Standard Lesson

Exploring Literature through Letter-Writing Groups

Grades
9 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Six 50-minute sessions
Publisher
NCTE
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Overview

In this lesson, students discuss literature through a series of letter exchanges, in the form of handwritten letters, typed letters, electronic documents, e-mail, online discussion posts, and even Weblog posts. Students begin by exchanging letters that explore an issue or idea from a selected text. They discuss ways of writing open-ended letters that foster discussion, leaving room for responses to their letters, and keeping letters focused on a point. They then continue to exchange letters as they read the text, exchanging a minimum of three letters in a series. Letter series can be used in conjunction with any work of literature and any other assignment. Students can even be asked to carry on a year-long discussion in which they make connections among a number of literary works.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

Elaine Fredericksen writes that "...having students practice writing by requiring an exchange of correspondence either by e-mail or paper mail echoes a time-honored tradition of letter writing as a teaching tool. This tool has a wide range of applications in the writing classroom and reaches well beyond the simple transfer of e-mail messages." (278) Art Young argues that having students write letters to each other in order to explore literature is a collaborative learning activity that asks them to engage in higher-order critical thinking skills by generating the issues they will discuss and by responding to each other's ideas and questions. This lesson has students exchange a series of letters that allows them to explore a piece of literature they are reading, as well as make connections among several literary works they read during the year.

Further Reading

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
  • 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Printouts

Websites

Preparation

  • Choose a text and, if you want, an activity to base the letters on. See the Letter Exchange Example for suggestions.

  • Decide upon a timeframe and context for the use of letter writing groups, taking into consideration the following questions:

    • Will the groups exchange letters in conjunction with one literary work or assignment, during one unit of the course, or throughout the year?

    • How many letters exchanges will constitute a series? The number of letter exchanges will depend upon your specific context, but should have at least three exchanges.

    • When will the letter exchanges begin? After the literary work has been read? After a specific assignment is completed? As the students are reading the work? While letter series that begins after the students have finished the text or a specific assignment will likely focus on an analysis of the literary work, a letter series that begins while the students are still reading the work will likely focus on their impressions or reactions to the work.

    • What is the purpose of the letter exchange? Are they meant to be a low stakes writing to learn assignment? Will you incorporate ideas raised in the letters into quizzes or exams? Will they serve as a starting point for papers or group reports?

  • Decide upon the medium of exchange. Do you want the letters to be

    • exchanged as paper documents?

    • exchanged as electronic documents (i.e. word processing files)?

    • exchanged as e-mail?

    • exchanged through an online discussion forum?

    • exchanged as a Weblog?

    Choose a medium of exchange based upon your familiarity and your students' level of access. See the Letter Exchange Medium Options handout and the Websites fliste in the Resources section for additional information.

  • Decide upon the method of evaluation. Do you want to evaluate the letters based on:

    • completion?

    • content evaluated by you?

    • content self-evaluated via a rubric?

  • Decide how you will establish groups. If the decision is up to you, assign students into groups of four to six. Review the Letter Exchange Chart Example and decide how you will set up students's exchanges.

  • If needed, establish a class site, online discussion forum, or weblog.

  • Customize and print out any handouts to be used, including the chart, guidelines, and rubric.

  • Test the Letter Generator student interactive on your computers to familiarize yourself with the tools and ensure that you have the Flash plug-in installed. You can download the plug-in from the technical support page.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • read and analyze literature, both individually and in groups.

  • explore and discuss literature through writing.

  • develop arguments and support ideas with evidence.

Stage One

  1. Preview the assignment. Working in groups, students will explore a work of literature by exchanging a series of letters. They will write an opening letter, give that letter to two classmates, read and respond to the two letters they are given, etc. Discuss time frame, medium of exchange, and method of evaluation.

  2. Discuss the difference between exploring an issue and providing a final, definitive answer to a subject. While the former is open-ended and geared towards fostering dialogue, the latter seeks to create a closed interpretation and end discussion. Therefore, letters for this project should meet the following characteristics:

    • Good letters explore an issue, idea, impression, or interpretation. They have a focused point.

