Stacks of Letters

NOTE: This article will always be special to me. It was my entrée into the mass-market education press, and it changed my career forever. I saw it as a curriculum article, an upgraded “What can I do on Monday?” piece. I was so convinced that it was a stupendous idea that after I dropped it into the mailbox to NCTE, I was paralyzed with anticipation, unable to write a thing during the three months it took to get their mass-produced rejection notice. Then I sat around for another three months licking my wounds. How could NCTE, the professional organization to which I felt such loyalty, fail to recognize such a good idea? Then it took the folks at the International Reading Association another three months to send me a rejection.

The second reject made me angry. I began to suspect a professorial conspiracy. After all, I had everyday classroom evidence that this idea was the best of my career. I began to suspect that the very simplicity of the idea was its downfall when it came up against the ivory tower. Exchanging classroom letters with children requires no special degree, no staff development training, no professional handbook, no three-hundred-dollar box of laminated activity cards. Anybody of good heart can do it.

I didn’t junk up the article with  the interactive journaling educationese that delineated the classroom exchange of letters a decade and a half later…and persists to this day.

Learning Magazine accepted the article right away and sent me $75. When it appeared in print I read it over and over. For me, the humor was still fresh after the fourteenth reading. My husband restrained me from buying lots of magazines and papering our walls. After all these years, I still think it would make great wallpaper.

Practical Note: After trial & error, the kids and I found that writing all our notes in little 3 ½ x 5” notebooks worked best. Kids liked not facing blank 8 1/2 x 11-inch sheets of paper, and they loved looking back. Leslie wrote, “This is the 83rd note I’ve written to you!” Jack wrote, on Feb. 16 you had spaghetti for dinner. What did you have last night?”

I teach what is called a language arts tutorial class of thirty middle-grade students who have been given every label from “culturally deprived” and “learning disabled” to “minimally brain dysfunctioned” and “slow learner.” Professional journals offer many articles and ads to help me deal with my students. Curriculum  innovators put forth all kinds of ideas about how to teach these children. I find most of these materials either too esoteric or too dull. Or just plain wrong.

Stacks of Letters

The innovators seem to cluster at two extremes. At one end are the “find the poet in ever child” adherents. Every other day, kids are exhorted to write five words on how it feels to be a butterfly. At the other end of the extreme are those who entreat us to teach practical “life skills.” I think of them as proponents of the phone book curriculum.

I don’t know the idea of looking for the poet in every kids. My own classroom has its share of colorful butterflies hanging from the ceiling, five words dangling from each. And I, too, have students fill out job applications, read driver’s manuals, and wear out countless phone books with exercises on how to use the Yellow Pages and locate emergency numbers. Phone books and butterflies are useful, even necessary, pedagogic ploys, but neither of them do much to improve a child’s writing skills.

One day I looked at all the writing my kids did and realized that none of it involved them; it had no meaning for them. So I asked myself: What kind of writing has meaning for me? And I realized that the first thing I do when I get home from school is rush to the mailbox. My father writes to me every day, and I rely on his letters. Even when his news is just a summary of weather conditions and a comment about weeding the garden, his not, for a few moments, gives me a personal  link to someone three thousand miles away.

So I set out to introduce my class in letter writing. The students were stunned at the idea of writing a letter to me. Most of them had never written a letter, and few had ever received one. They could see me, talk to me, touch me. Why write?

A Metamorphosis

I remember Barry’s first letter very well: “I HATE writing letters. My weekend was terrible.” Barry was sent to my tutorial class two months after school had started. He was sullen, withdrawn, uncommunicative, and so antagonistic about being I my class that I decided to leave him alone,  to let him find his own way gradually. But I did insist on letters. I answered him:

                Dear Barry,

                My husband would sympathize with you. I have never seen anyone who hates to write letters as much as he does. After being married to him for more than ten years, I have finally given up trying to force him to write his parents. I write to them instead. However, Barry, I am not ready to give up on you. You just need some practice.

               What was so terrible about your weekend? I’ll tell you what was terrible about mine. I HATE snow! My driveway is so long to shovel, it makes e sore just to look at it.

                                                                                                                                Your friend,

                                                                                                                                Mrs. O.

Dear Mrs O,

                I love shoveling snow. Shoveling snow gives you strong muszels. My snowmobile blew a clutch. And I had to buy a new one.

Dear Barry,

                Do you go snowmobiling when the weather is this cold? Michael wrote that he went ice fishing. I think he is crazy. What do you think?

                                                                                                                                Your friend,

                                                                                                                                Mrs. O.

Dear Mrs. O,

                When you ride a snowmobile you don’t get cold because the heat from the motor keeps you warm. But when you go ice fishing you get cold because you are just standing there. Or sitting.

Our letters continued in this fashion: I was careful to sign every letter “your friend”; Barry didn’t even sign his name. I was also careful to ask Barry a question in every letter, and he always answered it. Then one day he asked me a question: “What do you do during the summer when there is no school?” I took the chance of speaking to him directly (up to this point all our communication had been on paper). I said, “Wow, Barry, your question really makes me wish for summer.” We talked for ten minutes about what we liked to do in the summer. Other kids joined the conversation. Barry had never before talked to any of them. Soon after that, Barry started working in my class, and teachers in his other classes reported a metamorphosis in his behavior and study habits.

I knew that writing had been therapeutic for Barry. He started out writing, “I HATE writing” and proceeded to write every day, telling me about his snowmobile, his fort, about the fact that his father lives in the country and his mother and stepfather live in the city. There may not be a poet in Barry struggling to get out, but there is a country boy struggling to become reconciled to the city:

                Dear Mrs. O,

I like the country a lot. I was born on a farm. A BIG farm. In the summertime we have a BIG BIG garden. We have a tracktor. In our garden we have corn, tomatoes, strawberries, carrots, potatoes, and other things.

