The Art of Letter Writing
Using letters and diaries to extend student learning
Welcome to From the Teacher’s Desk, where we take turns further reflecting on our episodes and applications to the classroom.
I really do love what the Internet has given us. After all, email is what kept my husband and me connected during our dating relationship. I’m pretty certain that we wouldn’t have gotten married if we had been forced to depend on snail mail and short, once-a-month phone calls. Facebook, for all its faults, has helped me stay in touch with high school and college friends. And I’m thankful for the ability to now send a free text to my husband or kids with a question or reminder with the simple use of my cell phone.
But are we going to lose the art of letter writing?
Why It’s an Art
The stories of our past are told through letters and diaries. It is true that history is written by the victors. But real history, the stories of people and their relationships with others, has historically been told through the deepest thoughts and hopes and fears that they shared in their private journals or in letters to loved ones.
It is one of the reasons why I appreciate epistolary storytelling. It’s one of the reasons why we were so eager to discuss You’ve Got Mail with Casper ter Kuile. The relationship in the film feels pure because their writing is open and honest, addressing both the mundane and exciting.
So in an age when our students are more likely to send each other a message through their phones than they are to pass notes (I miss note-passing), how can we help them see the beauty in stories told through letter writing?
Use the Classics
I know, students often balk at the classics. But having them read historical letters and novels with unconventional forms will help them see that letter writing has been a part of storytelling for years. In one of my classes, I teach both Dracula and Frankenstein, two novels that utilize the epistolary form. Particularly with Dracula, I highlight the ways in which journal entries and letters give readers a narrow but in-depth look into the characters and the ways in which they see the Dracula saga unfolding.
In both American and British literature classes, I’ve taught letters and diary entries from significant historical events. These pieces can help to highlight the context for the literature that we study or provide valuable lessons in rhetoric and argument as the authors persuade their audience. This particular lesson plan uses one of my favorite letters from Abigail Adams to her husband John. Or use “Your Obedient Servant” from Hamilton to discuss tone. Letters can tell beautiful stories. And high school English classes are an ideal place to read those letters.
Challenge them to extend stories with letters
One of my favorite activities when teaching The Things They Carried was having my students watch the powerful HBO documentary Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam and then challenge them to extend the story of one of the characters through letter writing. I did this assignment with both The Things They Carried and Fallen Angels. But you could do this with nearly any novel where the characters would have depended on letter writing for communication.
Letters are also an important lesson in audience. Is the character writing to a parent? A friend? A lover? How does the character want to be perceived? How does the character perceive their situation? While a series of letters may narrow down a novel into only a few key moments, it also helps us as teachers identify the moments that stuck out most to our students and can cue us into our students’ holistic understanding of the novel.
Make their preferred communication relevant
One of my favorite assignments while teaching Pride and Prejudice was having the students write out conversations between characters as if they were communicating on Twitter. There are many social media templates that give students an opportunity to be creative with character development and understanding of main plot points and bigger themes.
This exercise doesn’t just update our students’ understanding of a text; it also shows them that writing comes in many forms and they are already regularly writing. Use this as an opportunity to help them see the importance of clear language and expression of thought in their own lives.
Looking for additional inspiration? How about this post by teacher Nicholas Ferroni:
What if we showed our students there is still value in taking enough time and care to craft a letter to someone they want to know better?
Check out these contemporary epistolary novels, and share them with your students!
Dear Martin by Nic Stone
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn
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