George Lucas Educational Foundation
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A young red-headed boy is sitting at his desk looking at his laptop, his chin resting on one hand and his other hand on the laptop keyboard.

Before each school year begins, I indulge in a back-to-school teacher movie marathon for motivation. One of my favorites is Freedom Writers, a film based on the real life of Erin Gruwell and her incredible work with teens and writing. While planning for this academic year, my mind kept drifting to the scene in Freedom Writers when Ms. Gruwell sits at her desk on Parent Night. Once she realizes that the parents aren't going to attend, she decides to read her students’ recently turned in journals full of free writes. It's a turning point in the film, because Ms. Gruwell begins to truly know her students through their written voices. Her teaching approach immediately changes for the better and soon after, so does student engagement.

"We Have to Do This Each Week?"

As many teachers do, I keep a notebook where I jot beginnings of ideas for lessons or notes regarding grading and miscellaneous teaching tasks. I happened to be scribbling some ideas there for student journaling when I received an email notification. A student had written to me with questions about supplies for the first day. I was delighted that he had thought to do so. If only his email hadn’t begun in this way: "Yo, Burnquist. What do I need 2 bring on the first day?"

Lightning struck. What if I had students practice their online writing skills by sending me a weekly letter via our online grading system? Our system allows for assignments to be turned in directly through an included Word-doc program or by file attachment. I could schedule lab time if necessary to be sure that access to technology wasn't an obstacle. Many students have smartphones, so if they're able to send emails, then they would also be able to do this task. I set to work on designing the assignment. I decided that I wouldn't give specific topics. Instead, I established the following parameters:

  • They would tell me about their week.
  • They would ask one question about class content.
  • They would state one thing they had learned.

To start, I required 7-10 complete sentences.

On the day that I assigned the letters to my sophomore English and senior creative writing classes, I made sure to also discuss my obligation to report anything they might divulge to me that indicated abuse or self harm, etc. They understood. A student later asked, "We have to do this each week?" I answered, "Yes, but I have to write you back each week, too." That changed the tone in the room. He replied, "You're going to write us back?" I explained that letters were more fun when answered and that I would use my responses to address their questions and give them individual writing tips -- the kind of individual attention so difficult to offer in class.

You've Got Mail

Friday arrived. I checked my online grading system for the letter assignments. I was simultaneously delighted and full of panic over the fact that the turn-in rate was 98 percent. Would I be able to keep my word about responding?

I opened the first letter. It was over three paragraphs. The student who wrote to me discussed her newly-born niece and her difficulty waking up so early for school. She also posed a question about a character in Beowulf. I noticed that she forgot to capitalize the first-person "I" and jotted off a quick response sympathizing with her about our early start time, reminding her about the capitalization rule.

The next student’s letter was exactly seven lines, and he let me know about an upcoming swim meet that he very nervous about, as well as saying that he liked our reading so far. I responded with a good luck wish and gave him a reminder about comma usage.

When I was done grading five classes' worth of letters, I had not only given individual feedback, but also learned invaluable things about my students. Best of all, grading all five classes took less than two hours.

Two-Way Communication

There have now been three cycles of letters, and with each round, I learn more about students' personal interests and challenges. My lessons have begun to address their questions and to better incorporate their personal learning styles. One of the greatest benefits from this assignment involves the content questions that are being asked by resistant class participants. Letter writing provides a safe space for introverted learners to risk failure and success. Another advantage is that I believe each student feels heard and to some extent known by me.

These letters are also a beautiful reminder of how much our students attempt to balance in their daily lives. Friendships, jobs, homework, family responsibilities -- it seems as if writing about their week has given them the gift of personal insight as well. I have yet to feel overburdened by this assignment. To be honest, I look forward to opening the letters, as each one contains a potential instructional discovery. I adore my students for their willingness to share and grow.

Maybe you have an online grading system such as Jupiter Ed, or access to Google Classroom, or even just an email address. Any of these would work. And no matter your content area, this activity, when tailored to your needs, delivers on so many levels.

How do you engage your students as individuals? Please respond in the comments section of this post.

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Jess Burnquist's picture

Hi, Julie. What a great question, thanks! For the first three rounds of letter writing, I didn't given students a prescribed format other than the bullet points mentioned in the article. I really wanted to see what their 'baseline' letter writing/online style looked like. I now give different perimeters. For example, after giving several lessons on fragments and run-on sentences, students are required to avoid them in their weekly letters.

Oh, and recently the students in my 10th grade classes studied essays by Sir Francis Bacon, as well as several diary entries by Samuel Pepys. So, for one weekly letter they had the option of writing an advice based letter on something they feel expert at (whichmade for some really fun reading with topics such as "Of How to Sleep" and "Of How to Binge on Netflix.") or they were allowed to choose a historic event and write a descriptive letter detailing the sights and sounds of what they 'witnessed' in the style of Pepys.
I hope this answers your question.

jwallbrecht's picture

I found this to be inspiring. That teacher/student relationship is very important. I guess it goes with the adage: "Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care."

Jess Burnquist's picture

Thank you! I'm so glad you find it inspiring. It has definitely provided so many opportunities for individualized instruction and serves as such a great reminder of how much this age group deals with on a daily basis. :)

Liliia Kurushyna's picture

I was going to get my EFL students to journal next semester. The goals would be to empower them to change the world by showing that small efforts matter and they are to choose whether to act or not. However, your experiment turned out to be a great idea. I'm corresponding with them every night anyway. Why not do it in English? =) I have also gotten to know my students better and understood them better by knowing about their worries, their goals and their priorities. Many of them are excited to text with their teacher, to feel I'm sincerely interested in their lives and respect each of them for how they are - something they miss a lot in their military life.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

It's interesting how the drudgery of grading turns into something more joyful when we see it as a vehicle for communicating with human beings rather than one for pointing out errors, isn't' it?

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