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Origami Letter Project for Universal Letter Writing Week

origami letter project

Universal Letter Writing Week 2013

This week, my math classes are celebrating Universal Letter Writing Week.  Universal Letter Writing Week takes place during the second week of January.  I had originally wanted to make this a student council project.  My student council officers, though, were less than thrilled with the idea of setting up a letter-writing station in the cafeteria during lunch.  I still wanted to do it, though, so I’m kinda forcing my own students to participate.

They’ve been begging me to do origami ever since they returned from Christmas Break to find new decorations hanging from the ceiling.

sonobe unit origami octahedron hanging from ceiling in math classroom.

My sister actually made these origami cubes and colliding cubes and the octahedron in the picture above in math class in junior high.  Over Christmas Break, she was cleaning her bedroom and found them.  We decided they would be the perfect thing to hang in my classroom.  Now, all of my students want to make them.  The only problem is, I don’t know how.  And, I still have many more units to teach this semester.  I think this may be a perfect project for my students after they take the EOI in April. 

So, with origami on the brain, and Universal Letter Writing Week in mind, I decided to have my students write letters on colored sheets of paper. On Tuesday, I had them choose a teacher to write to.  Today, I had them choose a school employee who was not a teacher.  This profession is often a thankless one.  I know how much it means to me when I receive kind words or a compliment from a student.  Knowing that one’s work is noticed and appreciated is energizing.  I truly treasure the letters that students have written me.  

After writing our letters, we folded them into a basic origami envelope.    

This is Tuesday’s batch of letters from my students to various teachers.  Aren’t they just so beautiful? 

stack of origami letter envelopes.

Aren’t they just so bright and cheery looking?  I can’t help but smile when I see this picture.  Some of my students were disappointed that they didn’t turn out looking like a typical envelope.  But, I just loved seeing the stacks of colorful, uniform letters that were just waiting to be opened and read.  I loved delivering them and seeing the surprise on the faces of the recipients.   

I’ll be honest.  This did eat up much more class time than I expected.  We have 50 minute periods, and the first letter we wrote took about 15 minutes of class time to write and fold.  On the second day, the students were already familiar with the process, but, it still took 10 minutes of class.

Losing class time did make me uneasy.  My students are years behind in mathematics, and time is a precious commodity.  When I look at all of the standards that I have yet to even introduce, I start to enter panic mode.  Believe me, that is not a good place.  Worrying doesn’t do my students or me any good.

Looking back, I am proud of this project.  I am proud of the fact that I did something that benefited both my students and my coworkers.  My students got the opportunity to say thank you to someone who has made a difference in their lives.  Those I work with got to read those two words that they do not hear often enough.

A mentor of mine encouraged me to look for opportunities to be a catalyst of change in my school district.  This project was a step in that direction.  A step towards making the school I work for a better place for teachers and students.  I’ll never know the magnitude of the impact that these letters will have on their recipients or their senders.  But, I can hope that they encourage my coworkers to give these students their all every single day.  Because whether we hear the words “thank you” or not, we are making a difference.  The time I have with my students is too precious to waste.  It is time to support them, inspire them, encourage them, prepare them for the future, remind them that they are cared for, and teach them some math, too.

This is definitely a project that I want to become a yearly tradition in my classroom.  (And, even if my students weren’t learning any math during the process of writing these letters, it was still educational.  We discussed where to put the comma in the salutation of a letter and how to spell various words.  I even fit in some geometry vocab while explaining the steps to folding the origami envelope.  It got my students writing and thinking, and I believe those are both things my students don’t spend enough time doing right now.)      

Universal Letter Writing Week 2014

(Originally Published January 17, 2014)

I don’t think it’s any secret that I LOVE holidays.

date written on dry erase board as a math problem.

Every day, I look up a weird and wacky holiday that is celebrated on the current date to share with my students.  My kids love this.  And, almost every day, I have at least one student ask me if it is really that holiday.  Some of them seem to think that I just make up something each day for the holiday.  Uh no.  I look up the daily celebration online.  Someone who is way more creative than me has invented these holidays!

Yesterday was “National Nothing Day.”  Of course, I had this written on the board.  This led to this conversation:

Student: Oh, it’s National Nothing Day.  Does that mean we don’t have to do anything today?
Me: Ha. Ha. No.
Student: Well, you’re not in the holiday spirit today!

