Firsties Wild about Letter Writing (Plus..a sale!)

Can we all just take a moment to recognize how awesome our little learners are? Forget the test scores, forget academic buzzwords, forget the standards for a second, and think of your kids when they walked into your classroom on the first day of school. I welcomed 19 students into my class this year with a wide range of abilities. On the first day of first grade, many of my kiddos were non-readers, unable to write a complete sentence or solve a simple math problem. 

When I look at my students now, I'm amazed at their growth! As a first grade teacher, I always feel that these incredible gains are most apparent in their writing. My students started the year using guided writing activities to tell me what they, they are writing opinion pieces, reports, narratives, and - my favorite - friendly letters!

In the digital age, it can be easy for us to forget that letter writing is a life skill. I'm always sure to remind my students of this. As older students and grown up, they will be expected to write letters in many different forms. Emails, thank you notes, cover letters...the list goes on and on! I love that we are preparing them for these experiences already in first grade.

Like many of you, I use the Adams family parody to teach the five parts of a letter: heading, greeting, body, closing, and signature. We take some time to get familiar with this by labeling letters that I've written. This is an important first step! 

After some more modeling and guided writing experiences, it's time for the students to write their own letters. For day one of letter writing, we all write to the same person. This year, my students chose to write to our "next door teacher," Miss I. Again, we start with a guided writing experience to model proper format, grammar, and spelling. We then build a temporary white board word wall together to determine which words we might need while writing our letters. Then, I release my kiddos to write their own letters using differentiated writing paper

On day two, students are given more freedom...they are able to write a letter to anyone who learns or works at our school! This year, most of my students wrote to their Kindergarten teacher and told her all about first grade. I thought that was so sweet! We put all of our letters in a mailbox in our writing center (pictured above) to be delivered. Some of my co-workers take the time to write back when they receive their letters...the kids are so happy when this happens! 

Day three of our letter writing week is always my favorite. My students write to celebrities! Over the years, my kiddos have written to Taylor Swift, Hillary Clinton, LeBron James, and everyone in between. We've even had some responses from these celebrities! In fact, here is a list of famous people you can write back to who will respond. This little list is tried and true. My firsties have written to these addresses and received responses all within the past few months!

  • The President of the United States, The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, Washington, DC, 20500
  • Mickey Mouse, The Magic Kingdom, 1675 N Buena Vista Drive, Lake Buena Vista, Florida, 32820
  • Her Majesty the Queen, Buckingham Palace, London SW1A 1AA
  • Michael Jordan, Jump, Inc., 676 North Michigan Ave, Suite 293, Chicago, Illinois, 60611
  • Miss America, MAO, PO Box 1919, Atlantic City, New Jersey, 08404
  • Your Miss America State Title Holder (find your state on, then find their "Contact" link)
  • MLB teams and their minor league affiliates (Pick your team on MLB's website, then scoll down to click "Contact")
  • NFL teams (Pick your team on NFL's website, then scoll down to click "Contact")
  • Local politicians (a quick Google search will help you find an address!
For all other celebrities, I simply Google their name plus "fan mail address" and choose the most reliable address. Some celebrities have their fan mail address on their website, but I've also used On each students' letter, I place a simple note that says, "We'd love to hear back from you!" with our school's address.

The most exciting part comes next...we begin to receive letters! Look who wrote to us this year right before he left office!

Of course, I remind students that we may not hear back from every celebrity. After all they are very busy people and have many important things to do. I've found that this does not discourage my students at all. In fact, if time goes on and they haven't received a response, my students oftentimes head to the writing center and write to someone new! We send out letters to people all over the world throughout the year, and have had some great responses and new-found pen pals.

As with all writing assignments, I use a rubric to grade my students' letters. I like to differentiate my rubrics for the simple reason that my students have a wide range of ability levels. Differentiated rubrics challenge all of my students yet give them opportunities for success, no matter what level of writing they are working at! 

Check out my Differentiated Letter Writing Kit, now on Teachers Pay Teachers! This kit has made letter writing assessment so much easier for me this year. In this kit, you will find three leveled rubrics, draft letter writing papers, plain writing paper, and seasonal writing paper. Each letter writing format is differentiated to meet the needs of your students. This 56 page resource is sure to help you all throughout the school year. And...just for you, it's on sale for half off for the first 24 hours! Click here to enjoy this savings (sale ends Monday, January 30, 2017 at 3:00 PM EST).