                                                                                                                Your friend,


Humor, Advice, Empathy

Too many people look at Michael’s spelling and can’t see his charm. Once I complained to him about snow in January and he replied, “I take the months as thae come.” His family was planning a trip to Florida and he wrote, “I’m getting excited about florada coming so soon. I herd that thae are cansuling flits to save on gass. I don’t know fi they wod cnsul our flite. I hop thae don’t.” Because of illness, his family had to cancel the trip. Michael wrote me, “Now I’m not going to florada I can onle wish you the best of luk of your trip to calafrna and hop the wethur is gud.”

Although writing is difficult for Michael, he is a regular correspondent. I showed some of Michael’s notes to a graduate professor of humanities, who did not find anything charming or amusing in them. Michael’s mother, however, read his letters and felt hope. She had no idea Michael could read and write letters of any kind. As she was leaving my classroom she said, “Maybe he’ll write you from the Senate one day.”

 The letters are important to many of the kids’ parents. Barry’s mother and stepfather came to school to check his progress. I showed them two packets of his letters. They sat down and read them aloud to each other, enjoying shared memories. Joey’s mother read her son’s entire packet of letters and asked me in disbelief, “You mean he could read what you wrote? You didn’t have to read it to him?”

My students’ comprehension has amazed me too. I don’t write letters with a “carefully controlled” vocabulary. In the beginning the kids claimed they couldn’t read my handwriting, couldn’t understand the big words. Now I am seldom asked to decipher any of my letters, and I know they are reading them because they are responding. Some days I watch them chuckling over my notes and concentrating on their answers, and I feel as though I should hold my breath in the presence of a miracle.

I never know when I will strike a nerve. One day I couldn’t think of anything to write to Kevin, so I wrote, “What happens at a stock-car race? I’ve never been.” Kevin, who always complains when asked to write, wrote all period and asked to stay after class to finish his reply. His answer in very small handwriting, filled six pages.

Debbie has a speech impediment and came to us from a training school for wayward girls. She sat and glowered at me for three months before we started the letter project. From the first day, she has been one of my most enthusiastic letter writers, always asking about my husband and my cats. I once asked her about her favorite dessert, and she copied down the recipe so I could try it for myself.

Occasionally  students write to each other. Each child chooses a different period, writes a note, and puts it in an addressed envelope. We hang the envelopes from the ceiling with string. There is always great excitement when students come into class and discover they have mail. Their excitement lasts for an exchange of three or four letters, whereupon students run out of things to write about, complain about each other’s bad penmanship and spelling, and ask me to start writing to them again instead. But it is fun for a short time ow and again.

The Reward of Persistence

Our letter-writing project has achieved a number of things. I has taught the children in a real way that a letter is a good means of communication. It has increased student fluency. It has even induced more positive attitudes in students, which delights me. Many who started out just answering questions eventually began to copy my style and insert such comments as: “I liked your last letter” or “I hope you have a good weekend.”

If the business of a language arts teacher is to develop a child’s reading and writing skills, imagination, intellect, and empathy, what better way is there to strengthen these abilities than through letter correspondence? Too many teachers assign too many tedious chores. If they tried a few of these assignments themselves, they’d ever required them again. In this writing projects, I am as involved as the students. They kids see me chuckling over their letters; they see me writing replies while I’m on hall duty. They call out, “Have you read mine yet?” Because I sometimes get tired of writing letters, I can sympathize when a student writes, “I really can’t think of anything to say today.” Usually I’ll write back, “I know what you mean Today is slow for me too.”

Several colleagues have expressed concern that all this letter writing must be very time-consuming for the teacher. I cannot deny that; but it is also very rewarding. When I tire of writing letters, I need only remind myself that it must be at least a hundred times easier for me to write a letter than it is for Michael.

Other colleagues have liked my idea and have introduced letter writing into their own classrooms. Without exception, they have been enthusiastic about the results. You cannot teach writing from static merchandise—from a shiny box of story starters or a thick workbook or a set of dittos. I have been teaching for fifteen years—first grade through college==ad I have tried many different techniques to inspire students to write clearly, powerfully, meaningfully. Each day I am reminded anew that the effects my letter project has had on these seventh and eighth  graders—and on me. John Donne put it very well centuries ago: “Letters mingle souls.”

Endnote: When that job was eliminated and  I transferred to third grade, twenty-two students lumped together as the worst and most disaffected children, they were avid letter writers.

I’ve published articles in a zillion publications, ranging from political polemics in  The Nation to our ice cube experiments in Wilson Library Bulletin. This article provoked more enthusiastic mail than all of the other articles combined.

Other articles that featured children’s letters included “To Pete,’ Who’s Lost in the Mainstream,” Education Week, April 3, 1985 “Love, Leslie the Whole Language Catalog (1991). I’ve included them in Who’s In Charge: A Teacher Speaks her Mind (Boynton/Cook 1994)

One of Leslie’s letters includes this classic parody of too many assignments. I’d written Leslie that my husband baked muffins and she answered:

Dear Mrs O,

What kind of muffins did he make? Fill in the answer here__________. Were they good?______ Did he clean up his mess?______ Did the cats like the muffins?_____

P.S. This is your homework

I would add that Leslie, who entered my 3rd grade from a special school for children with disabilities, stayed in touch when she graduated from 8th grade, from high school, and when she was the mother of two children.