Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

How Letter-Writing Can Empower Students

In my column "The Dead Letter Classroom," I argued that we needed to be teaching students how to write letters. In this piece, I'm going to tell you specifically how I do it and how I use letters to teach English skills in a timely, relevant manner.

I will always maintain that we do our students a disservice if we don't teach them how to communicate using the written word. Letters are not only a way to gain what we want, but they are also a way to spread cheer and kindness. Just because that letter may nowadays be more often found in the body of an email doesn't mean that letters have lost their luster. It simply means that if you send one snail mail, you really care enough to go the extra step.

Last May, as my final unit for my ninth grade English I students, I collaborated with the school librarian in order to take my letter assignment to the next level. Instead of just writing a letter for any old reason, this time, with her help, I added a research and Internet literacy component to the project.

My students had been conducting research all year, but this time, they weren't researching on my topic, but theirs. Here's how the assignment went:

  • First, we told them they'd be writing letters to a public person/official on a topic of their choice. It could be any public official.  Some wrote the high school principal. Some wrote to the athletic director. Some chose the school superintendent. Many wrote the state governor. Others wrote the president. Some wrote the NFL commissioner. This person was the audience for the letter. Like the eternal chicken and the egg debate, for some students the topic came first and then the official, and for others the official came first and then the topic. Topics ranged from opinions on the NFL lockout to why our school district should build a swimming pool instead of renting the community recreation center.

  • Second, they had to research what they wanted to write about. This actually took several class periods. Whatever the topic and whatever the writer's position, the supporting arguments required at least three sources. These sources could be from books, magazines, online database articles, etc. The students not only took notes, but they also had to evaluate each source as to bias, and for Internet sources, whether or not the website was reliable as a source of information.

  • Third, after they had evaluated their resources and their notes, they wrote a persuasive letter incorporating the facts and statistics and arguments they'd found.

  • Finally, the last step was to revise, proof and edit, and then to print, sign and mail the letter. This involved my help as a writing coach well as peer editing. The goal is not to send shoddy letters with mistakes in them.

I requested that students bring in stamps and envelopes. For those who didn't, I gathered all the common ones together, tossed them in a big 9x12 manila envelope, created a mailing label and stuck the envelope in the school's unstamped, outgoing mail. The singletons I sent using my own stamps.

While the librarian and I might tweak some of our directions before next time (she wanted a bibliography and I forgot to add it to the scoring guide so that became a scramble), overall the project was a success. We had 100 percent participation; even those students who were unfortunately looking at attending summer school still wanted to write letters and mail them.

Writing letters gave my students a feeling of empowerment. The process taught them that they could express their thoughts in a relevant, real-world way. The fact that they could choose their topic and then support it showed them that they could create and write successful arguments. The fact that they'd researched their position and found the supporting statistics or anecdotes made them realize that what they had to say was important, and that if they followed a process, their voices could be heard.

I found it important not to censor or curtail their topics. All I required from them was that whatever they chose, they had to support it with strong arguments that showed critical thinking skills. The best way to put it — I told them that I didn't want them saying pot should be legalized so they could smoke it. If they wanted to legalize pot they needed arguments that went along the lines that it would reduce crime, eliminate the Mexican cartels, or something else that required a basis in statistical argument. They had to have a strong foundation, not just a personal opinion.

For example, that student who wanted a swimming pool? He argued that we were the only school district in our conference without one, putting our swimmers at a disadvantage, as we couldn't practice as long because all three of our high schools could only be in the pool during their allotted time. He also stated that practice hours at the recreation center were from 8-10 p.m., and then he went on to show the time it took to dry off, get home, and how this impacted our swimmers' sleep as our school starts at 7:20 a.m. He also researched how much money the district would save in the long run, and how much they could perhaps earn renting out their pool.

Even if the students don't receive a response, and school was out long before they would anyhow, the simple act of writing and sending the letter was empowering in itself. The project required choosing a topic, researching the audience and the topic, and then writing and working through all steps of the writing process, including the often forgotten "publishing" step.

I concluded my "Dead Letter Classroom" column by saying that my daughter Alison had written a professor at Mizzou. I am happy to report that when Alison attended Scholastic Journalism Day, the professor not only remembered my daughter, but she wanted her to meet her at her office after the morning sessions ended. When Alison did, she received a personal tour of the Columbia Missourian and met a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. Pretty darn cool.

Letters continue to serve a vital purpose. As English teachers, let's help students discover that they have a voice and that they can be people of action in getting what they want. Let's give them real-world experiences. The results are worth it.

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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. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.

The Dead Letter Classroom
Michele Dunaway argues that English education has wrongly abandoned letter-writing.