I may not have let my students celebrate National Nothing Day in the way they wished, but we have been celebrating this week.  This is my second year to celebrate Universal Letter Writing Week with my students.  This is one of those things I do that is not mathematical.  It isn’t tied to any standard or mathematical practice.  There are several reasons that I have my students participate in this celebration.

1.  I treasure the notes that students have given me.
2.  I absolutely love getting mail.  And, I know I’m not alone in this.
3.  Teaching is often a thankless profession.
4.  Writing letters gets students writing.  Writing is ALWAYS good.
5.  Writing letters of thanks to teachers and staff members is even better.
6.  Origami envelopes are fun to fold.  And, they look so cute all stacked together.
7.  Colored paper makes my day.
8.  From last year, I know just how much these notes mean to the recipients.
9.  I firmly believe that this project leads to a boost in staff morale.

This does take away from instructional time, but I’ve weighed the pros and cons.  And, in my case, the pros far outweigh the cons.  The project starts out with lots of colored paper.

colored paper laying on desk in classroom.

We celebrated Universal Letter Writing Week for 3 days.  On Day 1, students were required to write a letter to a high school teacher.  On the Smart Board, I typed up the name of every single teacher that students could pick from.  I intentionally left my name off of the list.  This week was not about me getting letters.  It was about encouraging those around me.

stack of origami letters in math classroom.

On Day 1, students take the longest time to choose who they are writing to and actually write their letters.  I had to talk a lot about how to write a letter.  Do you put a comma after dear?  How do you spell “sincerely”?  What should I say?  Once everybody had finished their letter (10 minutes or so), I walked students through the steps to fold an origami envelope.  I modeled this under the document camera.  (I love that thing!)  It probably took us about 5 minutes for everyone to fold their envelope.  The origami folds are not hard at all.  But, for students who are unaccustomed to following directions, it can be a real challenge!

Last year when I did this project, I had several teachers who did not receive a single letter.  I felt terrible about this, and I did not want it to happen this year!  To keep this from happening, I highlighted the names of all the teachers who had received a letter after each class period.  Students didn’t have to pick from the unhighlighted names, but I encouraged them to write a letter to one of the teachers who wasn’t highlighted if they could.  Every teacher got at least two letters.

On Day 2, I gave the students a list of people who work in our school that aren’t teachers.  This included the principal, the librarian, both secretaries, the counselor, the janitor, the two cafeteria ladies, the IT guy, the superintendent, the secretaries in the superintendent’s office, and the ladies who work in our Indian Education Program.  I sat a Smart Board timer for 5 minutes.  When the timer went off, students had to fold up their letter.  Afterwards, we jumped into the day’s lesson.

On the third and final day, I gave students the option to write a letter to whomever they wished.  I told them that if I knew the person, I would gladly deliver their letter for them.  But, if I didn’t know the person, they would have to deliver it themselves.  Again, I sat the timer for five minutes.  Some students wrote to classmates.  Others wrote to teachers.  Still, others wrote to family members.  Some students even took this as an opportunity to write me a sweet note.  That made me smile!    

What made me smile more was the look on people’s faces when I got the chance to deliver their letters.  Many teachers remembered the project from last year, so their faces immediately lit up upon seeing a familiar-looking stack of letters in my hand.  Helping make other people’s days makes my day.  Delivering letters is easily in the top 5 things I get to do during the school year!    

Some of my students insisted on delivering their own letters.  This was perfectly fine.  By the time I delivered the rest of the letters to one of our English teachers, she had already been touched by the notes students had written her.  She thanked me for doing this activity with my students, and she emphasized how much it meant to her.  Our FACS teacher also pulled me aside to tell me how much the notes meant to her.  The expression on our janitor’s face when I handed her a stack of 8 or so letters was priceless.  

Yesterday, as I was leaving school, I saw that our counselor had changed the message on the dry erase board outside her office.  If this message doesn’t demonstrate the power of having your students write a single letter, I don’t know what would.  If you can’t see it, it reads: “Dear Students, Thank you so much for my letters!!  They made me cry–and I will cherish them forever!  Much love to you all!!”

