Published Online: November 23, 2010

How My Middle Schoolers Leave a Legacy

For students in upper elementary and middle school, starting off in a new grade level can be daunting. Unless you’ve had one of the teachers before, it can be intimidating trying to learn the culture of each new classroom. One way to ease the transition is through the use of student voices to help guide the newbies in learning "the lay of the land." In my classroom, we capture those voices through "legacy letters," which students write as our time together draws to a close.

Part of the purpose of writing a legacy letter is for outgoing students share the wisdom that they've gained throughout the school year. We talk about how to structure the letter so that it will be most helpful: Should the letter tell the newbies what to avoid, what to do, or the process of becoming a good student in that grade? So many choices! Over the years, most students have preferred to write a legacy letter that lays out options. Students bring up what they remember about the letters they read at the start of school and may comment on why it was helpful.

New students to the grade level are hungry for information. How do you hand in a paper? How do you get your locker open and get to class on time? What’s the best lunch line so you get seated quickly? What should you do if you miss doing your homework and you need to actually talk to the teacher? To help spark the writing process, I think it’s wise to make a laundry list of things students think would be of interest to the newcomers.

I project scanned copies of the previous year’s letters and remind the students of what they thought were the most useful hints back in August. We talk about why this was a good letter: Was it because of the style the student used to write the letter, the advice he or she gave, or maybe both? Usually hindsight is 20/20 and students see the wisdom in the hints that were offered by their "elders."

Another conversation helps them dissect how to take their own experience and make it more understandable to an incoming student. For example, Angie wrote that "you need to make sure you always have a positive attitude in math class." The class discusses what they think an incoming student would think this means—perhaps that you should always smile and think good things will happen. That’s very different from what my students think it means by the end of the school year. We talk about how the hint could have been written to say something more like:

Math is hard. That’s OK because you will learn how to learn. Sounds like a funny thing…I thought so too. Keeping a positive attitude means, in this class, to not give up, keep trying, and ask questions about how to do specific things. If you don’t get it, go in for extra help because the teacher will help you figure things out and then you can be smart in class.

Armed with a hefty list of potential topics, I have students pick three to five questions they’ll tackle in their letter. We usually frame this as "My Top (#) Hints to Being Successful in this Grade/Class/Subject." On a brainstorming graphic organizer, students come up with all the things they think are most important for answering a particular question. Once the answer list is completed, they can exchange it with another student to get some feedback—asking the peer editor to rank the suggested hints. Pairs discuss the rankings and then the letter writer makes a final decision about the best answers for each question.

Writing the letter is easy from here. It’s a matter of taking the top hints from the brainstorming list and making complete, coherent sentences. And then molding those sentences into paragraphs that help the incoming student and offer specific actions or steps to take in order to become successful.

Some of my favorite advice includes: "Don’t worry, you can do this class. But you have to try. Not like you used to try in elementary…in middle school trying means you actually have to think about things!!!" Or, "The best lunch line is always the one that is on the far side of the lunchroom. It moves the fastest because fewer people line up there. It will take you longer to get there, but it will be worth it when you are checking out ahead of all the kids that picked the closest line." Who knew such pearls of wisdom were waiting to be harvested?

At the start of the next school year, I share these letters with the incoming students. It works to pass them around—up and down the aisle or as students sit in a circle. After everyone has read through the letters, I ask them what they thought was the most valuable hint that was shared and why. I also tell them you’ll remind them of their choice in May, when they will write their own legacy letters.

My newest improvement to this project is to add snippets from the letters onto my class Web page, under Hints and Tips. Sometimes, the hints I thought would help students actually help parents more than the newbies themselves. It’s important to ask students if you can publish their letters' content and then give them credit under their first name. Most are only too happy to share their ideas and advice.

Legacy letters have helped my students understand the culture of my specific classroom and the school in general. It’s a project that’s terrific for those last days of school—and it really does lend a helping hand to next year’s kids. When fall comes, most of my newbies let me know that the Legacy Letter Project is worth our time and effort because it makes them feel better about things. They realize, as they read the letters, that other kids have felt just like they do—and that one day soon, they will be the experts.

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