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5 Engaging Uses for Letters in Your Classroom

Brett Vogelsinger

Ninth grade English teacher from Doylestown, PA
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A young boy in a red shirt is sitting outside with a building behind him. His knees are up close to his chest with a with a blue notebook resting against them. He's smiling, writing in his notebook.

The idea of writing a business letter with a class may elicit eye rolls and under-the-breath scoffs of "Oh, that old chestnut!" from many a contemporary teacher. But if we desire to lead classrooms where we value reflective thought and carefully crafted words, letters can be a surprisingly rich genre to explore. Whether it's a letter that you write to your students or a letter that your students send, here are five first-class strategies that address key skills and envelop your students in learning.

1. Letters on a Rubric

This year, I made the decision that on every rubric and scoring guide for a major assignment, I would begin with a brief, heartfelt letter to my students. After all, if I'm asking for them to put a little heart into their work, I should at least be able to do as much with their directions, right? It may just be a few sentences long, but my aim is always to motivate, to communicate high expectations, and to cultivate a joy in our work as readers and writers. Here's a sample of one "Letter on a Rubric" that I used this September.

2. Letters to the Class

When I feel like students are becoming a bit too task-centric in their thinking (i.e. their first question when starting a new book is "What will be the project/paper for this book?"), I take a surprising turn and write an open letter to the class, requesting individual responses. Once I've shared my best musings and my deeper questions about what is most valuable to them as readers, they often reply with equal depth and candor.

For instance, in one open letter to the class, I wondered:

There was no major project associated with this reading. Was that a good thing, or would you have liked some project at the end to show what you gained from your reading? Why do you feel projects help or hurt your personal reading?

I received some good replies. For example, Samantha said:

I think projects hurt reading more than help it because they tend to make you look hard for the message behind the book instead of letting it occur to you naturally.

Drew reflected:

It was a good thing that there was no project after. When there is a project, students are so worried about the information they have to find for it, it takes away from the reading enjoyment.

You can read the whole letter and more student responses at Nerdy Book Club.

3. Letters of Complaint

When it comes to a relevant context for learning to write a sharply focused argument, nothing compares to the letter (or email) of complaint. High school students are consumers, and they know the difference between what it feels like to be a satisfied or dissatisfied customer. The audience for a letter of complaint (a company) is obliged to respond, so this is not just a dead-end writing piece that lands on a teacher's desk. Moreover, by writing a letter of complaint, they practice a skill that they'll use over and over again in life beyond the school walls: tactful objection. And for students that don't have a recent gripe about a product? Letters of commendation for a product that they love will often get a response from the company as well, sometimes with free goodies!

4. Letters of Appreciation

As they develop the skill of writing with specific details, students can write a letter of appreciation to a favorite teacher. I encourage kids to choose their favorite elementary teacher and then craft a letter that goes beyond "Your class was so much fun" or "I learned so much." I tell them how meaningful it is to me when a student returns and can tell a specific anecdote about learning during my class. I model how to write this way when I craft a letter to one of my former teachers -- I share my positive memories and express appreciation. I invite them to show their memories rather than tell, which is an excellent warm-up for all other writing pieces later in the year.

5. Letters to a Future Self

I teach students during their first year of high school, so a favorite June activity is inviting students to write a letter to their future selves. I promise to send this letter to the address on their self-addressed envelope at the end of their senior year. They ponder important questions:

  • What do I aspire to accomplish by the end of high school?
  • What goals do I hope to keep on my horizon as I leave high school?

These letters can be excellent motivators twice in their life: once when they write reflectively, and a second time years later when they receive it.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote: "Letters are among the most significant memorials a person can leave behind them." While times have changed, it is noteworthy that the word letters in that sentence cannot exactly be replaced with tweets, texts, or updates. So let us not forget the simple, quiet value of slowing down enough with our students to write something that will touch a heart or motivate an action as letters have been doing for centuries.

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Dorothy Hastings's picture
Dorothy Hastings
Director of First school

So true, thanks for the kind words and tips sharing. It's also encouraging parents and else here to hear about how to prepare kids for letter engagement.

Lizanne Foster's picture
Lizanne Foster
Teacher of teens in British Columbia, Canada

Of all the pieces of writing from students I have read over many years, I love reading the letters from students the most. I learn a lot: about them, about my teaching, and about the class as a whole. I especially learn a lot from the angry letters, the ones I invite them to write when there is conflict or dissatisfaction.
Long before texting became the preferred method of communication with teens, I noticed that they would write the truth about what they thought and felt more readily than they would speak it. I find this very interesting.

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