Thank you note on dry erase board for origami letters.

I realize that as I write this blog post, Universal Letter Writing Week is almost over.  You don’t have to have a holiday as an excuse to have your students write letters, though.  I truly believe that this project will not only change your students’ lives but your life and the lives of all those in your school as well.  Words are powerful.  Too often, my students only use their words to put others down.  Through these letters, students practiced saying thank you.  They practiced showing appreciation.  They practiced gratitude.

Universal Letter Writing Week 2016

(Originally Published January 12, 2016)

Friday, we participated in one of my favorite activities of the year:

Universal Letter Writing Week

I started this tradition during my first year of teaching.  I was researching ideas for student council when I came across the fact that the second week of January is Universal Letter Writing Week.  I excitedly began envisioning tables set up in the hall with letter writing materials.  My student council kids were not impressed with the idea.  So, I decided I would make universal letter writing week happen in my classroom instead.

Origami Envelopes for Universal Letter Writing Week

Universal Letter Writing Week has taken different forms in different years.  Some years, we’ve written a letter each day as a warm-up activity.  This year, I gave them the task to write three letters on a single day (and a quiz, too)!  The first letter they wrote was to a teacher in our building.  The second letter they wrote had to be to someone who works in our school that is not a teacher.  And, the third letter could be to anyone they wanted.  Some wrote letters to friends, family members, or another teacher off the list.  

I intentionally did not put my name on the list of teachers students could write to, so three students chose to write me a letter as their third choice.  I thought that was very sweet!

The best part about letter writing is the origami envelope that we fold the letters in to.  This makes the letters stack really nicely to be delivered to the recipients.  Plus, my kids just really enjoy folding paper.

January is the type of month where it’s easy for teachers to get depressed and overwhelmed, and I know that a few nice, thoughtful words can make a huge impact on a teacher’s day.  I think our kids need to be pushed at times to show their gratitude.  I know many of my coworkers have kept these letters from previous years because I’ve seen them in their classrooms.  It’s always fun to deliver the stacks of letters because everyone knows exactly what they are since this is my fourth year doing this with my students.

This is the type of thing that would be great to do with students any time of the year.  It doesn’t have to be the second week of January.  Just declare it “Letter Writing Week” at your school.  Or, “Letter Writing Day.”


Saturday 9th of February 2013

You can find the how to for those sonobe hedrons on youtube! Kids love them. One of my students last year who detested math, googled how- And made several to hang upincluding one four feet in diameter! Not easy to hang. :-)


Wednesday 16th of January 2013

Hi Sarah-

I just found your blog tonight via Pinterest and I've enjoyed reading about the different lessons that you've done in your Algebra 1 class. I'm in my 8th year teaching middle school math in New York with one section of Algebra for my advanced 8th graders. Every year, I have my students write a "Goodbye Letter" to me on the last day of school. It's amazing to read the letters and see their gratitude. I'm sure you and your colleagues felt amazing reading the letters as well.



Tuesday 15th of January 2013

Hi Sarah! I am going through all of your wonderful posts and you are such an inspiration! Thank you :) I am about to student teach this semester, and just reading your posts have been so insightful. I hope you get a chance to do modular origami with your students at the end of April. (From the picture I am assuming that origami piece is a sonobe stellated octahedron) If so, I think you'll have a blast with your students folding sonobe units (they are simple origami parallelograms that fit together like little puzzle pieces) I've had the opportunity to work with middle school students at an after school math club and we've explored constructing cubes and different polyhedra using sonobe units. It has been challenging having students construct different types of polyhedra since we don't tell them how to; part of what our club promotes is having students explore on their own or with each other. (The hint is three units (parallelograms) can be put together to make 1 vertex).But many students have successfully constructed the cubes without any direct instructions (the sonobe units were prefolded for them). Thanks again and keep posting! :)


Tuesday 15th of January 2013

Having taught high school math in Oklahoma for 25 years, I am impressed by your excitement and willingness to enter a bad situation with hopes of changing the future. Sometimes, those "lost" days are worth more than the days you struggle to make a concept take on life. I love reading your blog to see what you are doing and see if I can adapt anything to my classes. Keep trying and don't get discouraged!

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