Every Teacher Needs a “Why I Teach” Binder

Reading notes from my current and former students is an instant pick-me-up

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Do you have special notes, drawings, letters or small trinkets that students have given to you over the years?

About two years ago, I finally decided to keep track of those treasures by putting them into a box. However, the box took up so much space in my closet (read this post) that I finally decided to recycle a three-ring binder that I no longer needed for the purpose of holding all these reminders of “why I teach.” I transferred all those loose notes and other gifts into plastic page protectors and then placed all of those into the binder.

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It’s a blessing when students take the time to write a note!

My “Why I Teach” binder is a better solution than that old box; it’s easy to find and doesn’t take up much space since it stores alongside all my other notebooks.

I absolutely love pulling that binder from the shelf every so often for the instant boost it gives me.

Reading the notes and cards and letters from former and current students is such a gift.

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Gifts such as this Christmas tree ornament store nicely in a page protector.

At the end of a particularly long day or week, flipping through my “Why I Teach” binder provides a brief moment of quiet reflection, where I can recall those students who are now in high school or beyond… those students whom I had the pleasure of knowing during their middle school years, which are arguably the toughest years of anyone’s life.

Reading my students’ ideas, their thoughtful gratitude, and their humor brightens my day.

It doesn’t just remind me why I teach, but proclaims it!

 

Where have all the “thank you” notes gone?

Here’s what happened the first time I taught the “thank you” note

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Okay, where are the thank you notes? Who said they were no longer necessary? Someone must have, because I often don’t receive one anymore. And it’s not as if I’m expecting one, but I would like to at least know that the gift I shipped was received. Unfortunately, sometimes I never find that out.

So, to counter this trend, last year I added thank you notes to our project list for writer’s workshop.

Here’s the background on how I have done writer’s workshop in my class for the past two years:

I have only done this structured form of writer’s workshop during the first and second quarters of the school year. I gave students a list of 8-10 projects from which they could choose to work on during dedicated workshop time. They were required to choose six projects from this list and complete the projects in any order they chose. There was a writing process to follow for each project. The process included:

  • writing a first draft
  • collaborating through peer response to the first draft
  • revising, editing, and then generating a second draft
  • receiving my feedback on their second draft
  • making final revisions and edits, and then generating a final draft.

At the end of the workshop period, usually the end of the quarter, students turned in all projects andaccompanying paperwork (prewriting, previous drafts, etc.) inside a two-pocket folder. Writing projects included poetry, how-to and/or listicle blog posts, academic essays, contest essays, arguments, short stories, and thank you notes. 

At the beginning of the school year, I bought a few boxes of thank you notes students could use for their notes. They were to write a short (one- to two-paragraphs) note to someone they knew, thanking them for a gift, their friendship, or their help. I asked them to draft out what they planned to write on a sheet of notebook paper, and for this project only, submit that to me as their first draft.

Unfortunately, the thank you note project didn’t go as well as I wanted. Here’s why:

  • Kids tended to rush through this project because they knew it was one they could complete more quickly than the others.
  • Nearly all of my kids didn’t have any idea where to put “Dear Mom,” or “Yours truly,” on the card. I should have spent an entire class period practicing filling out a note card. See the photo below as an example of how kids simply didn’t know how to fill out a note card.

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  • Some of the writing was very personal. Some were so personal, in fact, that I didn’t feel comfortable reading them. Once this happened a few times, I simply asked students to show me their drafts on notebook paper. Then, due to the personal nature of some of the writing, I would skim the notes for mechanical errors instead of reading them carefully for content. Then I would initial their drafts and they could then write their note on a note card. Many of the notes probably contained unclear thinking and I hope they didn’t cause confusion for the readers. My approach seemed like a very lame way to handle the project; however, I just didn’t feel comfortable critiquing such personal messages.

So for the school year that starts in August, I’m undecided about how to teach students to write a thank you note. I think it’s a valuable skill, but I clearly need to take a different approach to it based on my experiences last year. Here are a few things that may help:

  • Perhaps dedicating an entire class period to the basic format or layout of a note card would be sufficient.
  • Also, maybe it would help if, instead of having students write their drafts on notebook paper, I provided a template cut to size so they could practice writing it on the space provided. Transferring their note from a full sheet of paper to the dimensions of a standard-size note card proved difficult for them last year. In fact, from my own experience, I know that figuring out where the words will be placed and where I’ll put any hyphens and such helps me create a more attractive, well-written note. It just makes the note look more planned out, more intentional.
  • Encouraging students to slow down with this project. Just because it’s only a paragraph of writing doesn’t mean it should be done carelessly.
  • For next year, I may also require them to write their thank you notes in cursive. They need to know that many readers will keep their notes as keepsakes and will want to read them again. Writing in cursive will make their note more formal and meaningful.

I’m interested in your ideas. Do you teach traditional letter writing or thank you notes? Do you think this is an important skill or one that may as well be done on a laptop? Leave a comment and let me know!


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