First Days of School Lesson: Letter to Self

Here in New York City, the students arrive tomorrow. We teach them for two days and then it’s the weekend. In some ways, it’s the perfect dose of teaching and class time for you to gauge your classes, your students, and how to best launch your first unit of study on Monday. But what do you do with those two days?

My favorite lesson was the following. It could be used for two 45-minute classes (Thursday or Friday), or, alternatively, if you teach 90-minute blocks, you could expand the writing portion to include some sort of review/revision exercise or add another reading. This lesson is meant to help the teacher establish baseline reading and writing levels for the students, but it is also your first glance–as a teacher–into who the students are in your classroom.

It could be used from 7th to 12th grade, depending on your students’ reading levels.

Reading: Sandra Cisnero’s short story “Eleven,” a chapter from her book Woman Hollering Creek.

“Eleven” is the story of an eleven year old Rachel who is in school on her birthday. A misunderstanding happens in class over a gross red sweater, the teacher bullies her into taking the said sweater, and she starts to cry. She is totally humiliated. She ruminates on age, and what it means to be 11, and how her emotions are all bottled up inside her from her 11 long years of life. The story starts with a beautiful paragraph:

What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t. You open your eyes and everything’s just like yesterday, only it’s today. And you don’t feel eleven at all. You feel like you’re still ten. And you are–underneath the year that makes you eleven (p.6).

I have the students read the story aloud in class. I popcorn around the room (meaning I have them read in no particular order so I can practice learning their names) and everyone has to read, even if at least one line. If a student does not want to read, I ask super nicely another time to read just one line, and if they continue to resist my charm I make a mental note of it, but I don’t push them on day one. I pay attention to who reads and how they read (fluency, vocabulary missed). I have questions built into the text that ask about what is happening (comprehension), about literary elements (the text is rich with them), and for text to self, text to world, text to text connections. I allow the reading to go slowly–I want to drink everything they say and do in on these early moments in the classroom.

Writing: After we finish the text (it’s the perfect length of about 3 full pages in a book), we move onto writing. The essay prompt is two-fold and a letter to themselves. It should be something along the lines of:

1. What does it mean to be the age you are today? What are your interests? What are your responsibilities? How have you changed since….(pick another significant moment in their lives here, depending on their age/grade. For example, when I did this with seniors, I asked how they had changed from freshman year.)? Who are you today? How are you feeling?

2. What will it mean with you are ___________ age? (Again, pick a significant age in the future. If they are freshman, use the age they will be when they graduate. If they are seniors, have them think about 2-4 years post graduation.) What do you want to have accomplished? What would you like to be doing? Who do you want to be as a person?

These are B-I-G questions, so give them strategies to brainstorm. Create a thought bubble for the age you are today, and have them think through what it means to be 14 years old. I model myself on the whiteboard, and it’s interesting for me, too, to see what it meant for me to be 33 versus 35 and how much my life had changed with the birth of my two kids. Talk about that–how some years of life are monumental and some seem small in comparison. Talk with them about the real stuff in your life and how that affects you as a person. That gives them permission to make this assignment real as opposed to some rote writing bologna from the first days.

Give them time to write a letter, but don’t structure it too much for them. You want to see what they can/cannot do alone. Just let them be themselves, free of the teacher’s red pen.

Give them envelopes, have them address it to themselves, and collect the letters and the envelopes. DON’T HAVE THE STUDENTS STUFF/SEAL THE ENVELOPES! I have made this mistake, and then I have to retrieve all the letters from the envelopes to read them = loads of paper cuts. After grading the letters (I usually give 100 if they do the assignment in earnest, 65 if they do a half done job, and a 0 if they do nothing), stuff the envelopes, and save these letters for as long as you’d like and then mail them to the students. When they were seniors, I’d mail them back after graduation. When freshman, I’d mail after graduation. One set I forgot about and mailed five years later; they must have gotten shoved into the back of my teacher cabinet–oops!)

When I mail them, I usually stick a note inside or scribble a note on the envelope.

The students love getting them.

I asked my students on facebook to give me some feedback on how it was to receive their letters:

Krystal said: I received it about 5 years later. When I saw it in the mail I looked at it like “what is this with my writing on it!!!??” lol. But when I opened it, I just couldn’t stop smiling because it brought me back to the day you gave us the assignment. It was great receiving it, the reason is when we wrote the letters we were all in a state of mind of exactly where we were going to be and what our lives would be like. But my letter was Way off! lol. I will look for the letter tomorrow to write you what it said. I kept all my papers from ur class and all assignments.

Kim said: Lol. I got mines. I wanted to be a radiologist. And I did start out on that path when I left high school, but the route changed. I ended up doing dentistry. I read it and smiled. That was awesome.

And, because you always have a kid like Kashmil (or kinda like him, because he is one in a million, this one): I got mine. I wanted to be a pornstar/emperor of the world and I think I drew a pornographic picture, too. Ah….the memories. (My favorite thing is that he now is working to become a teacher. Oh, Kash, karma’s a-comin’ for you!)

If you have ample technology at your school, you could use this website called where a computer sends the letter (via email) on a designated date. Pretty cool!

Welcome back to school everyone. As the librarian of my old high school posted on facebook yesterday as her status update, “One day down. 188 to go!”