Happy letter writing!

Local Celebrities Bring New Life to Books

Start a Celebrity Reader Program in Your School!

Celebrity Reader Miss Ohio 2015, Sarah Hider reads Stand Tall Molly Lou Melon.

As teachers, we generally have a very open love affair with books. Big books, small books, silly books, serious books, adult books, kid books...we love 'em all! 

How amazing and hilarious is this display from the Virginia Beach Public Library?!
Unfortunately, our students don't always agree. I work with children that don't have many books (if any!) in their home. They aren't read a story each night, they don't see adults modeling reading habits, they don't see reading for the life skill that it is. It's an unfortunate reality for many of today's children.

I'll never forget the moment this shocking truth hit me...I was a pre-service teacher observing in a HeadStart in inner city Pittsburgh. A brand new kiddo was wide-eyed as he experienced his first day of school. At one point in the day, he casually plucked Goodnight Moon off the shelf, and exclaimed, "What is this thing?" My heart broke as I realized this child had never come in close contact with a book before. 

Because of their lack of exposure at a young age (along with many, many other factors), a large percentage of my firsties are struggling readers. Picking up a book doesn't give them makes them feel anxious. Let's face it, deciphering the English language is hard work! It's our job as teachers to make reading as engaging and as interesting as we can so that those anxious feelings some of our students have turn into wild excitement. After all, reading books opens us up to corners of the universe we could have never possibly imagined! What a thrilling, beautiful power.

With the goal of getting kids excited about books, I started a celebrity reader program in my school three years ago. The idea was simple: At the start of the year, I'd reach out to local celebrities, asking them to come read to our kiddos and share about their job. After getting confirmations, I create a schedule for the year, making appointments with one celebrity reader a month. On the big day each month, our celebrity reads an amazing book and then answers questions about his or her job (and how it's essential to be a good reader for that job!). 

In its infancy, I could not have imagined the impact of this program on my students. Now, it's one of our most exciting days each month! We keep the identity of the celebrity reader a secret until he or she walks in the door, which really builds the anticipation. Even though the kids guess that Ninja Turtles, Bruno Mars, or Doc McStuffins are coming into read to us, they are never disappointed by our local celebrities. Kids also get an amazing real world connection; they learn about careers they may not know much about, and see how reading is important in those different jobs. 

Celebrity Reader Scrappy and his "handler" from the Mahoning Valley Scrappers read Bats at the Ballgame.

Start Celebrity Story Time in your school! 

1. First and foremost, get permission from your administrator. Your school may have rules about who can visit your school, what clearances they may need, and what times they can come in to visit. Luckily, our principal is very supportive of this program. We keep her updated of our schedule throughout the year, and run times and locations by her as needed.

2. Next, decide on the logistics. Who will the audience be? How often will celebrities visit? Where will you host your readers? What time will they visit? How long will they visit for? Our monthly Celebrity Readers visit the entire first grade (about 80 students) at once. We usually all squeeze into one classroom, but if a reader needs more space or a presentation area, we ask for permission to use our media center or high school auditorium. More often than not, the classroom works just fine. Our average reader stays for about 20 - 30 minutes. Some of our readers travel a bit further to see us, so we try to stretch their visit to make it worth their while. To accomplish this, we ask other grade levels if they are interested in a visit or have a "Celebrity Lunch" with the kids or staff.

3. The most exciting part is picking your celebrities. I promise that even the smallest of towns has a full host of local celebrities to choose from! Here are some amazing groups of people that we have had success with in the past:
  • Local News Personalities: Kids love to hear about reading on a teleprompter. These are some of the most expressive celebrity readers we have hosted!  
Celebrity Reader Derek Steyer from Channel 21 News reads Three Nasty Gnarlies.
  • Local Politicians: Politicians are always a huge hit with the kids, especially during an election year. "You're like the president of our city?! Whoa!"
Celebrity Reader County Commissioner Dan Polivka reads Duck for President.

