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December 7, 2017

Writing as a Gift: A Study

By Julie Ballew
Grades 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

    Recently, the literacy coordinator at my school shared an idea she had seen about holiday gift-giving that involved students wrapping up a piece of their writing for their parents. I loved this idea, and it set my brain spinning. I find myself reminding students again and again to think about audience. I want them to think about the reader for their writing pieces, but this doesn’t seem to be instinctual for them yet. What better way to have them consider their audience than to spend time focusing on pieces that they will give away to specific people? I wanted this to extend beyond a one-time holiday gift, so we have turned it into a mini-unit of study. We just began this work, and my kids are already exceeding my expectations.

    I have always loved helping my students create handmade gifts, particularly written pieces, but I have tended to lean heavily on more prescriptive types of writing when it is intended for a gift. In previous years, I’ve had students write an essay about something they are thankful for, poems for Mother’s Day, letters to veterans in November and Santa in December, and even their own “I Have a Dream” speeches to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. I can’t say exactly why I have opted for more formulaic approaches to special occasion writing, except that I didn’t have a vision for anything else. My mom still has some of the holiday writing I did as a young child, and I love to think that some of these treasures will be dug out of boxes and bins 20 years from now and bring some happy memories with them.

    With this particular unit, I am trying to let go of the formula and focus on the relationship between the writer and the reader. We began by having a conversation about what it means to give writing as a gift. I asked the students to talk about why they might want to use their talents as a writer to create a gift for a loved one. I recorded some of their thinking:

    • “It’s very personal to give writing as a gift. You can’t get it at a store, so it is unique.”
    • “You have to know something about the person you’re giving it to, or they won’t like it.”
    • “Most people probably love to get handwritten stuff, but our grandparents will really go crazy for it.”

    Their conversations led me to believe that they certainly understood why writing makes a good gift, and their excitement level actually surprised me. They were ready and willing to get started right away! We planned for our writing by considering three factors: audience, occasion, and type of writing.

    Audience

    Because I really wanted to increase my students’ awareness of audience, we had to begin here. Who might want to receive our writing as a gift? Who should we be considering when we decide what kind of writing we’ll do? How will the audience affect the type of writing we’ll choose? Students had no trouble at all thinking about a possible audience and quickly rattled off a list of people who might like to receive writing from them: relatives, friends, teachers, etc.

    As a side note, we did run into an interesting conversation about what to do when your intended audience can’t receive your writing as a gift. One student wanted to write an ode to Amazon’s Alexa, and another wanted to write a love letter to their cat. We concluded that this was a special category of audience that would require a separate recipient. It wasn’t off-limits, but students would have to decide who would enjoy reading about their love for Alexa or a favorite pet.

    Occasion

    Listing possible recipients naturally segued into a discussion about why you might be giving writing to someone. I really want this to go beyond the December holidays, so we spent some time coming up with all of the reasons you might give gifts, and we quickly decided whether writing would be an appropriate gift. I was really impressed with the sheer number of gift-giving occasions my kids could name.

    Type of Writing

    I struggled with what to call this category. “Genre” or “mode” might have been more appropriate, but as we built our list, I wasn’t sure which literary term best encompassed the whole thing, so we went with the most general: types of writing. Oh my goodness, did my students surprise me with this list! I had several types in mind that I planned to coax out of them if they got stuck, but they named all of those and so many more that I hadn’t even considered! They have just started experimenting with sketch notes in math class, so that was a happy addition to the list, and I have recently shown them several illustrated quotes during our sharing circles, so they were eager to try creating those as well.

    Once we ironed out all three of these categories, I hung the completed chart and set them free. They began by creating a two-column chart in their notebooks with a list of people (their anticipated audience) in one column and the types of writing they think those people would enjoy in the second column. As we move through this mini-unit of study, I will be sharing mentor texts with them of various types of writing. (I’ll have to search for good examples of some of the styles I hadn’t anticipated!) The products will ultimately be up to them, and although I’ll encourage them to give some away over the winter holidays, I hope that this will continue far beyond December. After all, writing is a gift that can be enjoyed all year — especially by your grandparents.

    Students are just beginning this work, but scroll down to see a few in-progress pieces!

     

    This was a featured quote in our classroom recently, and I love that this student wants to share it with a loved one!

    I mean, is this sweet girl excited about her BFF-centered acrostic, or what?

     

    I'm not sure which teacher will ultimately be at the receiving end of this sketch note, but I can't wait to see the finished product!

