Build Relationships by Letter Writing with your Learners, Part One

Jennifer McCarty Plucker

Dear Passionate Educator,

It is that time of year when we get letters, photos, and holiday cards in the mail. Some of us are starting to use digital means to send our seasonal greetings through emails, Facebook posts, Instagram shots, and creative family videos. I love those, but find myself most excited when I get an actual letter in the mail–especially if it is handwritten. There is something so special about the personal touch. Full disclosure–I often take short cuts at this time of the year and send the canned letter and photo and I am in no way judging anyone who is unable to make those notes personal for each recipient! I am pausing though to consider why I am so excited and touched when the personal handwritten note comes my way, though.

Nancy Atwell helped us understand in her pinnacle publication, In the Middle, back in 1987 how personal correspondence between teacher and student can support relationship building, writing practice and growth, and academic achievement. I found in my own practice as a high school English and reading teacher that whenever I could write notes and letters back and forth with my students I got to know them on a much deeper level. Students will write much more than most are willing to share out loud. This window into their inner selves gave me such valuable information to guide my teaching. And then I learned I could model writing and my students would emulate and transfer the skills which furthered my resolve to continue to make this a priority.

I had planned to further discuss ways in which we help students grow as readers, writers, and scholars through letter correspondences when I received an email from my son’s principal. The correspondence ahead of Thanksgiving reminded me that we can use letter writing in so many more ways to enhance the educational experience of our learners. Even when the correspondence isn’t unique and personal for each family, we CAN influence, connect, partner, and build relationships.

Dr. Peterson, principal of Eastview High School in Apple Valley, reminded parents in his email message that “Attention and support for our children is especially important during this time of year for both their emotional health as well as their academic success. There is significant research on the phases of response for students in an academic environment (especially during the Q2 Term Transition, the holidays and the time change) and the power of Love, Laughter and Limits. Each year this is a strong reminder of the importance of the shared support of our children and each other.” This came at a perfect time for me as I found myself helping my 11th grade son break through an emotional reaction to his chemistry homework. He had a lot of reasons why he didn’t want to prepare for his quiz. It’s an on level course, but my teacher thinks we are an honors class! It’s not fair. Why do I have to know how chemicals bond? When am I EVER going to use this information? I don’t want to do homework, I want to watch a family show! Knowing that his reactions were normal, especially for this time of year where disillusionment is common helped me stay calm. I listened. I honored his feelings. And then I sat next to him and had him teach me Chemistry. He was able to get past his anxiety (albeit the hives hung on for a bit) and he soon realized he really did know more than what he was giving himself credit for. He doesn’t have his quiz grade back yet, but he came home feeling pretty confident that it went well. And I learned that I really don’t need to know Chemistry to support my kid. I just need to be willing to learn alongside him. I am actually kind of curious now about ionic, covalent, and polar covalent bonds. We got family time while we learned together. And maybe he will let me be his study partner more to help him get through this course that has absolutely no relevance to goals of becoming a helicopter pilot! Apparently telling him his grade matters so he can get into the NROTC program he wants isn’t quite the motivator I had hoped it would be.

This experience reminded me that letter writing is powerful in so many ways. From teacher to student, student to teacher, child to parent, parent to child. From principal to parents and parents to teachers. Next month we will explore how to manage the logistics of writing letters to your students, especially if you are like any of my son’s high school teachers who are responsible for more than 150 students each day. In the meantime, I invite you to write to me (in the comments section) or by emailing me (Jennifer.mp@mackin.com) and let me know how you correspond with your learners and the community who support each of them.

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