Launching Family Message Journals
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This lesson introduces Family Message Journals—a teacher-tested tool for encouraging family involvement and supporting writing to reflect and to learn. The teacher introduces journals by demonstrating the process of writing a letter. Children are then led into composing through guided writing and finally independent writing of messages that they will bring home for family (or others) to read and write a reply. Messages focus on classroom learning and activities in which children have participated at school. A letter to families is included so that they understand what they are expected to do with the children's daily journal messages and why.
From Theory to Practice
Family Message Journals provide an authentic writing experience for students that can be adapted for many purposes. In Family Message Journals: Teaching Writing through Family Involvement, Julie Wollman-Bonilla writes: "Because of its multifaceted nature and the centrality of writing for an audience, the Family Message Journal can play a prominent role in [carefully designed writing curricula]." In discussing the role of Family Message Journals in promoting authentic writing, Wollman-Bonilla adds: "Writing is a powerful tool for influencing others, getting what you want, and problem-solving. ... In addition, children need to write for real purposes and audiences if they are to learn that writing is personally meaningful and a powerful communication tool." The purpose of this lesson is to get students started with using Family Message Journals, which teachers can use throughout the year to promote writing for an authentic audience for multiple purposes.
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
- 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
- 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
- 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
- 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).
Materials and Technology
- A booklet or notebook to be used as a journal. Lined paper with an unlined block at the top (for illustrations) works well in the beginning.
- Back-up people to reply if a child's family members don't. (The letter and pressure from children make this a rare occurrence, but there are always one or two families who cannot reply regularly. In this case, a student teacher in the school, a special subject teacher, the principal, or librarian are good options.)
- Choose the activity, book, or experience about which children will write their first two messages. This could be a book read aloud, a science inquiry, a social studies lesson, a school assembly, the experience of the first day at school, making new friends, or any other topic drawing on school experiences.
- Choose a topic for the demonstration message that you'll compose for students.
- Prepare and photocopy the Family Letter. Have it translated into families' home languages as necessary.
- Test the Letter Generator on your computers to familiarize yourself with the tool and ensure that you have the Flash plug-in installed. You can download the plug-in from the technical support page.
- begin to use writing for daily communication with families as a tool for reflection on school activities.
- become more aware of readers' needs for clarity and legibility and how they can meet these needs.
Instruction and Activities
- Tell students "In our classroom you will be writing letters to your family about things you do in school. I'm going to write one first to show you what I mean." Think aloud: "What should I write about? Hmmm, what did we do in school today? Oh, I know, I'll write about the science actvitiy we just did before recess, when we compared different kinds of apples. I'll start by putting the date up here in the right corner and on the left side I'll write 'Dear family.'" (demonstrate on chart paper or chalkboard as you speak). "Now, that's how a letter looks. It starts with a date and greeting" (point at each again).
As an alternative, use the Letter Generator to model the parts of a lesson, and if desired to compose the first letters that students write. Finished letters can be printed and added to the Family Message Journal.
- "What are some of the things I could write about the apple activity?" Invite children to brainstorm ideas and discuss whether and why the suggested ideas are important to tell families.
- Once a number of ideas have been suggested, begin composing: "Okay, I think I'll begin with 'Today we did a science activity with apples. We observed eight different kinds of apples and cut them all in half.'" Stop and point out where you started the body of the letter, under the greeting. Continue composing based on some of the children's suggestions. Discuss what needs to go in the letter to make it clear. For example, "I can't just say, 'Each had them inside'" because someone reading your letter at home won't know what they had inside.' That's why I wrote 'Each was a different color and weight but they all had small, slippery, black seeds inside.'" As you compose think aloud about content decisions and model how to listen for the sounds in a word and invent a spelling.
- Once the message is complete tell students they will begin their own messages in their own Family Message Journals. (This could be done in a second session). Tell them what activity or experience they will write about. Something learned or read or discussed or experienced that day works well—anything can be the topic of a message. For example, they might write a response to a book read aloud.
- Once children open their journals and are ready to write, ask them how they will begin their message. "Will you write 'Dear Family' or 'Dear Mom' or 'Dear Grandma' or 'Dear [older sister's name]?' Who at home might read your message?" Ask children to write their date and greeting and then ask "What could you write next?" After a few ideas are shared ask children to begin the message. Circulate to help as needed. Notice things children have done and share them, for example, "Oh, Pat wrote 'We read a book called ____.' That's good because whoever reads Pat's message will know what it is about."
- As they write, remind children to listen for the sounds they want to write and spell it as best they can. "This is your letter with your spelling." Because children can read the messages to their families at home or tell them what the messages are about, it is okay if the spellings are not clear to families. Children will learn from this that they need to work at spelling but they will still be able to share their messages and get response. (For children whose home language is not English: They may write in English and tell their families what it says, or they may write their home language if that seems most appropriate. Families may reply in the home language if that is most comfortable and children can understand it.) Reading Rockets provides a brief overview of Invented Spelling and Spelling Development that may be useful for parents.
- As children announce they are finished, ask if there's anything they can add to make the message clearer to family members or to provide helpful detail. Suggest an example or two of such detail from your demonstration message. For example: "See how I wrote 'The school looked huge and there were hundreds of people wandering around. I didn't know how I would find my teacher but all of a sudden she found me!'" Encourage children to add at least one thing to their messages. Finally, invite children to illustrate their messages. Illustration gives way to more writing as the year goes on, but in the beginning many ideas are communicated through drawing and drawing may spark ideas for additions to the written message.
- Provide children with the Family Letter to place in their journals. Remind children that this is their homework: "Show the Family Letter and message to someone in your family who can read it, have that person write a response, and bring the journal back to school the next day."
- The following day begin with a reminder of where to place the date and greeting and where to begin the message. Then have children brainstorm ideas for the message topic you've chosen and begin writing independently. Continue to circulate to provide support, share suggestions, and recognize what children are doing that others might want to try (e.g. varying greetings or paying careful attention to printing neatly so its legible). Such support may be needed for the first week or two. After that children should be able to generate ideas and begin messages independently, though brainstorming ideas to share may continue as appropriate.
Student Assessment / Reflections
- Observe as students compose: What are they struggling with? What is getting easier? Are they using suggestions from you and other students? Are they excited about writing messages and sharing family replies?
- Review student journals regularly looking for knowledge of
- appropriate content for a message (e.g., enough detail and explanation)
- text-level conventions (e.g., letter format, style appropriate to topic)
- sentence-level conventions (e.g., punctuation, grammar)
- word-level conventions (e.g., spelling)
- topic studied or activity experienced
- appropriate content for a message (e.g., enough detail and explanation)
- Keep anecdotal notes about your observations and review of journals. Save a photocopy of a sample journal entry every two to four weeks to use for comparison and evidence of growth or need for instructional support.