The Great Author Letter Project Returns

 

author letters

What started as an “early finisher” activity for students five years ago has turned into one of my signature projects in the fourth grade. Each year, my students prepare a letter to a favorite book author as one of our first writing assignments. They start by hunting down contact information for the author (research skills!). Then, they brainstorm reasons they like a particular author and his/her book(s). We review business letter format, and the students draft a letter to the author. After editing, the students prepare their final draft, and we mail the first wave of letters.

From that first letter drop, we might receive a reply within a few weeks or wait close to nine months to get a reply. After we walk through the process of creating an author letter, students continue to write letters when they have free time. We send and receive letters all year.

wendy mass author letter reply

I wrote a post a few years ago about this project but since we received our first author reply this afternoon, I got excited and thought I needed to blog about the project again. It is one of the best ways I have found to motivate reading with my students! It is easy to write a book author, but if you want a higher reply success rate, I have some suggestions.

  • Newer authors have websites with an e-mail address and are more likely to send a personal reply.  We e-mailed Jody Feldman, Jonathan Auxier, Tracy Barrett, Erica Kirov, and a few others. In most cases, we received replies within three days.  The replies were unique and specifically responded to the letter written by the students.  Some authors even gave new book suggestions, which built excitement among the students to pick up an unfamiliar book.
  • Other authors provide a snail mail address on their website. These replies take longer– sometimes up to three months, so be patient. Kate Klise has written us back for the past four year and each letter contains different content.
  • Mega authors like J.K. Rowling and Sharon Creech are overloaded with letters and are less likely to reply to fanmail personally.  They will send a generic reply if you include a self-addressed stamped envelope with your letter.
  • If you can’t find contact information on the author website, locate a mailing address for the author’s publishing company.  Mail a letter to the author c/o the publisher.  Publishers will forward all mail to the author.  We mailed a letter to John Christopher via his publisher.  We did not realize that the author had passed away, and his daughter actually replied to our letter several months later!

To download free student materials for this activity from my TpT store, CLICK HERE.

tom angleberger letter

Writing in a Straight Line on Unlined Paper

writing in straight lines on unlined paper

At various times during the year, my students write letters using unlined school stationery. Sometimes we type the letters and run the stationery through the printer for a totally professional product, but sometimes the letters need to be handwritten for a more personal touch. When students try to handwrite lines of text on an unlined piece of paper, the words start to move down the page (or up– or become a random zig zag pattern). By the third line of text, there is no attempt at straight lines any more, and the students are just trying to get all words onto the page before they run out of space.

straight lines paper

I have a simple solution. In order to keep the words straight on the page, I use a trick I learned from the woman who helped me with my wedding invitations. Trace all of the lines on one piece of wide ruled notebook paper with a semi-heavy black marker.

straight lines paper copiesPhotocopy as many pages as you need. When students need to write straight lines on blank paper, place the photocopied lined paper underneath the unlined paper. As you press down to write, the lines are visible, so you have guidelines to keep your writing straight. My students have multiple opportunities to write on unlined paper throughout the year, so I keep the photocopied line pages and reuse them. We have an ongoing Author Letter Project, we write thank you notes to chaperones and hosts after field trips, and we have a project where students create their own letterhead and exchange personal letters with other classes in the school.

straight lines on letterhead

If addressing envelopes, cover the lines on a notecard with black pen and slide the notecard inside the envelope to create guidelines for writing an address neatly and evenly.

straight lines notecard

Sometimes, the envelope paper is thin enough that you do not need to make the notecard lines darker in order to see them through the front of the envelope. Hopefully, you can faintly see the notecard lines in the center of the envelope in the picture below.

straight lines addressing an envelopeThis is one of my favorite teacher hacks that really improve the look of a finished writing assignment without creating too much work for me. And, this tip is not just for students. It is a great trick for anyone needing to write on unlined paper.

Letter Writing

addressing envelopes

I never liked the term, “friendly letter.” When I was in elementary school, we reviewed the parts of a letter EVERY YEAR for like six years straight and then wrote pointless “friendly letters” that went nowhere. Huge snore. I disliked letter writing as a student, and I avoided letter writing activities for a long time as a teacher. Well, times change. I spend a lot of time on letter writing with my students now and here is why.

Addresses

  • Students have a hard time addressing an envelope (and I teach 4th grade where they have been doing the friendly letter drill for awhile). They are unsure about how to organize the three address lines, don’t know state abbreviations, and have trouble capitalizing correctly. When I ask students to address an envelope, they get to practice these skills. They are reminded how to write a complete name with a title (like Mrs. or Mr. or Dr.). They practice writing street abbreviations as part of the name of the street with capital letters (Center St. or Liberty Blvd.). They review state abbreviations and reinforce the comma between a city and a state.
  • If students add a return address to the envelope, they get a little extra work remembering their own address too.
  • So I am not necessarily referring to anyone I know, but for those of us who become slightly unbalanced when the address lines are all uneven on the envelope, slide a lined index card inside the envelope with the lines facing up. If the envelope is sheer enough (like a basic business envelope), you can see the guidelines when you press down to write. Your address lines will be straight and even making my the world a happy place.

Formatting

  • We usually type our letters, but I am a fan of handwritten letters too. Either way, students learn to format a letter in a logical order. There is contact information at the top, a date, and a proper salutation. Even if our students in future years are handling all communication with employers, co-workers, or clients electronically, they will still need documents formatted in an order that is easy to read. This is just a good lifeskill.  

Responses

  • If students know they will get tangible results from a project they complete, they are more likely to engage at a higher level. I have students write letters to people who reply (most of the time). In order to get a reply, my students have to communicate effectively in their letters and then address and mail it correctly. A formal letter requires full sentences, organized ideas, and a beginning, middle, and end. When we do receive a letter back, students gain experience with cause and effect– they wrote a letter asking for or providing information and received a reply responding to the content in the original  letter. 

Here are a few letter writing activity suggestions.

They are ideas that work at home as well as the classroom.

  • One of my favorite types of letters are thank you notes. The format of this letter does not have to be a full fancy business format. Casual is definitely acceptable. One benefit (among many) of the thank you note is that it requires children to reflect on something nice that has been done for them and then specifically recognize in written words why they appreciate the nice thing. I have a rating system for thank you notes on the post here.

thank you notes

  • An ongoing activity in my room is an author letter project. Students search contact information for a favorite author. The contact information could be an e-mail address, mailing address, or a publisher address. The students prepare a letter that details why they enjoyed a specific book by the author and gives reasons the book may have had an impact on the student. About half the time, we receive personal replies from the authors. You would not believe how an author reply can motivate a student to read! For more author letter tips, click here.

author letters

  • This year, students researched a state and contacted an alum from our school to ask for more information about the state and the history of our school. Again, we had about a 50% return rate. The men and women who wrote back to our students included many stories about their life at school when they were in the 4th grade. The connection to the history of the school made a much bigger impact than the rest of the state research project. I could not have replicated that by sharing something from a history textbook. The students made a personal connection with the alum. I liked that the students participated in an activity that stretched well beyond the classroom, and they created a link that was outside their everyday world. Write to a relatives or friends who live in a different town. Ask about how their life might be different from your own. It is a great way to discover old family stories or compare differences in cities, states, and regions. (Visit my teacher store to purchase the State Postcard Project).

new york reply