Writing reflective letters

Metacognition is thinking about thinking and it is tough. Even for us. Why do you like chocolate-chip cookies? Because we just do. Have you ever analyzed why? It is difficult to separate the feelings from the facts, the important from the unimportant, the explanation from the gibberish in our heads. It’s even more difficult to explain or write why we’re thinking what we’re thinking in a way that academics value.

What I’m recommending on this page goes way beyond assigning work. I’m talking about using class time to walk down in the mine to help the children separate the gems from the dirt, what’s valuable from the imposter, while working side by side. I do that with talk, structured conversations, crafted carefully around gentle guiding questions that challenge students to move to the deep levels of thinking required of them.

New Year - time to look back

Midquarter or midyear is a hopeful time for students to self-assess everything they've written. They can still act to impact the outcome. I structure the reflection projects differently, of course, depending on grade level, assessments, and curriculum. I liked the project I designed this year and I will detail it here. Although it was written for fourth graders studying narrative writing, the steps could be used in any content area and any grade level.

I began by telling the students the genre and the audience: write a letter to someone who cares about their progress in school. They gathered their daybooks, works-in-progress folders, portfolios, and tests. They selected a cozy place in the room to spread out everything.

First, they reread their daybooks leisurely and flipped through their portfolios and tests. Children leaned over to one another, pointed out observations, and laughed at how inexperienced they were in the beginning of the year. By giving them this time, the children saw a broad perspective of their work over time. They recognized improvements, reconnected with pieces they were going to finish but didn’t, made comments about what they’re good at and what to work on, and shared memories triggered by the entries and projects.

Beginning reflection

I gave my students a checklist to structure their walk through their writing folders, assignments, and daybooks. I thoughtfully designed questions so that they would reflect on their process and their progress in narrative writing. I purposefully gave them most of the time at the beginning to reread and think unencumbered by a lot of notetaking. Therefore, the answers to the questions were simple, yes or no in most cases.

  • Can you improve your writing of narrative stories?
  • Are you able to find topics on which to write?
  • Are you selecting interesting topics?
  • Are you prewriting in a way that suits you?
  • Are you able to stretch the “lean-in” moment of your story to your satisfaction?
  • Are you showing the reader the organization of your story by using paragraphs?
  • Are you revising?
  • Are you writing a personal project?
  • On what page in your daybook did you try something that was challenging for you?
  • Is your daybook (writing notebook) organized so that you can find things?

Deepening the reflection

The next day, I asked them to talk to one another and evaluate their work once again. This time, they organized their notes into four categories. Not only did they write general answers but they found evidence as well. They looked back at their yes-no responses from the day before for help. In addition, they sticky-noted evidence in their daybooks and on other papers and jotted notes on their prewriting page.

  • How has your writing improved since August?
  • What do you think you need to work on?
  • What 3 goals will you work on achieving by the end of the unit?
  • What 3 goals will you work on achieving by the end of the quarter?

Finally, I asked them to write a letter to their “someone”– the person who cares about their work and asks about how they‘re doing in school. We planned to photocopy the pages: one for them, one to deliver, and one for their portfolio.

As you can see from the letters below, the students are writing their own personal goals – the same comments I used to write on their papers. I used to sit at home and write comments on papers that often went unread. Now, my writers tell me what they will do. It means more to them when they make the discoveries. I’m now their coach, assisting them with those goals, not the teacher with the red pen. I’m excited too that I’m not spending hours writing the comments; they are:

"I still need to work on a few things. I need to work on organization. One of the things in organizing is paragraphs. As you can see, I am using paragraphs now [as a I write this letter] but I didn’t put them in my stories because I didn’t learn them yet. I also need to put quotes around the words when someone talks."

"The goals I will try to use for the rest of the quarter is bring my daybook home to write 10 mins., take notes on every lesson and try something new. I will do an awesome job."

"I have got better in writing. 3 thing I need to work on is my spelling and writing neter and period I have not used periods in a long time."

"There are 3 goals that I will work on. One of them is write 1 to 1 and ½ pages next time because I’ve been writing shorter stories. The other one is I need to put more action in my story because my teacher has been looking at my storys and every time she meets with me she says can you please put more action in your story. Next but not least is my other one is write a beginning, middle, end and especially end because I do not write whole stories to the end."

NEXT: Final Tips


4 questions

I asked the students to think about 4 questions:

  • What are you doing well as a writer?
  • What do you need to work on?
  • What goals can you set so that you will improve your project for this unit?
  • What goals can you set so that you will improve as a writer by the end of the quarter?

A resource for people passionate about helping students write well, compiled by Karen Haag


Copyright 2018 by Karen Haag

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