Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

The Dead Letter Classroom

In November, my high school daughter had an experience that changed her life. At the Journalism Education Association/National Scholastic Press Association fall high school journalism convention, Alison went by the University of Missouri (Mizzou) booth and spoke with an actual college professor about Mizzou's journalism school. Up until this point, and even though two of my cousins are J-school grads, Alison hadn't ever considered Mizzou. She thought it too big, too impersonal. Meeting that professor changed Alison's mind. She came home clutching the professor's business card, which Alison said the professor had retrieved just for her. As in, the professor hadn't just been handing out business cards willy-nilly to everyone. She'd even told Alison to contact her personally if she had future questions and that she hoped to see her in April at the Scholastic Journalism Day held on Mizzou's campus.

Impressed, I suggested to Alison that she needed to send the professor a handwritten thank-you card. Alison enthusiastically agreed with my etiquette advice. I thought no more about the matter until my daughter came downstairs later with three different drafts and admitted she had no clue what to say or how to write it. While she's written tons of essays and can analyze literature, a simple thank you card—one that really meant the world to get right—had her flummoxed. Not one class had ever taught her how to write a simple letter. In fact, inside the school walls, letters are pretty much dead.

In our haste to have students prep for standardized tests, English education has left behind a very important area: writing the letter. My daughter has had only honors-level English classes, so maybe the curriculum writers simply assumed students will know what to do if they need to write and send a snail mail letter. Maybe the school assumes that letter writing will be taught at home, which is what I ended up doing with Alison. However, both of these assumptions are wrong and need to be addressed.

Our students must learn to write letters. If we are teaching them to write for a purpose, than writing for an actual real-world audience cannot be forgotten. When I taught eighth grade my students wrote letters. They could write their state representative or senator, their U.S. senator or representative or the president. They could also write a company to praise or complain, or they could write a letter to the editor. They learned how to take a position and how to break up their thoughts into cohesive paragraphs. They had to edit and revise for grammar and punctuation—letters must be error-free.

I also taught them how to address an envelope and how to type a letter in a simple business format which basically kept everything on the left margin. I even showed them how to put on the stamp, for really, very few had done that before. Then we mailed them off and waited. The fun part was when they began to receive letters in return, in their mailbox at home. Companies mailed them coupons for free things. Political figures sent actual letters, not just form replies.  The kids loved it.

Letter writing remains important. Just because we send instant messages does not mean that letters have died. We can relate this to journalism, Alison's current career choice. People falsely assume that because newspapers are folding that journalism is dead, but it's not. The way the news is distributed is changing, but we will always have a need for news and those who can report it.

The same is true for letters. Letters are alive and well; they just may be sent over email instead of through the U.S. Postal Service. Businesses still want cover letters with resumes, although they may request them as uploaded files. College admissions offices still want letters of recommendation—either uploaded or snail mailed.

No one wants a condolence tweet—sending a letter or a card says you cared to spend more than five seconds. Letter writing shows that you expended valuable energy—that the words and subject matter were important enough that you took time out of your day to jot them down, address them, and send them. Kids should still give grandma that thank you card. In the political world letters remain very important. I just sent my state representative a long discourse via email, and received an invitation to talk to him over the phone about my concerns.

We do our students a disservice if we don't teach them how to communicate. Letters are a way to gain what we want. They are a way to spread cheer and kindness. They are also a way to teach students how they must communicate differently depending on their audience, and that well-written letters are a way to set themselves apart. I got a letter recently from a company whose writer forgot to take out the field "insert middle name here." I found it rather embarrassing and unprofessional on the company's part. Do we really want to degenerate to sloppiness and 140-character communication as standard? So much of our shared history was immortalized through correspondence. We must teach our students the value of letters and why they must care enough to write them.

In April, my daughter Alison will attend Scholastic Journalism Day. In her thank you to the professor, Alison told the professor how much she appreciated the conversation they'd had and that she was looking forward to seeing her again in April. You can bet when they do meet up, that professor will remember my daughter and the fact that she cared enough to write a note.


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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Look for an upcoming Christmas-themed book from St. Martin’s Press later in 2014. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday December 7th 2010, 7:31 AM
Comment by: Herb B. (Ruidoso, NM)
Students studying with you, Michele Dunaway, are receiving a gift. They will be rewarded many times over throughout their lives.
Not only does assembling the letter benefit the written work it helps organize complete thoughts during casual conversation or formal presentations to relate to an audience of one or many.
Tuesday December 7th 2010, 3:57 PM
Comment by: JoAnn Wesley H. (Naperville, IL)
I think the art of the personal note is one that is important to teach. In business and in my personal life, I am always touched by a personal handwritten note. A friend of mine has a business that will send out cards to clients for professionals who precieve they do not have time to generate a personal handwritten note of appreciation or encouragement. I think the idea that recieving something in the mail that is not a bill or advertising is good, but for myself...I would prefer a simple thank you to a computer generated card sent out by a service.

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