The Relatives Came: A Family Read-Along
This writing prompt idea gets students to talk about themselves, their families, and their summer vacations through narrative writing.
- Grades: 3–5
- Unit Plan:
Using an online author's workshop, students will think of ways they might have spent their summer vacation and understand the importance of family relationships and customs.
- Write a friendly letter about a fantasy summer vacation using proper writing conventions.
- Make connections between themselves and the text.
- Identify key events and retell in sequence.
- Write a minimum of five detailed sentences following "The Rule of Four."
- Retell important events in sequence through a comic strip.
- In this lesson, I use a book called The Relatives Came by Cynthia Rylant; Illustrated by Stephen Gammell, to help students begin thinking about their own summer vacations and family customs.
- Parent Letter (PDF)
- Goodbye Summer (PDF) reproducible worksheet from Comic Strip Writing Prompts by Karen Kellaher
- Story Board (PDF) reproducible from The Big Book of Reproducible Graphic Organizers by Jennifer Jacobson and Dottie Raymer
- One roll of 3-4 inch wide cash-register/calculator tape
- Colored pencils
Set Up and Prepare
Background for Teacher: As the culmination of this lesson, students and family members take part in a Family Read-Along. For this event, parents/guardians secretly arrive at school with a collection of favorite books and snacks to share approximately 45 minutes of reading with their children.
1. Before the school year begins, decide on a date and time for your Family Read-Along. I prefer to hold this event the last 45 minutes of the day during our second week of school. Friday is my day of choice because it is a nice way to conclude the week and it seems to be the easiest day for many working parents to slip out early.
2. Send home a letter to parents/guardians (see Parent Letter) explaining the details of your Family Read-Along and asking them to RSVP. Because the Read-Along is a secret for students, I slip this note into the back of school information folders that go home on the first day. As the RSVPs come in, send parents a confirmation letter (see Parent Letter).
3. Make enough copies of the following Scholastic reproducibles for each member of your class. Also prepare one transparency of each if you plan to use them on the overhead projector.
4. Cut the rolled register/calculator tape into strips approximately 36 inches long. Cut enough for each student to have one strip.
5. Go through The Relatives Came and note sentences where the author has detailed information about who, when, where, and why.
6. Contact a parent who will knock on the classroom door to start the Family Read-Along. For those students who won't have anyone coming, make arrangements for a familiar adult to "adopt" them. Parents will often volunteer to have a one of their children's friends join them and staff members who are available are usually happy to help out.
Step 1: Introduction / Get Them Thinking
On an overhead projector or visual presenter, show students the Peanuts comic strip "Goodbye Summer" (PDF). Lead a discussion of how Sally feels about the end of summer. Ask students to explain if they are feeling similar or different to Sally at this point.
Step 2: Share with students how when you were in school, teachers always asked students to write an essay titled "What I did on My Summer Vacation," just like Sally's teacher. Tell your students that right now you do not want to know what they did on their summer vacation. "That's too old-fashioned." Instead, you want them to write an essay called "What I Wish I Did on My Summer Vacation."
Step 3: Pass out a copy of the "Goodbye Summer" writing prompt to each student. Go over the directions together. Review letter-writing conventions such as greeting, body, closing before students begin.
Step 4: After students have finished writing, allow them to share their letters with the class.
Step 5: Tell the class they will now be reading about someone else's summer experience. Bring the class around you to introduce the book The Relatives Came by Cynthia Rylant. Preview the story by looking at the cover and the vivid drawings. Have students predict the story elements based on what they see in the pictures. Record predictions for all to see.
Step 6: Read the story aloud to the class, stopping to discuss what is happening throughout. Point out when relatives have not seen each other in awhile, there may be lots of hugging, talking and sharing taking place when they reunite. In your discussion, mention the custom associated with families having large meals when they get together. Have students share relevant personal experiences of family reunions. Also, discuss the appearance of the relatives as related to the story's rural Appalachian setting. Use the United States map to help students visualize where the region is.
