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Building Community Through Letter Writing

(Alternative High School)

by Jane Califf 

There are many ways to build a caring community in your literacy classroom.  One way which has never failed so far in my classes is to have students write letters of appreciation and encouragement to each other.  Here are examples from alternative high school and adult literacy classes, but this activity can be adapted to lower levels.


When I was teaching a beginning reading class at the Center for Adult Learning at Brooklyn College, Oacie Davis, African-American grandmother, decided to write her autobiography.  Each week she handed me another chapter until there were six.  I typed them up and made copies for the other students.


Over a period of two days, she read her life story aloud.  We asked questions, made supportive comments and applauded when she had finished.


One day when she was absent, I asked students to write her a letter complimenting her on her effort.  I explained that this would not only recognize her achievement, but would also help cheer her up since her daughter had recently died.


I showed them the format for writing a letter to a friend, and a number of them took up the challenge.  Oacie was overwhelmed the day her classmates stood up, read their letters and handed them to her.  Here are two samples:


David, a 22 year old from Jamaica, wrote:  "Good day, firstly I have read your Autobiograpy and found it intresting.  It has many mix emotions.  I like your story Oacie because my life is simular to your.  My father died also and my mother has to take care of ten of us and which was very hard for her but by the grace of god we pull through.  I want to congratulation because you don't give up the fight, and one day you will get your reward."


Marie, a 65 year old Haitian woman, wrote, "I'm very happy for you to be able to wrote you won biographie, it is very interesting story about your childhood.


"And all the struggle you make to leave your states came to New York to find better life for your family, it take someone very special and couragous to acomplish what you did.


"I hope you don't have to meet any dissappointments in your now or in the future."


When I changed jobs and began working with teenagers reading on 4th and 5th grade levels, I was not sure that having them reach out to each other in this way would work.  Since they had been unsuccessful in traditional high schools due to poor reading levels, many of them have low self-esteem and a pervasive sense of hopelessness which is difficult to overcome.  Facing their depression, dealing with some students' hostility and finding ways to inspire them can be truly exhausting.


However, I have found that if class rules for behavior are created by teenagers, enforced by teacher and class, and periodically reviewed for their effectiveness and possible revision, teenagers too will respond positively to in-class correspondence.


One year, right before Christmas vacation, I brought in a colorful pile of cards without any words.  Everyone put their names in a hat, including me, and whatever name we picked was the person to whom we had to write a message of hope for coming year. Each student would write a draft, we would make corrections together, and they would transfer it to a card.


I told my class, "Life is difficult, and we need to cheer each other along and give encouragement to one another as much as we can."


No one was disappointed in the card they received.  For example, Patrick wrote to Sharon, "I hope you have a happy Christmas and a happy New Year.  I hope you get everything you wish for in life.  I'm happy to have you as a friend."


The following January we published a collection of our writing which we entitled "What's in Store for 1995?"  Students again put their names in a hat.  The assignment was to write positive comments on each other's writing.  My students outdid themselves.


Dexter P. had written an essay to a friend on how to be a success.  Kelvin H.'s comment was the following: 


Dear Dexter,  I hope you will be a winner when you go to your new school and have confidence in yourself and if you believe in something you want to do and you know you want to do it, go for it.  Never give up.  I like your message because I want to be a winner too."

(Seven months before, Dexter and Kelvin had a very disturbing verbal fight.  In fact, it had taken a number of students and me to keep it from escalating into physical violence.  I was very pleased that they had been able to build a friendship since then.)


A student who hadn't submitted anything to our publication got a letter too:


"Dear Michael,  I'm wondering why you didn't write anything at all.  I believe you can do better than that if you focus on your schoolwork only.  Remember education is very important for young people like us.  We have the opportunity today, but tomorrow is another day.  It takes sacrifice for a better life tomorrow.  I shall remember you in my prayers for a better and successful life.  Sincerely, Sandra"


Students applauded the letters as they were read aloud, and a sense of encouragement and support filled the room.


Later on in the year, we wrote letters to 17 year old Dexter Holder who had gotten ten poems published by the Waterways Project, a wonderful New York City Board of Education funded program which published writing by students in alternative high schools.


I gave each student a copy of Dexter's small booklet, and we read and discussed his poems.  Then I said that Dexter's poetry was a gift to us, and we should thank him in writing for using his talent to enrich our lives.


I distributed half of an 81/2 x ll piece of paper on which to write him a short not of congratulations.  (The small-sized paper was important to make the task less imposing to some of my students who did not like to write.)  I helped them correct any spelling or punctuation errors. Some handed their letters to him without reading them to the class, but others read theirs aloud:


Keisha:  "How are you?  I am writing this letter to let you know how I feel about your poem, ‘Finding the Bright Light,’ because it gives me courage about the world today and that I can fulfill my dream."


Shawaun:  "I like the whole book because I like to see a person in my age group that is so into his work.  Dexter, you have the intelligence to make someone of yourself, and I hope you do.  I hope that you do not throw it all away."


Dexter commented on Shawaun's letter:  "I'm glad you said this.  It will remind me not to throw my life away."


I have found that compliments from one's peers can be a powerful force for improving a student's self-concept, and changing his or her negative attitude toward schoolwork and life in general to a more positive one.


So, if you have never tried this type of writing with your students, why not start?  Benefits will flow not just to those who receive letters, but to the writers, as well as to your entire class.

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