    Recently, the literacy coordinator at my school shared an idea she had seen about holiday gift-giving that involved students wrapping up a piece of their writing for their parents. I loved this idea, and it set my brain spinning. I find myself reminding students again and again to think about audience. I want them to think about the reader for their writing pieces, but this doesn’t seem to be instinctual for them yet. What better way to have them consider their audience than to spend time focusing on pieces that they will give away to specific people? I wanted this to extend beyond a one-time holiday gift, so we have turned it into a mini-unit of study. We just began this work, and my kids are already exceeding my expectations.

    I have always loved helping my students create handmade gifts, particularly written pieces, but I have tended to lean heavily on more prescriptive types of writing when it is intended for a gift. In previous years, I’ve had students write an essay about something they are thankful for, poems for Mother’s Day, letters to veterans in November and Santa in December, and even their own “I Have a Dream” speeches to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. I can’t say exactly why I have opted for more formulaic approaches to special occasion writing, except that I didn’t have a vision for anything else. My mom still has some of the holiday writing I did as a young child, and I love to think that some of these treasures will be dug out of boxes and bins 20 years from now and bring some happy memories with them.

    With this particular unit, I am trying to let go of the formula and focus on the relationship between the writer and the reader. We began by having a conversation about what it means to give writing as a gift. I asked the students to talk about why they might want to use their talents as a writer to create a gift for a loved one. I recorded some of their thinking:

    • “It’s very personal to give writing as a gift. You can’t get it at a store, so it is unique.”
    • “You have to know something about the person you’re giving it to, or they won’t like it.”
    • “Most people probably love to get handwritten stuff, but our grandparents will really go crazy for it.”

    Their conversations led me to believe that they certainly understood why writing makes a good gift, and their excitement level actually surprised me. They were ready and willing to get started right away! We planned for our writing by considering three factors: audience, occasion, and type of writing.

    Audience

    Because I really wanted to increase my students’ awareness of audience, we had to begin here. Who might want to receive our writing as a gift? Who should we be considering when we decide what kind of writing we’ll do? How will the audience affect the type of writing we’ll choose? Students had no trouble at all thinking about a possible audience and quickly rattled off a list of people who might like to receive writing from them: relatives, friends, teachers, etc.

    As a side note, we did run into an interesting conversation about what to do when your intended audience can’t receive your writing as a gift. One student wanted to write an ode to Amazon’s Alexa, and another wanted to write a love letter to their cat. We concluded that this was a special category of audience that would require a separate recipient. It wasn’t off-limits, but students would have to decide who would enjoy reading about their love for Alexa or a favorite pet.

    Occasion

    Listing possible recipients naturally segued into a discussion about why you might be giving writing to someone. I really want this to go beyond the December holidays, so we spent some time coming up with all of the reasons you might give gifts, and we quickly decided whether writing would be an appropriate gift. I was really impressed with the sheer number of gift-giving occasions my kids could name.

    Type of Writing

    I struggled with what to call this category. “Genre” or “mode” might have been more appropriate, but as we built our list, I wasn’t sure which literary term best encompassed the whole thing, so we went with the most general: types of writing. Oh my goodness, did my students surprise me with this list! I had several types in mind that I planned to coax out of them if they got stuck, but they named all of those and so many more that I hadn’t even considered! They have just started experimenting with sketch notes in math class, so that was a happy addition to the list, and I have recently shown them several illustrated quotes during our sharing circles, so they were eager to try creating those as well.

    Once we ironed out all three of these categories, I hung the completed chart and set them free. They began by creating a two-column chart in their notebooks with a list of people (their anticipated audience) in one column and the types of writing they think those people would enjoy in the second column. As we move through this mini-unit of study, I will be sharing mentor texts with them of various types of writing. (I’ll have to search for good examples of some of the styles I hadn’t anticipated!) The products will ultimately be up to them, and although I’ll encourage them to give some away over the winter holidays, I hope that this will continue far beyond December. After all, writing is a gift that can be enjoyed all year — especially by your grandparents.

    Students are just beginning this work, but scroll down to see a few in-progress pieces!

     

    This was a featured quote in our classroom recently, and I love that this student wants to share it with a loved one!

    I mean, is this sweet girl excited about her BFF-centered acrostic, or what?

     

    I'm not sure which teacher will ultimately be at the receiving end of this sketch note, but I can't wait to see the finished product!

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