Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Hot Off the Press: Student-Created Newsletters

"A magazine or a newspaper is a shop. Each is an experiment and represents a new focus, a new ratio between commerce and intellect."
-John Jay Chapman

Authentic experience is an important element in teaching students to become good writers. In schools, many writing prompts and assignments lack meaning to students and aren't applicable to real life.

Another problem in education is keeping parents informed of what's going on in the classroom. We design awesome learning experiences, but students may still go home saying “We did nothing today.”

This year, I killed those two birds with one stone* - a student-created newsletter.

Click to enlarge - Note the level of detail in Monday
Each day, a student writes a one page summary of our day. I start at my first student and work my way down the class list alphabetically. By the end of the year, each student produces around six daily reports. Some choose to work on it bit by bit throughout the day, while others do it all at the end of the day during read aloud.

We don't have a fancy template - just a single piece of loose leaf notebook paper. Originally, I had no maximum limit, but then one student wrote four pages - front and back. After that, I implemented the "one front of page max" policy. This helped tremendously, since it forces the students to write the most important points down without too much flowery, overly descriptive, verbose, repetitive, unnecessary, and irrelevant wordy expressions of written language. (Do you see what I did there?) Identifying main points that belong in a concise summary is one of the reading standards my students struggle with, so this is a good way to give them extra and real practice by flipping it to generating a summary.

Having them write without a rubric or outline to follow also helps me to glean what the students found most valuable and engaging in class. They may quickly detail the standard math centers, but different learning experiences might be explained in more depth. If I thought something was going to be mind-blowingly cool, and it doesn't even net a sentence in the summary, I usually examine why that is. The one direction I do give was to write as if the reader had no idea what they were reading about. If we're playing Cutthroat Cornhole in class, they need to explain what the game is so the readers know what it is.

Once I have a week's worth of daily summaries, I type them into a Google Form. I don't correct any errors or add any details. I want their parents to see exactly what they wrote, so it prompts discussions at home. I work with a student's mother and she said that their family would use other students' writing to help guide him in what he should write when it was his turn. It makes them more accountable as a writer, as it is solely reflects them.

From the Google Form, Autocrat (which I set up in the beginning of the year) generates it into an actual newsletter. I didn't have to use Autocrat, but it saved me a bunch of time instead of making a copy of a template, typing, formatting, so on and so forth. I use a three column table - a column each for the day, the summary, and the author's initials. Using a table is helpful so it resizes itself automatically.

I also had Autocrat tags on the page for the date. A newsletter spanned from Friday to Thursday, so I can type them on Friday morning and not rush to get it done at the end of the day on Friday. The footer also includes my contact information, so the parents have an immediately visible reminder of how to get ahold of me, while the header has our classroom motto ("we don't make excuses, we make changes") as a constant reminder of what we stand for in our classroom.

There's a section on the newsletter of "Important Information From Mr. B" for assessment dates (and ways to prepare), special events (such as Readers Cafe), upcoming units of study, or other exciting information. Instead of sending numerous Remind messages throughout the week, I tell the parents to look at the newsletter. This forces them to look at the newsletter and hopefully appreciate their students' hard work.

A physical copy goes home with each student and it's also posted on our classroom website under the Classroom News page. This way, parents have no excuse to not see it! In the future, I think I'll include a higher-level math task related to our current unit or a discussion prompt related to our class read aloud after the "Important Information" section (if there's extra room) to help promote discussion at home.

A student-created newsletter is easily adapted for any subject area or grade level. It'll empower your students to be mini-journalists, keep your parents in the loop, and give you an inside look at what your students feel is valuable in your classroom.

As for me, volume two of the Mr. B’s Agents of SHIELD Classroom Newsletter will be hitting the stands in September. I didn't win a Pulitzer last year, but I'm holding out for one this year!

*Author's Note: If you've ever genuinely killed two birds with one stone, you have earned all of my respect.

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