Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Students and the Art of E-Mail

Hi. What did i miss in class today. i want to keep up in english

I get a lot of e-mails. My favorites are the ones that come in from students who clearly like to prove to me how little they are using the skills I'm teaching. Thus, the group of teachers with whom I work decided to address the art of writing e-mail.

For the current school year, in addition to our core curriculum, we decided to focus on practical applications of writing skills. We specifically chose to address the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy/Writing, and we realized we would be constantly hitting number #10: Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter times (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes and audiences.

During our planning, we decided that in the first quarter we'd have them write a formal e-mail, and then both a handwritten thank-you note and a handwritten apology letter. For the second quarter, students would move to the complaint letter, in which they must explain their issue and give specific reasons to justify their complaint. They will also switch gears and write a complimentary letter, in which they again must give specifics. Third quarter will be a letter of recommendation, a cover letter, and a follow-up letter. Fourth quarter we'll hit the action letter/persuasive-argumentative letter — an expansion of my letter-writing project.

In essence, we wanted them to focus on something other than the argumentative essay. While we'd still teach that, we were adding to their depth of knowledge. We were teaching them something that few had addressed before. We were also making it real-world/real-life.

First up was the e-mail correspondence assignment, and it turned out to be quite fun. I took my students into our computer lab for one day. I gave them a typed instruction sheet (you can find this at fhhsdunaway.wordpress.com although parts are below) and did a brief discussion, telling them that people write informally and formally all the time. However, in this day of instant communication and electronic mail, it's important for them to realize that what they have to say can be lost in how they say it. When they are sending e-mails, they must consider the person to whom they are writing, a.k.a. their audience. This person is critical, for their consideration of the person will affect their writing — in tone, greeting and diction.

Then I had them pick a topic that they were going to ask me about. My instructions told them to think about their teacher and how they would approach me. The e-mail didn't have to be real — many of my students pretended that they'd missed class the day before. I actually made them find my e-mail address — I did not provide it as it's on the school website and on the handout of rules I'd given them on the first day of class. After the e-mails came in, I answered each one. I would instruct them on the errors they'd made, and those errors ran the gamut. Some of them misspelled my name. Others forgot to fill in the subject line. Accustomed to having autocorrect, most of them didn't capitalize the letter I. Punctuation errors ran rampant. I refused to answer their questions until the e-mails were perfect, or at least until the error was small enough to be overlooked (although I still told them about it in my reply). In order to earn the points, students had to print out the return e-mail from me which gave them the "go ahead and print."

By having them print the e-mails, it puts the responsibility for one final process on the students' shoulders. (I was amazed how many had difficulty with this step.) It also makes it easier for me to grade. As my district uses an online gradebook, I quickly could mark a grade on the paper (which students must keep to show me if my gradebook is wrong) and then record the grade. I didn't have to toggle back and forth between electronic programs.

I did answer e-mails at all hours of the day and night, depending on when I checked my work e-mail. This, too, gives the project realism as students often depend on Facebook, Twitter, or texting, rather than e-mail, for their communications. They learned they had to use e-mail in certain situations.

I had my students write in their journals about their experiences and what they'd learned. They found the experience fun and eye-opening. Overall, it's a quick, one-day project with lasting implications and real-world applications. After all, they'll eventually be e-mailing bosses and college professors — better to look professional and competent than foolish.

(PS: In future columns, I'll share the other assignments.)

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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.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday September 4th 2012, 12:05 PM
Comment by: John N. (Chester, VT)
Thank you. I would suggest that you and your fellow teachers address the art of and skills required in communicating via text in a reasonably understandable fashion. At what point does informality totally obscure the information content of the message?

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