Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

You've Got Mail: The Art of the Thank You

In September, my younger child turned 16. The day before her birthday, I opened the mailbox and pulled out a blue envelope. Her paternal grandparents had sent her a card. Her face lit up, and not just because there was a check inside. She'd gotten mail.

The idea of "you've got mail" has evolved. No longer is it getting something with a cancelled stamp. It's often "you've got mail" means a Facebook message, text and/or an email.

As part of the letter writing my classes are doing this year, we're actually going back to the lost art of handwritten letters. Specifically, my classes are writing thank you notes and apology notes, and doing this meets four of the common core writing anchor standards (2, 4, 5, 10).  The kids bring in blank note/greeting cards, envelopes and stamps. The thank you assignment works as follows:

  1. Think about all the times you've been grateful. Who were the people involved in the event or time? Brainstorm a list.
  2. Thinking along these lines, choose one of these times. Then choose a recipient for your thank you note.
  3. Write a list of reasons you are thankful to this person. Be specific.
  4. Create follow up statements. Not only why are you thankful, but how will you change/grow/use the gift, etc.
  5. Using these lists, draft a paragraph that clearly thanks the person and tells why you are thanking him/her.
  6. Add the salutation and the closing.
  7. You now have your draft. Proofread for errors in spelling, capitalization, grammar, etc.
  8. You will transfer this letter onto your greeting card. Put the salutation in the upper left corner of the main portion of the card. Put the date in the right corner. The closing is at the end and followed by your name. You are handwriting this, so make sure your handwriting is legible. Penmanship counts.
  9. At this point you will address your envelope. Do not seal the envelope and turn in.

Most students often thank a teacher or even their parents. Some thank coaches. The apology letter is very similar—I actually have the directions on the same sheet. For this letter, students think about all the times they've hurt someone or done something wrong. (I tell them we're not asking for big item/12 step like things.) I ask them to think about the people involved. Then, thinking along these lines, students choose one of these times and choose a recipient for your apology note. Then, like the thank you note, they write a list of reasons they are sorry to this person and create follow up statements.

I offer to proof read each draft, and I mark the drafts using proofreading/editing notations. If necessary, I also discuss with each student the tone of his letter and his word choice, as the students will be scored on the following: proper spelling/punctuation/grammar/sentence structure/etc.; proper letter format; content/writing; tone/word choice; and whether it went in the mail. I actually teach students how to address envelopes because (unless their parents have had them write thank you notes) for many this is the first time they've ever addressed an envelope. I do keep a stack of blank note cards in my room for the kids who don't have them (they need to ask me privately; I don't offer) and I tell everyone they can pay me 50 cents for a stamp (I'm not dealing with penny change) if they forget to bring one on their own. (If you work in a lower socio-economic area, you may want to provide stamps.)

I do not make any marks on the item before it goes in the mail. Instead, I have a scoring guide I use and I'll make my notes on this. I call students up and have them do the final stuffing and sealing of the envelope. Don't be surprised, though, if most of the grades on these are 100 percent. If students have worked with you and shown you their drafts, there really shouldn't be any mistakes.

This is actually a pretty powerful assignment. For many students, it's the first time they've ever done this. I even model for them what a blank greeting card looks like. These are skills kids need to know, for they'll be thanking people for graduation gifts, baby shower gifts, wedding gifts, job interviews, etc. I tell my students I drop handwritten thank you notes into the mailboxes of co-workers who have helped me out. A handwritten note goes a long way, and my kids learn this, especially when they hear from the recipient. It's a practical application, a real world writing skill that lets them feel they have power over their world. That's a pretty awesome thing.


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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 4th 2012, 2:55 AM
Comment by: Hansi
That's most inspiring and do-able. Thank you sharing this teaching skill, Michele!
Tuesday December 4th 2012, 5:19 AM
Comment by: Victor G. (Vancouver Canada)
Really good exercise. There's too little focus on handwritten communication today. However, just one point: number 9. 'Do not seal the envelope and turn in.' sounds as though they're being instructed not to turn in the envelope.
Saturday December 8th 2012, 3:37 PM
Comment by: Dani L. (St James Trinidad and Tobago)
I teach and have taught drama for many years to University students in Nigeria and now in Trinidad and I always insist that they keep a "Journal": not a "Diary" as part of their 'equipment' to grow as future drama facilitators. We often begin or end our practical sessions with 'journal writing activities' - one being to list five persons who have been positively influential in their lives, and then to choose one, even if deceased, and write them a 'thank you letter' and explain why. I do not see or read these 'journals' unless we have a session where I specifically ask if anyone wants to share an item from their journal. Now you have given me an extension to this activity. Thank you Michele.
Tuesday December 11th 2012, 2:45 PM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I've been a writer for decades, but one of the hardest tasks I can remember was writing a condolence letter to someone on the loss of their parent. These types of personal letters require some of the hardest thinking about nuance and word choice, not to mention tone and content, of anything we do.
Wednesday January 16th 2013, 7:27 PM
Comment by: LEE (New York, NY)
Wonderful. One of my most memorable things cards I received on my birthday, was a handwritten note from my husband. He drew a cryptic picture, flower, or just wrote a note. He always wrote his message to me, made a paper envelope, drew the stamp in the upper corner of the folded paper envelope. and had it waiting for me when I awoke on my birthday. Now that was thoughtful.

Thanks to you, children will still carry on that touch of thoughtfulness.

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