  • Authors: Authors are always looking for schools to visit, but can sometimes come with big fees. Still, you may know of a local author who is willing to work with your students for free in exchange for promoting their book! Contact your local university...both our author visits have been from professors at my alma mater, Slippery Rock University!
Celebrity Reader Dr. Anne Slanina reads her book Annie Mouse Meets a New Friend.

  • Service Men and Women: These heroes are especially impacting around Veteran's Day. Students love to see them in full uniform!
Celebrity Reader Dr. Snyder reads his own book What is a Veteran, Anyway?

  • Athletes: It's likely that many of your students have dreams of growing up to play sports professionally. We were lucky enough to have a connection with a player for the Steelers. Not as well connected? Reach out to your local minor league team. High school athletes also make great role models. 
Celebrity Reader Mike Adams of the Pittsburgh Steelers with first grade staff.

  • Pageant Queens: As a former local titleholder in the Miss America Scholarship Program myself, I can tell you firsthand that these ladies are more than just "beauty queens." Most have platforms, or a social issue, that they are eager to spread awareness about! 
Celebrity Reader Gabriella Morando, Miss Michigan Junior High 2015, reads Chrysanthemum. 
  • Building Staff: Does someone at your building wear a different hat outside school hours? Show your students' a different side of a familiar teacher by inviting them in as a celebrity reader. The kids will go nuts! During my first year of teaching, I was still competing for Miss the end of the year, I visited my students as "Miss Clayland" instead of "Miss DePizzo." It was an amazing experience as a teacher and titleholder!
Celebrity Reader Jenna DePizzo (me!), Miss Clayland 2015, reads My Pal, Victor.

4. Once you have your list, it's time to contact those celebrities. I've found email to be most effective. Feel free to copy and paste this form email that I use for my initial contact with celebrities!

Hello! I hope you’re doing well!

I can’t believe another school year is starting up again! I am a (grade) teacher at (school) in the (district), located just outside (nearest city). I am looking for local “celebrity readers,” and thought instantly of you!

The (grade level) team is hoping to host one celebrity a month to read a book to the students. We hope “Celebrity Story Time” will not only encourage our students to read, but also show them many different kinds of jobs in the community. [Make a connection to the reader here, like this: We learn about the news and weather in first grade, and thought this would be a perfect connection.]

If it works for your schedule, we would love to have you come in one day this school year to read to our students. If you are interested, please let me know if a certain time of year works best for you. I look forward to hearing from you!

5. Then, it's time to coordinate your schedules and give further details. You may need to be flexible, depending on your reader's job. Morning might be best for a reporter, but terrible for an athlete. You'll want to be clear about the visit: How long should it last? What is expected? Are you picking out the book, or will they come with one? What topics would you like them to discuss?  

6. Before your celebrity arrives, spread the word! It's, of course, important to share the schedule with other teachers and your administration. You may also want to contact your local newspaper. Several of our celebrity readers have been featured in the local section of our newspaper!

Celebrity Reader Mackenzie Bart, Miss Ohio 2015 and ventriloquist, visit to teach about STEM.
7. Next, you'll want to make reminders. The week of the visit, send out a quick email to your staff and reader to remind them of the details of the visit. This ensures that everyone is on the same page schedule-wise. 

8. After all that planning, you're now ready to host celebrity readers at your school! Upon arrival, I send down a couple of students to greet our reader with a handshake to welcome them to our school. The celebrities get a kick out of that! Be sure to take lots of pictures, and post them to Instagram using the hashtag #CelebrityStoryTime. 

9. Be prepared to help monitor behavior and lead the discussion during and after the reading! Depending on your reader's background, he or she may not be comfortable addressing students' chattiness or other behavior issues during their reading. In addition, they might not be sure how to steer the kids into asking meaningful questions. That's where you should step in!

Celebrity Reader Miss Ohio 2015, Sarah Hider reads Stand Tall Molly Lou Melon.

10. After each visit, be sure to send thank you notes! No matter how big or small your celebrity's status, they've taken time out of their day to spend time with your kiddos and enrich their love of reading. Whether it be heartfelt thanks from the teacher, a group note from the class, or individual letters, thank yous are a must! They also help build a relationship with the celebrity may have some you'd like to invite back year after year.

