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Bring Families Together With a Single Book, Part 2: The Writing Program

By Genia Connell on September 13, 2012
  • Grades: 3–5

In my last post, I showed ways I use Cynthia Rylant’s book The Relatives Came in my classroom to roll out our reading community. Since connecting reading and writing is an integral part of my balanced literacy program, this post will explore how we use the same book to gather baseline data on writing skills. The Relatives Came lends itself perfectly to a first personal narrative because traveling to visit relatives or having family come for a visit is a very easy concept for most children to grasp. As I mentioned in part one, however, you can achieve the same goals using another favorite picture book with an easily relatable theme you may already have in your classroom.

Gathering Baseline Writing Samples

Gathered on the carpet once more, we revisit the story, The Relatives Came. After a rereading, I ask students to think of a specific time, perhaps this past summer, when they traveled a long distance (more than half an hour!) to visit relatives overnight or relatives visited them. We discuss details their trip may have shared with the story, such as taking snacks in the car, having their cheeks pinched by an older relative, sharing a big meal together, and perhaps even sleeping in a crowded bed. I tell students these things are all examples of memories. Their job today will be to write a personal narrative about a favorite memory they have of a family member. The memory may or may not have occurred during summer vacation.

Dusting Off Our Personal Narrative Writing Skills

Because I want these first pieces of writing to be baseline samples that allow me to see where my students’ strengths and weaknesses lie, explicit instruction is not given before writing. Instead we do what I call “dusting off our writing skills.”

Together we generate a list of personal narrative characteristics they remember from the previous year, writing them on an anchor chart for reference. This includes writing about a "seed," or small idea instead of writing about the whole "watermelon." At this point, I tell students they are ready to write their first personal narrative of the new school year.

Students Begin Their Writing

The class goes back to their seats; I pass out lined paper; and they write for approximately 30–40 minutes. Students can choose to prewrite or not. While there is no set length requirement, I tell students to try and tell their small moment in a single-spaced page or so.  When 3rd graders’ narratives are longer than a page, they often begin to go off track and ramble, so I find limiting the length is best for everyone concerned!

Assessing Student Writing Skills is Key

To help me understand where each student’s writing abilities lie, I print off one copy of my beginning of the year rubric for each student. While I read their narrative, I highlight the individual bullet points that match their writing. For each writing trait, students will fall in the below, on target, or above target category. Students who are on target at the beginning of 3rd grade have met the expected Common Core exit outcomes for a 2nd grader. Finally, I mark the results on a data sheet I created to help me identify skill groups I will work with during writing instruction.


Other Writing Activities Related to The Relatives Came

Over the years I have done several different extension activities using this book during the week we study it. These include creating a sequential comic strip, packing an imaginary suitcase, and writing a friendly letter in the form of a vacation postcard. For the most part, these activities can be done independently during a literacy center, which allows me more time to begin working on every student’s individual reading assessments.

Packing Your Suitcase: A Critical Thinking Activity

As part of a literacy center, students must make some difficult decisions in packing an empty suitcase for their own trip to visit a relative. Students need to use critical thinking skills to decide what they would pack if they could only take five things. The companion writing piece asks students to explain their thinking in complete sentences.

This activity goes well with The Relatives Came. However, it can easily be used at any time with any book that discusses a trip or journey. It might even be a perfect addition to your folder of activities to be used when there is a substitute teacher in your room.


Vacation Postcards: Friendly Letter Writing

In this activity, students draw a picture of a place they visited during a vacation, then write out a postcard describing their trip in friendly letter format. They can either put an address in the blank section, or illustrate what they wrote. As they write, encourage students to make connections to The Relatives Came or any other book you have chosen. As an alternative, I have asked students to draw a picture of a dream vacation and describe their trip in a first person narrative. Remind students that the place they write about does not need to be an exotic vacation locale — it could easily be a trip to the local pool, the zoo, or even a really fun afternoon at a friend’s house.



The Relatives Came Family Read-Along

Every now and then you try something in your classroom that turns out so well, it becomes a tradition. The Relatives Came Family Read-Along is exactly that in my classroom — a tradition that has been bringing families together at the beginning of the school year for nearly two decades. For this event, my students’ family members secretly arrive at school with a collection of favorite read-aloud books and baskets full of snacks to share with their children. Follow this step-by-step guide to institute your own Family Read-Along:

  • As early in the school year as possible, decide on a date and time for your Family Read-Along. I prefer to hold this event the last 45 minutes of the day during our second week of school.  Friday is my day of choice because it is a nice way to conclude the week, and it seems to be the easiest day for many working parents to slip out early.
  • Send home a letter to parents/guardians explaining the details of your Family Read-Along and asking them to RSVP. Because the read-along is a secret for students, I put this note on the parent page of my class website and also slip it into the information folders that go home with all students on the first day.  As the RSVPs come in, I send parents a confirmation letter.
  • Contact a parent who will knock on your classroom door the day of the event to get it started. For those students who won’t have anyone coming, make arrangements for a familiar adult to “adopt” them. Parents will often volunteer to have one of their children’s friends join them, and staff members who are available are usually happy to help out. 

A few minutes before the scheduled start time of our read-along, I have students sit on the carpet with their backs to the door to supposedly review some of the elements of the story. I tell them to brainstorm what it would be like to have a surprise visit from relatives they had not seen in a while. We talk briefly about what kinds of foods they might eat, what activities they could do together, etc. 

About this time there is a knock on the door from a parent. Everyone turns, and I announce that it seems as if we are having a surprise visit from some “relatives.”

Just then, the relatives come streaming into the room with their baskets, many adorned with kerchiefs around their necks, clutching an armful of books. This is my absolute favorite part of the event. The class is just staring, jaws wide open trying to figure out why their parents, grandparents, neighbors, or babysitters are there and what exactly is going on. Stupefied looks turn to complete joy when they realize our visitors are going to be spending the rest of the afternoon with them enjoying a snack and a few good books. 

As you can tell, I get a lot of mileage out of a single book during my first full week of instruction. Throughout the year, I’ll be sharing more of what happens during our reading and writing workshops along with other special events or activities we do. Right now, though, it’s your turn! Do you have a favorite book that you use for multiple lessons? What fun events do you do in your classroom to bring your families together? Please share with our readers in the comments section below!

Next week, I'll share with you how you can put together an informative, stress-free Meet the Teacher/Curriculum Night that will leave both you and your parents smiling at the end of the night. 



Comments (5)

I really love this idea and would love to use it with my class. I would be very interested in seeing your sample letter, but the link is not working. Could you send me the sample letter? Thanks!

The links for your sample letter is not working. I really love this idea and would love to use it with my class. Could you send me the sample letter? Thanks, Bethany

The beginning of the year rubric for personal narative writing looks awesome! The link doesn't seem to be working. If possible, can you send it to me? Thanks in advance.

Thanks Katie! We just had our big Relatives Read Along this afternoon. the kids were so surprised and had a great time reading (and snacking!) with their families. If you give it a try, please let me know how it goes. ~Genia

These are great ideas for bringing families together. I would love to do this with my kids.
-Katie Jones

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