BY: JENI GEARHART
I love to get a real letter in the mail. It is a special treat when the remainder of the envelopes are either bills or junk mail. In a world of tweets, instant messaging, and terse e-mails, we seem to have lost the art form of letter writing.
In AP language, letters are often a go-to for rhetorical analysis. The 2014 AP Exam included an analysis of Abigail Adams 1780 letter to her son John Quincy Adams. Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail is considered such a “seminal historical document” that it is in West Virginia’s College and Career Readiness standards as an exemplar text.
Analyzing the SOAPStone (Speaker, Occasion, Audience, Subject, Tone) of any letter provides a wealth of opportunities to discuss rhetorical significance. How does the intended audience affect how the writer speaks? What do we learn about the speaker based on what is contained in the letter? What is the occasion? How does the occasion motivate the letter? What is the historical significance of this letter? We can easily spend a full class period digging into one letter.
Analyzing letters is not a novel concept in a high school English class. Writing them, however, is something that we seem to have left behind. This year in my AP Lang class, we did a mini letter writing unit, and I loved the results.
A little background to this unit first. I acquired 60 copies of March Book 1 by John Lewis through a county grant and through a DonorsChoose project. This graphic novel details Georgia State Representative John Lewis’s experiences as a leader in the Civil Rights movement. It is a beautifully illustrated text with an incredibly powerful message about the power of social change, independent thought, and civil action.
After our unit on the book, I asked my students to write thank you letters to John Lewis with the intent of trying to persuade him to skype our class (an unlikely possibility—but you never know unless you try, right?!). A few days later, I collected the letters, and they didn’t wow me. They were boring, and certainly not persuasive. My students were stuck in academic writing and had lost their voice.
Have no Fear — Mentor Text to the Rescue!
For those who are not yet familiar with the work of Allison Marchetti and Rebecca O’Dell, check out their website now. They focus on using mentor pieces (real world writing) to help students to “read like a writer” and therefore become better real-world writers.
I pulled three very different letters for this assignment. With permission, I used a letter to West Virginia legislators written by WVCTE president, Jess Salfia. This was right before the teacher strike, so it was a perfect relevant piece. I also showed them one of my letters, but we primarily used Jess’s as the mentor for this activity. I also pulled Kurt Vonnegut’s inflammatory letter to the Drake School District, “I am Very Real” and “To My Old Master”, an 1865 letter from a former slave, Jourdan Anderson, to his old master. Though these were the three that I chose, there were a plethora of unique letters on the website Letters of Note.
These three letters had three very different purposes. One was persuading for legislative change, one was a fiery argument against censorship, and one was a sarcastic “break up letter” (my students’ words, not mine). All three, though, contained beautiful rhetoric, and many stylistic choices that my students could incorporate into their own writing.
My students annotated each of the letters for homework, and in class we brainstormed a list of things that writers of great letters do.
Writers of powerful letters . . .
- Start by introducing the writer
- Provide relevant ethos early in letter. Tell them who you are!
- Use repetition (anaphora, repeating key phrases)
- Appeal to authority
- Use inclusive language
- Use strong illustrations
- Use clear evidence (like statistics)
- Use anecdotes as evidence
- Use strong emotional appeals throughout
- Refer back to the audience frequently
- End with a persuasive “mic drop”
We also discussed how the purposes of the three letters drastically affected their style of writing. Jess’s letter was formal yet impassioned. Because her purpose was to persuade for legislative change, her tone could not be as angry as was Vonnegut’s letter. Anderson’s letter was humorous, which showed a very different rhetorical effect.
After our annotation, discussion, and listing, students used these three letters as mentors to revise their John Lewis Letters.
In a last-minute decision prompted by the political climate of February, I also gave them the option of scrapping their Lewis letter altogether and writing a letter to a West Virginia senator about any subject about which they felt passionate. One student wrote about gun control, another wrote about health standards in schools. And about 1/5 of the students wrote letters about education.
The students’ letters in this second go-round were beautiful. Their voice was present, their rhetoric was persuasive. Because we were writing to a real audience about a subject that they cared about, their letters took on a drastically different tone. My students felt that their writing mattered.
Let me share with you one of my favorite letters (name removed for privacy):
Dear Members within the West Virginia House and Senate,
My name is C. I am a valued student at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County. I am a member of various National Honor Societies and volunteer within a few school organizations. As well, you will find me in multiple advanced placement classes and honors courses. Being a student who values the quality of their education –I am incredibly concerned about the state of education here.
I have been born and raised here in West by God Virginia, my family’s roots run deep within her mountains. I have been lucky enough to have attended Hedgesville Schools all my life; a school district that strives to give each student the most enriched experience possible. Much of that statement is due to the teachers that most students have taken for granted. I have never been denied afterschool help, nor have I ever had one lack-luster teacher in my schooling career. I have been lucky enough to have teachers that are not only qualified to teach high school courses, but as well as a college curriculum. Hedgesville, as well as much of Berkeley County, has gone above and beyond in their search for overly qualified teachers to insure we have the best education possible. The care my teachers have given through the years allowed me, a child who comes from a broken home, learn that I am worth so much more and can make something out of myself through the power of knowledge. Teachers go way outside of their job descriptions to insure the quality of life for their students – kids they claim to be their very own. I can attest to this firsthand. Teachers are the unsung heroes. However, much of those teachers I have come to love and appreciate are seeking employment elsewhere. To us students who have relied on these teachers for our education, as well as being our rock when life at home was hard, this news is heartbreaking.
In regard to recent events –I now ask you, the Legislators of this wonderful state, why you choose to jeopardize the quality of education that the future generations of West Virginia are receiving? The generation of students who could possibly be your doctors one day, or even government officials such as you. Why don’t we mean anything to you? Why are we not the priority in your topics and affairs? You obviously have valued your own personal education, so why not ours? Why have you even implemented such ideas that compromise the living of teachers? These are some of the people that matter most in our lives and we are losing them, because of a decision you each have made.
I hope that you can look at this issue at hand more than a political one, and rather assess it based on your own morality and solve it with the goodness of your hearts. As a student of West Virginia, I deserve a well-rounded, quality education –the type of education I have received for the past twelve years of my life.
My teachers, and the rest of the teachers in West Virginia, should be valued. They should be valued much more than 1%. I hope that, you, the Legislators can make this right.
Junior of Hedgesville High School
We teach our students that they should see value in their voices. 2018 has been demonstrating that youth have incredibly powerful voices. I can’t wait to see how they change the world.
Jeni Gearhart is a member of the WVCTE executive committee. She teaches 10 Honors English and AP English Language at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County. Originally from Western PA, Jeni loves West Virginia and has taught all six years of her teaching career in the Wild and Wonderful state. When not wandering the internet for new teaching ideas or grading papers, Jeni likes to drink coffee and devour good books.