Back in 2009 I stumbled upon an opportunity through Scholastic Book Clubs. They were hosting a Great Bedtime Story Pajama Drive with the folks from The Pajama Program, a non-profit organization that raises brand new pairs of pajamas for children in homeless shelters and foster care. Scholastic was challenging classrooms to gather pajama donations and promised to match each pair with a bedtime story.
As it so happened, my eighth grade language arts class was about to embark on a letter writing unit – one that never seemed interesting to the kids (who writes letters anymore?!). The goal of the unit was for students to master the art of both a business and friendly letter, taking an appropriate tone and format with each. I decided to use The Great Bedtime Story Pajama Drive as our inspiration for writing letters and we set to work. I began the unit by showing students this video of Oprah interviewing The Pajama Program Executive Director. After watching, the ninety total students I had that year, set a group goal of 200 pairs of pajamas, agreeing that they could each find a way to get two or three pair from friends or relatives. We also brainstormed ways to tell the school and local community about our mission. Of course, the kids came up with better ideas than I had ever anticipated.
1. Write letters to local businesses asking them for donations. If they could not contribute products, would they be willing to keep a collection box and advertisement for our project in their space? These letters were the foundation of our business letter unit. The students learned the parts of the letter and worked in groups to polish them before sending them out. Students were invested because they had a real audience and a real mission!
2. Create videos to show the other kids in school and put on our classroom website. This was an unexpected treat for me! I was able to use this opportunity to teach the kids about using images and sound to create mood and tone. We studied other commercials for persuasive effects and experimented with them in our own ads. The students voted on their favorite video and it became the basis of our campaign. Check it out here!
3. Students wrote friendly letters to distant relatives and drafted a paragraph for their Facebook pages and to email out. We were able to talk about how the voice of these letters would be different than that of our business letters.
4. The class kept our community up to date on our total pajama donations through our classroom website. Updates were written by groups of students. Again, they were so much more invested in the writing process when they knew their work would be read by someone other than me 🙂
5. Lastly, the class wanted to write an article for the local paper. Students agreed that they would all write articles and we would pick our favorite to send to the paper. Again, what started as a letter writing unit had suddenly become a full blown experiment in writing for different audiences and different purposes. It was wonderful!
As the pajamas started coming in, we put them in plastic bins in the back of our classroom. The kids were excited when we reached our first fifty – 25% of the way to their goal! They were even MORE excited when stores like Carter’s and The Children’s Place mailed in gift cards and coupons, inviting us to come into the store and choose the pajamas we wanted to donate. The local Panera Bread allowed us to bring over collection boxes and agreed to hand out student made fliers with each meal.
One unexpected result of the project was the cash we received. Students in my class started collected the change from their friends’ lunch money and promised we would pool it all together to buy even more pajamas! The whole school had caught onto the PJ craze. By the end of the project, my students had managed to smash their goal of 200 pajamas. My classroom ended up covered in over 725 pairs of brand new PJs for kids in need.
So my class learned how to write business and friendly letters, the art of persuasive advertising, and how to write for different audiences and purposes. But really, they learned so much more. These students learned about the power they have when uniting around a cause. They learned that even though they are young, they have so much to offer. My students saw the power of social media and communication for something other than entertainment, and they made connections with their larger community. The group of kids that rose to the challenge of this project will forever have a special place in my heart. They taught me something too – to never underestimate what our students are capable of achieving. They will surprise you every time…