Step 7: Revisit the predictions that were made as you map out the story correctly.
Step 8: Have students think of a specific time, perhaps this past summer, when either they traveled a long distance (more than half an hour!) to visit relatives overnight or relatives visited them. Discuss how their trip may have been similar to that of the relatives in the story, such as taking snacks in the car, having their cheeks pinched by an older relative, sharing a big meal together, and perhaps even sleeping in a crowded bed. On paper, students brainstorm 5-6 key events from the visit they had with relatives.
Step 9: Short Writer's Workshop: Introduce students to the "Rule of Four" before they put their brainstormed thoughts into complete sentences. The "Rule of Four" is something I devised to help students stretch their sentences by adding more detail. A sentence that follows the Rule of Four includes information about at least four of the following: who, what, when, where, and why. To follow this rule, students must add detail to their sentence. For example, instead of writing, "My cousins visited me," which includes only who and what, a stretched sentence might be "In the middle of summer, my cousins drove all the way from Chicago to visit my family in Detroit."
Tell students how good authors often follow the "Rule of Four". Read a few pre-selected sentences from The Relatives Came and write them on the board, diagramming each into who, what, when, where, why categories. Model a few more sentences with students helping to stretch each one.
Step 10: Using the reproducible Story Board (PDF), students write their events in the correct sequence. Each event should be summarized in one to two sentences. Students can also do a rough sketch of an illustration to go with each event.
Step 11: During peer editing have students check sentences for "The Rule of Four." After writing has been edited and revised, students publish in the form of a comic strip, adding colored illustrations.
Note: Model the comic strip paper's preparation before you have students attempt it. When it is time for the students to create their strip, give each a piece of adding machine tape and have them measure off equally spaced boxes. Each frame should be three inches wide and it is optional to put a border all the around the outside perimeter and between each box. I have students put in the borders, modeling their strips after the Peanuts comic we had used previously on day one.
Day 5: Culminating Event
Culminating Event: The Relatives Came Family Read-Along
A few minutes before the scheduled start time of our Read-Along, I bring students to the carpet to supposedly review some of the elements of the story. With their backs to the door, I tell them to brainstorm what it would be like to have a surprise visit from relatives they had not seen in awhile. We talk briefly about what kinds of foods they might eat, what activities they could do together, etc.
About this time there is a knock on the door from a parent. Everyone turns and I announce it seems as if we are going to have a surprise visit from some relatives. At this point the relatives come streaming into the room with their baskets, many adorned with kerchiefs around their heads. My absolute favorite part of this whole unit comes at this point when my class is just staring, jaws open trying to figure out what is going on. The stupefied looks turn to complete joy when they realize our visitors are going to be spending the rest of the afternoon with them enjoying a few good books.
Variations: Over the years, I have tried several different scenarios to match the students up with their relatives. Relatives have come to us; we have "unwittingly" stumbled upon the relatives already sitting outside or in the gym on their blankets and so on. Do whatever works best for your classroom or school community.
Supporting All Learners
Because a great part of this lesson deals with relatives, make sure to be sensitive towards varying family situations within your classroom. We are using relatives to describe not just family, but all caregivers.
- Write a friendly letter.
- Use the writing process to create a paragraph that retells an event in chronological order.
- Publish the key events in a comic strip format.
- Did your parents have enough notice for the culminating event? What could you do to improve this event for next year?
- Did the graphic organizer help students with sequencing? Were they able to use it correctly?
- Were the students able to compare/contrast between themselves and the rural relatives?
- Are you modeling enough? If students are having difficulty, it just may be that they need to see it first to understand.
Teacher Observation: Observe how students work with others during the peer editing process.
Written Outcome: As you check each friendly letter, look for a greeting, a closing, complete sentences, and proper punctuation. Assess how each student correctly summarized a visit with relatives in one paragraph, using sentences that follow the "Rule of Four."