How do you get your students excited about reading? Do you have a similar program at your school already? Thinking about starting your own Celebrity Story Time, but need some more direction? I'd love to hear about it in the comments! Remember to tag your photos with #CelebrityStoryTime so I can check out what's going on in your school! 

"Snow" Place I'd Rather Be Than First Grade!

I may be a bit late but...Happy New Year! I hope you had a restful, relaxing, much-needed winter break. Personally, I spent my time off wedding planning with my fiance. We are so excited for what this year will bring for us!

Coming back from break has always been hard for me...and not just because I have to start wearing real pants again. I always hit the hard realization that half of the school year is over and start to panic. Are my students halfway to their reading goals? Have I covered enough standards? Will we meet our SLO? My natural reaction is to come back in January with my eye on the prize, hitting the ground running and never looking back.
While I may have had good intentions, I was always met with resistance from my firsties. Who can blame them? They come back from break refreshed...but also wildly out of routine. This year, I slowed it down for our first couple days back, in hopes for a better transition. Check out these awesome FREEBIES for some winter fun and an easy transition back into your normal routine!
Here in Ohio, if there’s one thing I can guarantee for each January, it’s snow. Lots and lots and LOTS of snow…which makes snowmen the perfect theme for the month. We are also learning about cause and effect this month in first grade, which was the inspiration for this fun writing project.

One of my favorite snowy read alouds is Maureen Wright’s Sneezy the Snowman. In the book, Sneezy gets too cold out in the snow, and tries – hilariously but unsuccessfully – to warm himself up. Each time he tries something new to get cozy warm, he melts! This book, of course, is the perfect inspiration for cause and effect writing.

First, students build their own snowman head using a white paper bowl, a half sheet of black construction paper, and a scrap of orange construction paper. I do not provide them with a pattern for this...their snowmen turn out much cuter and more unique this way!

Next, we work together to build a “cause” list...all leading to the effect of, “My snowman melted!” We first start with the examples from the book: He drinks hot cocoa. He sits in a hot tub. He stands by the fire. We start building on the list using our own imagination. I encourage my students to think outside the box and pretend their snowman is alive, like Sneezy, Frosty, or Olaf. This gets them thinking outside the box, and also stirs scientific discussion. What makes cold things melt? Heat! What produces heat? The sun! A hair dryer! A volcano! Our list then serves as a word wall for their writing.

I then give my kiddos this simple print out of a melted puddle (get it for FREE at the link below!). Some have a blank sheet and others get a sentence starter. They have just enough room to write three to five sentences, explaining how their snowman (or snowwoman!) melted.

This brief writing sample gets them back into the swing of things without exhausting their poor little hands (or minds!). I add a few staples to attach the head to the puddle and boom! Our melted snowmen are ready to be displayed.

Looking to make your own melted snowmen? Find the freebie on my TpT HERE!

Later in the day, we eased our way back into math with this easy craftivity. Back in December, my best friend and fellow teacher down in Texas sent me photos of this beyond adorable craft that she created with her preschoolers, perfect for shape recognition. I was determined to modify it into a first grade activity!

Up to this point in the year, we have focused almost entirely on addition and subtraction skills. Adding an addition and subtraction review to the craftivity made the project perfect for first! Students sat on the carpet with whiteboards, markers, and erasers. We studied the chart, and solved each math problem to find out how many pieces we needed to make our melted snowmen. For example, we started with an easy subtraction problem to find out how many pieces of blue paper we needed (one!). Once we solved this, we returned to our seats, grabbed a blue piece of paper, wrote our names on the back, and returned to the carpet once again to solve the next fact. We then moved on to the next problem.

Breaking the project up like this gave kids a little break between each math problem. What they didn’t realize is that they were still working on their math skills while working on their melted snowmen!

Again, I don’t give the kids a pattern for this. I think their projects turn out much cuter this way! This project is the perfect way to transition into more rigorous academics, and ease the students back into routines and procedures after break.

For the full directions and easy printable guides, get the freebie on my TpT HERE!

How do you transition your students back from a long break? Sound off in the comments to share your ideas!

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