    • Good letters support their point by making direct references to the text.

    • Good letters are written to explore an issue and leave room for response. The purpose is not to prove a point about the literary work but to question and think about it.
  3. As a class, brainstorm a potential opening letter for literary work you have recently read. Focus on exploring an issue from that work in a way that both uses specific examples and leaves room for discussion.

  4. Introduce the literary work you will use and any other activities you may use in conjunction with the letter writing series, such as brainstorming activities, assignments designed to explore the text, etc.

  5. If you are using an online discussion forum or Weblog, introduce your students to the environment, establish their accounts, and teach them how to use the software. Because of the ways these systems work, you may find it easier to establish groups before you introduce students to the environment.

  6. As the class practices using the software, keep an eye out for students who know or learn the system quickly and ask them to help other students. Introduce students to the help system, and show them how to use it to find answers. If you decide to use e-mail, make sure all your students have access to an e-mail account. If you choose to exchange files as electronic documents, establish a plan to overcome compatibility issues, such as saving documents as Rich Text Format files (.rtf).

Stage Two

  1. If you have not done so already, establish groups and fill out the Letter Exchange Charts with students. You can share the Letter Exchange Chart Example with students to demonstrate how the chart is completed. Alternately, you can complete the chart for students prior to class.

  2. Hand out and review the letter exchange guidelines, explain the number of letters involved in the series, and introduce the prompt for the first exchange. Good prompts generally ask students to explore issues that have no definitive answer, and they ask students to support their responses with direct reference to the text. If desired, juxtapose two or more passages that seem to contradict each other or create some kind of tension with the text or use a prompt that will help you evaluate student reaction or understanding of a text. With difficult texts, ask students to identify a problem they are having with the text, something they don't understand, and to write a initial letter that explains the problem and then attempt to address that problem.

  3. Have students engage in prewriting or other activities if you wish to use them, and have the students begin drafting their initial letters if you want to provide class time to do so.

  4. If desired, students can use the Letter Generator student interactive to write and print their letters.

  5. Have students exchange letters, either during class time or as homework depending upon your particular context and the technology you've chosen. If you are collecting letters at this time, make sure you get your copy, or if they are being exchanged electronically, check to see if they have been e-mailed or posted.

  6. Evaluation of the first letters, if it is being used, should occur after this session. Even if you are not formally evaluating the letters, it is a good idea to look over the first exchange to identify and address any problems, misunderstandings, or glitches early on. Particularly look to see if each letter has a point, uses textual support, and, most importantly, leaves room for response (the letter exchange rubric can be of use here).

  7. Do keep in mind that exactly what constitutes a good point/purpose of a letter will be largely determined by the prompt, the letters, especially initial letters, are not essays. While "I don't know why Huck is such a jerk to Jim" isn't a good thesis for an essay, it can be the focal point of a good letter.

Stage Three

  1. As the letter exchanges progress, try to skim them and try to incorporate ideas and issues they raise in class and encourage the students to do the same.

  2. Spend some time discussing the actual process of writing the letters as well as their content.

Stage Four

  1. Once the letter series is over, wrap up the activity.

  2. If your goal was to use the letters as a low-stakes writing activity, then have a culminating discussion that focuses on the letters and how their role in exploring the text.

Extensions

  • A letter exchange series can be used to extend any existing assignment and works especially well to share ideas developed in group work. Just form new groups and have the first prompt ask students to report on what their initial group found.

  • A letter exchange series can be used in any writing to learn context. See Elaine Fredericksen's "Letter Writing in the College Classroom" for additional ideas.

Student Assessment / Reflections

Assessment and reflection will depend upon context. Informal assessment and reflection can include checking for completion and having students use the Letter Exchange Rubric for self-evaluation. If you chose to evaluate the letters for content, keep in mind this caution from Art Young: “The primary value of the assignment is to the writer and not the readers; it is an opportunity for active learning and problem solving. Thus, in responding, we do not primarily judge the writing on how well it communicates to readers (or how well it conforms to the form of the personal letter), but rather we value and affirm the writing and learning revealed in the students’ writing and encourage further inquiry” (36).

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