Writing Letters Home Helped Me & My Students Connect to Real and Literary Experiences

During my second year of a Masters Degree program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College I completed my second novel and learned the importance of connecting content with intent or, to be concise, how to communicate clearly in English because you actually cared about what you were writing, why you were writing and the audience you were writing for.

This revelation was a result of my receiving a fellowship that included a teaching assignment. The class was a basic English composition class that culminated with a University-wide test that determined whether the student could move forward or had to repeat the class. If a student failed the exam three times they were no longer accepted as a student at CUNY.

My class was 95% Haitian immigrants with a majority male.

We had a text, I think a collection of essays including some wonderful writing by E.B. White, Annie Dillard, possibly Mark Twain. While these modeled excellent sentence structure, supple sentences and a sharp focus on the thesis statements, the essays failed to inspire my students. They puzzled over the unfamiliar vocabulary and while they were unfailingly polite, not wanting to insult or disappoint their inexperienced and relatively young teacher, it was clear to me the conclusions to these essays were neither inspiring nor meaningful. I tried to teach them about ‘recurring motifs’ and ‘concrete imagery’ but while they dutifully copied down everything I wrote on the blackboard, this class was in 1990 and computers were barely in normal existence, I could see they were both confused and worried. The essays they turned in were painfully short, often made no sense and were filled with grammatical errors that obscured any ideas that the essay might have contained. The specter of the final exam that some of them had already failed twice hung over my classroom. Finally, it occurred to me to ask them a question.

I asked them,

“What do you write?” 

“How do you use writing in your lives?”

“Letters,” they answered, “letters home.”

Recent immigrants, most of them had friends and families back in Haiti. Calling home was expensive and so letters were frequent and necessary. I recalled a James Baldwin essay I had read in college called, “A Letter to My Nephew,” and “A Letter From Birmingham Jail,” written by Martin Luther King from the jail, where he was imprisoned as a participant in nonviolent demonstrations against segregation. The letter was his response to a public statement of caution issued by eight white religious leaders of the South. Baldwin’s essay is actually titled, “Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation”. It was written in 1963, 100 years after Lincoln called for the release of all Confederate slaves by way of the Emancipation Proclamation. Baldwin wrote a letter to his 14-year-old nephew, James attempting to explain racism and give him some advice.

Both of these letters were actually essays; written with simple, clear language, with a definite audience and a strong message. I assigned my students to think of a friend or relative who was younger than they were who needed to be given some advice or told a story. Perhaps to help them avoid making a mistake in life or possibly to help them see themselves more clearly. We brainstormed ideas and they left my classroom looking less discouraged.

The letters were wonderful.

One young man wrote to his younger brother asking if he remembered how their father had once built them bicycles from spare parts he had collected from all over the village, surprising them on Christmas morning with two “new” bicycles. His letter was written to remind his brother how hard his parents had worked to make them happy.

One of my female students wrote to her little sister warning her of the danger of becoming a mother too young, encouraging her to go to school and avoid pregnancy.

One young man wrote to his best friend asking him to forgive him for not saying goodbye when he left for the United States.

If you removed the salutations and the final sentence, these letters served as essays. Some of them were pages long, all of them were focused and heartfelt, interesting and real. The grammatical errors were negligible and easily revised.

These letters helped me know my students much better. It gave me insight to their lives that had occurred before they came to Brooklyn. I asked them to continue to write their essays this way, thinking of them as letters.

When they took the qualifying exam they could omit the “Dear” and the “Love”. The final exam results were posted and only one of my students had failed. I took his test paper and read it. Although he had made a few errors in English the writing was rich in description and stayed focused. I felt there was a racial bias in the grading, that the reader had penalized him for being black. I asked for a third reader and he was given a passing grade. When I called his home to tell him the good news his entire family gathered around the phone and cheered.

I tell this story not to demonstrate my brilliant teaching but to make a point. Unless writers understand the purpose of an assignment and make some sort of personal connection, the chances are they won’t be able to produce anything worth reading. Grammar and syntax tend to greatly improve when there is a sense of urgency and a reader that the writer hopes to engage.

Feature image courtesy of Flickr, {bathe in light}.

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