basic “Tell me 5 of Your Favorite Things” game, this is for you. If you’re wishing you could get your students to really open up about themselves in a low-risk setting, you’ve got to do this.
“Letter to Mrs. Penrod” is a writing prompt in which students are asked to write a letter to me to describe themselves as individuals and learners. The catch? Students must write pretending they are one of their parents/guardians.
What makes this so meaningful and unique is the catch of the activity– students don’t write from their point of view, they write from their parent’s/guardian’s point of view.
Think about what the students consider before writing this piece:
- What would (parent/guardian) say?
- How would (parent/guardian) say it?
This activity gives you, as the teacher, way more than your typical “About Me” writing prompt would. Our students know that their parents/guardians are willing to open up and talk about things with another adult, so they write that way in this activity. Our students know their parents/guardians are going to be honest, so they write that way in this activity. Our students know that their parents/guardians would write in a mature fashion, so they write that way in this activity.
Every year, I am absolutely amazed at the letters I read from students. I can’t believe how truthful the letters are, how thoughtful students are when they write, and how much they are willing to share through this format of writing. The fact that they get to pretend they are someone else allows them to be more comfortable in sharing things about themselves. It makes the whole situation a little less risky-feeling, which in turn leads to students being more open. This letter is also a great way to informally assess the writing skills a student holds.
Skeptics of this activity might ask, “Well, how do you know the kids are being honest. What if they are just telling you what they want you to hear?” Trust me, the students are being honest. I can always tell based on what they are sharing, but I can also tell when I compare their letters to the family questionnaire I ask parents/guardians to fill out. I have never had a student letter that greatly differed from the information parents/guardians shared with me.
I’m going to leave you with a few lines from letters I’ve received in the past, just to give you an idea of the kinds of things you learn from this activity about the learners in your classroom. (I have changed all of the names in these letters to keep the privacy of my past students) Give this activity a shot this year, and/or share it with a colleague. I promise it won’t disappoint!
Remember, these are all written by students who were pretending to be their parents/guardians.
- “John is a good kid, but he doesn’t always act good. He isn’t always a perfect kid, but he can be.”
- “George commonly fails to let me know when he has an assignment due, so I am unable to help him. I get frustrated with him and I’m not sure why he does this.”
- “When Sallie was little, she learned Spanish and I think that kind of messed up her English. She tries to remember the rules with grammar, but she still messed up.”
- “I recommend asking her if she needs help because she is too shy to ask for it herself.”
- “Please help my son by pushing him to his potential. He doesn’t always try his best but you can push him.”
- “My daughter gets distracted a lot. Can you move her to the front to help her focus?”
- “I don’t mean to be rude, but your class has always been his least favorite, so hopefully you can change that.”
- “He does not want to try in school because he does not think he’s smart, but he is. He is afraid to mess up.”
- “Right now, my husband and I are going through a divorce and it seems like it affects her in many ways.”
- “Many nights she is in charge of taking care of her younger brother, so please understand if she didn’t get her homework done on time.”
- “I know it is hard to deal with her sometimes.”
- “Sometimes, he can’t focus because he is thinking about too many other things.”
- “ADHD can be a problem and makes learning tough, especially when the medication wears off.”
- “He is very nice and always looking for friends.”