George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

A Meaningful Exercise in Self-Awareness

Letters written to their future selves can strengthen students’ writing skills and encourage them to be more introspective.

April 3, 2023
Olivia Harmon / iStock

Casting a vision for the future requires first an acknowledgment of what the past offered and what the present holds. L.M. Montgomery captures this sentiment perfectly in her three-volume series about Emily Starr. The start of Emily of New Moon finds Emily having just lost her only living parent and moving into her spinster aunts’ New Moon farm. To soothe her grieving heart, Emily writes. In one of her particularly pensive moments, 12-year-old Emily decides to write a letter to herself, from “12 to 24.” She seals the envelope, tucks it away, and stumbles upon it 12 years later in Emily’s Quest as a young woman.

I was captivated by this idea when I first read the Emily books as a preteen girl navigating my own trials of middle school life. I had a hard enough time understanding who I was then, let alone trying to envision my future self. So on my 12th birthday, I wrote a letter to open on my next birthday, and for almost three decades now I’ve had a letter to open on March 24 from myself. 

It’s a habit and gift that I’ve tried to pass on to my students at every level I’ve taught—elementary, high school, and higher education. It really can be implemented for almost any subject and at any time in the school year, but I’ve generally looked for organic spaces for self-analysis and closure—right at the end of a semester or year. 

Explaining the Concept

When I first introduce the assignment, there are usually a lot of questions. “How do we even start it? What do we talk about?” So, we take some time to unpack the salutation—do they want to address themselves formally? Informally? Affectionately?

These questions have provoked interesting conversations about how students view themselves and, in some ways, how kind they are to themselves. Students are sometimes embarrassed to begin; they default to making self-deprecating comments and teasing others who look to be taking the assignment seriously. I remind the class that they will be looking back on this letter a year from now—how do they want to portray themselves? How might that future self read it? That lens often allows them more grace and kindness than they might normally grant themselves.  

We then talk generally about the idea of their future self reading this letter. I have them envision themselves a year from now—how might they have changed physically or emotionally? Do they anticipate being at a different school? A different house? Then, we imagine that future self, the one they now have fixed in their mind, opening and reading this letter. This is the perfect opportunity to dive into writing strategies such as descriptive writing or specific literary devices or strengthening sentence structures. I tell them that after a year of waiting, their future self deserves to read something well thought out, clear, and full of details.

Crafting the Letter in Three Parts

The body of the letter includes three different sections: the past, the present, and the future. Depending on the grade level I’m working with, we may spend one or multiple class periods on each section. 

Past: I encourage students to first think and free-write about particular difficulties they’ve had in the past few months. We talk about triumphs as well as challenges they’ve overcome. We also discuss any changes or transitions they may have just experienced, such as a new family member, new move, or new hobby. I’ve found that really taking time to reflect on and then write about the recent past affords them, when they do open their letter, some valuable perspective. It allows students to recognize the growth they’ve experienced, perhaps without even noticing it.

Present: Students generally have the easiest time with this section. We talk about writing about things that will serve as a placeholder or marker in time. They examine what currently occupies their life, and we discuss what those things might look like in a year. Issues that feel huge now might be much smaller in a year or, conversely, have turned into a significant addition or change in their life.

I’ve often found the discussion during this section to be a good gauge as to how comfortable they are in their own skin. I note the things that the students have mentioned and observe how they sometimes carry over into other subjects or even the rest of the day and week. It helps me be more aware of their present context and allows me helpful insight into how I can better support them in specific ways.  

Future: This is the part that takes the most imagination and, often, encouragement from me. I suggest that they ask themselves questions—“How did the tae kwon do test go?” “Did you end up moving to Nebraska?” In pushing students to think where they will be in a year, it also rather cleverly makes them consider how they will get there. While the purpose of this assignment is not necessarily for them to plan their career trajectory or class schedule, there is something deeply valuable about speaking and writing things into existence, and there is empowerment in envisioning what may be.

4 Tips for Completion

  1. I never grade this assignment on content. In fact, I don’t even read it. I firmly believe that students need to write this letter for themselves and not for a grade.
  2. When we finish, I provide each student with a stamped envelope that they can address and put their letter in. (Obviously, there’s a chance that students may have moved within a year’s time, but that actually hasn’t happened too terribly often, and in some cases, I have been able to find a valid forwarding address.)
  3. Into each envelope, I slip a small note from myself with my mailing address and a request to write to me, if they’d like, and tell me how they are at the time they receive the letter. I have received many, many letters from students over the years. 
  4. I keep the sealed envelopes for them and mail them all out a year later. 

This assignment has remained a favorite among my students, and in my experience, it’s a worthwhile endeavor with meaningful end results.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • English Language Arts
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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