community · letter writing · writing workshop

Thoughtful Third Grader: Building Relationships Through Writing

Inside my classroom on a Monday morning, I hear my third graders out at their lockers, buzzing, “Who is the Thoughtful Third Grade?” They look on the wall and see the lucky student’s name, picture and acrostic poem hanging up. Another third grader will have the spotlight this week!

An elementary school day is chock full of curricular mandates, push-ins, pull outs, assemblies, special celebration days and more. Teachers have to multitask and teach lessons that serve multiple purposes. I’ve found a way to build in shared writing and letter writing each week while also building relationships and community in my classroom. It doesn’t take a lot of time but it’s been having a positive impact in my classroom. I’m calling it “Thoughtful Third Grader” and it was inspired by a fourth grade teacher in my school who told me about her “Fabulous Fourth Grader” activity. While those ideas were in my mind, in a different school,  my son had the chance to be a spotlight student in his first grade class. He came home with a binder of letters his friends wrote to him. What an absolute treasure to have this collection of kind notes from his classmates. I began to see how spotlighting one student a week could be a way to get to know my students better, build community, and deepen my instruction. I decided to give it a shot with my third grade students this year.

Early in the school year, we read books about names, including Thunderboy Jr. and Alma and How She Got Her Name. Students wrote to their families about their names in their Family Dialogue Journal. Then, each student made an acrostic poem using their name. Each Monday, when I select a new student to be our Thoughtful Third Grader, I hang up that child’s acrostic poem and his or her picture in the hall. The students are eager to find out who we are celebrating that week and they know they will all get a turn.

  • On Monday, the Thoughtful Third Grader selects a cheer from a box of cheers I’ve collected (from Dr. Jean Feldman) and we cheer for that child.  I also greet that child first in our Morning Meeting and the child begins the greetings with the class.
  • On Tuesdays, the class interviews the Thoughtful Third Grader. The student sits in a special ottoman and calls on classmates who ask questions such as “What is your favorite activity?” or “When is your birthday?” I take notes as the child answers the questions. Sometimes I make a web or boxes and bullets. I am modeling how to organize information and share this with the students.
  • On Wednesday, we look back at our notes from the interview and we do a shared writing activity to create a paragraph about our Thoughtful Third Grader. I’ve been able to explicitly talk about indenting, organizing ideas, topic sentences, detail sentences and closing sentences while we compose our paragraph. I think students are getting a much richer understanding of what paragraphs are and how they work by this weekly modeling and composing together. I’ve shared how writers vary the way they begin sentences to make the writing sound more interesting. As we continue doing this activity, I can teach more craft moves.
  • On Thursday, the Thoughtful Third Grader selects a picture book he would like me to read to the class.
  • Finally, on Friday, each student writes a “warm fuzzy” note to our Thoughtful Third Grader saying something kind about him. I write one as well. We put all the letters together in a stapled book which the child takes home. Additionally, I send home the acrostic poem, the photograph, and the paragraph we composed together.

This simple weekly activity serves a few different purposes. Students have an audience for the acrostic poems they created since their poem is highlighted all week in the hallway. The class engages in listening and speaking skills by interviewing the student and they watch me organize information to use later for our writing. The shared writing allows me to explicitly teach them steps to composing a paragraph and ways to make it more interesting. We reaffirm that we are a community of readers and writers by reading the book the student selects. Books that are not always on my radar have the chance to get read, which is another benefit. Finally, by writing a letter to the Thoughtful Third Grader each week, students practice purposeful writing and learn that writing can be used to uplift others and show appreciation. Each student leaves with a book of authentic and kind compliments about who they are as a person. I know I’ve often looked back at the kind notes others have written me, especially during difficult times in my life. Having a book of specific and kind things is a gift we can give our students through this activity.

Making some time and space in the day to celebrate a student each week has enriched my class as readers, writers, and human beings. How do you use writing to lift up the students in your class?