Summer’s calling, yet every year while my 5th graders are dreaming of middle school and summer vacation, my heart is filled with my future 5th graders. I’m itching to understand them and support their growth as readers and writers.
Historically, my year-end focus has been on summer reading. We send books home and make sure families know reading is a priority. And it’s paid off. The trouble has been with writing.
The majority of my students have had writing workshop since kindergarten. Still year after year, my 5th graders begin their year with me as if small moments, mentor texts, and bit-by-bit storytelling are foreign ideas. Asking students to write for more than 15 minutes is painful to watch. Every year we slowly reclaim skills and stamina. This just kills me.
Every fall I kick myself for not being proactive, so this year our 4th and 5th-grade teams got together to create a plan to limit summer writing loss. We wanted something to maintain the writing muscles and to hold students accountable for their prior learning. To work, it had to be flexible, straightforward, and fun. Nothing about it could be too “teachery.”
Two weeks before the end of school, I joined my soon-to-be students in the comfort of their current classroom. With new notebooks at my side, I called them to the carpet and complimented them on their writing accomplishments. Then, I told them about the strange thing that happens over the summer to incoming 5th graders: with a whole summer of not writing, their brains get sluggish and temporarily forget how to write. Shocking right! But this year, I told them, will be different. This year, they were going to be the first group of 5th graders to break the summer curse.
We talked about the importance of goals and the need to quantify them. Then we planned.
For each of the nine weeks of summer, I asked students to set a writing goal in terms of pages written. I asked them to turn back a corner of the page where they would meet their weekly goal and label it with the week’s number, nine in all. Watching them do this was fascinating. Some quickly determined their goals, while others thoughtfully calculated out each week. Goals are easy to make; the tough part, for all of us, is keeping them. We all need continued inspiration and support. Giving students inspiration when we aren’t there is a challenge. I thought of planting little bits of encouragement throughout their notebooks, but I wanted it to be when they needed it. We came up with a few ways to attack this problem.
First, I shared the notebook I got from Dana Murphy at the Two Writing Teachers’ NCTE dinner. I showed students the literary gifts I found within the journal as I used it. Little surprises were scattered within the pages for me to find as I used the notebook.
I asked students if they could think of words, phrases, even drawings that could do the same thing for their writing partners. After a bit of talk and charting of ideas, each student got two post-its for their words of inspiration. Every student jotted and then passed their words of encouragement to their friends. Then, I asked students to put these post its where they thought they’d need them, maybe at the beginning of a week.
Knowing my need for inspiration in the summer and even lessons to push me, I thought of Kate Messener’s book, 59 Reasons to Write. This book is a summertime, low-key teacher. Using her book as a model, our teacher team created prompts, cut them into strips of colored paper and put them into envelopes, one for each student.
After the students placed their post its, I showed them the envelope and shared how they might use it like I use Messener’s book. When you don’t know what to write, pull one and read it. If it inspires you, go for it and write. If not, put it back and try another. Some included:
- If you could have superhero powers, what would it be and why?
- What are your favorite foods? Create a menu for a restaurant that served all of these foods.
- Write about something you’ve lost.
At this point, students are clutching their brand new notebooks and begging to peek at the writing prompts. I tell them no. It’s not summer yet, so they reluctantly turned them back in.
After school, I inspect their notebooks, find how students have set goals, and I read the post-its they’ve received. From this information, I have small groups to work with during next week’s lesson when students will decorate their summer notebooks, turn in their 4th-grade notebooks, and choose the charts they find the most helpful for me to take to their new classroom.
Over the summer, I’ll send home letters with writing ideas and mentor texts. Inspired by Messner’s book each prompt includes my writing as a mentor text. You can find prompts and letters home here.
Next week, students will walk off with personalized notebooks. I know their writing intentions might be forgotten. It’s to be expected, but with a few reminders from me, and a bit of parent support, the notebook will be there to be used. Will this work? Will students come in retaining more stamina and skills than they have in the past? Some students will follow through, and some will fall short. Some will walk in empty handed. That will be an assessment in itself and guide our work next year.
Summer will happen, and if the plan works, a little writing will happen too. When fall rolls around, students will find their 4th-grade notebooks and charts in their 5th-grade classroom as reminders of where they left last year, ready to be used the first week of school.
Julieanne Harmatz teaches reading and writing to 5th-graders in Los Angeles, California. You can find her blog, To Read To Write To Be here.