Friday, December 11, 2009

Letters About Literature

My students have participated in this contest every year for the last three. The premise is interesting: kids are supposed to write a letter to an author explaining how a particular book changed them or their view of the world. Although this task might seem deceptively simple, the sponsors of the contest, the Library of Congress and Target, take pains in their instructional materials to emphasize that students must "correspond don't compliment" and "synthesize don't summarize." These higher order thinking skills can be tough for my sixth graders, but they are by no means impossible, so the assignment turns out to be a just-right challenge-- one that can be done well with enough preparation, work, and support.

The problem lies in the fact that these letters are supposed to be authentic and heartfelt, written by the students in acknowledgment of a significant impact the author's work has had on them. Quite honestly, not every eleven year old has experienced such a profound connection with a book. What then, English teacher? Do you disparage these children as shallow and chalk it up to weak parenting, too much TV, and video games? Do you release them from even trying because they're just not feelin' it?

It's been a tough call for me, but this year I asked all my students to approach the assignment as a writing exercise-- they had to go through the steps to produce a letter, but no one was required to send it unless they wanted to. As I've written before, this year my students are awfully compliant, and so most of them humored their wacky teacher and unquestioningly went through the process: reading models, completing mini-lessons, and then composing, revising, and editing draft after draft of their letters, until today, the day before the deadline, nearly half of them decided to enter the contest. And most of the letters were pretty good, too.

So, I have a stack of letters to grade this weekend, and when I do, I'm going to take a good look at the ones that are not successful to try and figure out how and why the "writing exercise" failed for those writers, because this kind of whole class assignment is exactly the kind of thing that I think undermines my workshop, often at the expense of struggling writers.


  1. Hi Tracey -- forwarded this post to the LOC person who runs Letters About Literature -- this kind of creative use of the program in teaching is exactly what we like to see!

  2. Thanks. How cool that my experience and observations may become part of a greater conversation about this excellent program.

    Thanks for reading, too.