by Cheryl Stahle

Can you imagine being only allowed to write 500 words every SIX MONTHS?  In the recently released book, The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela, readers explore an intimate portrait of this complicated activist, husband, and father who for 27 years, found ways to communicate to the outside world his hopes, fears, frustrations and ultimately, his resilience in 500 word letters. He continued to covertly write about the apartheid movement while providing vision  to supporters working in his stead.

Initially only permitted to send one letter each six months (that restriction was eventually lessened), Mandela found ways to write around censors through his use of words.  While imprisoned, he copied the drafts of his letters into a notebook which he kept in his cell.   Mandela wrote to colleagues about continuing the apartheid fight; he parented his children in absentia through these letters; he supported his wife Winnie during her own incarceration; and he mourned and celebrated changes to his family that he missed.  All in 500 carefully chosen words.


From  $16.99 (ebook) or $24.75 (hardback)

Now let’s review:

  • Mandela wrote his ideas and drafts in a notebook. He brainstormed content and fleshed out his ideas before writing his letter.  That sounds like the purpose for a writer’s notebook!
  • Mandela edited and revised his writing repeatedly to ensure that he met the 500 word requirements and he had to manipulate language to work around the censors. Editing…revising…meeting requirements…playing with language.  Eureka!  That’s the writing process:  drafting, revising, editing, publishing.

This is starting to look like a teachable moment.  Mandela, notably NOT an author by profession, applied best practice to his own writing.  He brainstormed in a writer’s notebook, edited and revised before publishing.  Isn’t that what we try to get our students to do?  Our teachable moment provides a real life example of a non-author using the writing process.

This year in my classroom (11th grade American Literature), I am going to have my students replicate Mandela’s letters.  Initially I expect drafts disguised as final papers but with some gentle nudging (or not so gentle), these letters will evolve into well-crafted documents addressing a topic rattling around in my students’ minds.  I want them to connect and explore the themes being discussed in class around identity, the American Dream and their place in the world.  I expect a lot of grousing in the beginning because there is not enough structure but I also want them to OWN their choice.

It all begins with their writer’s notebook.  We will work early in the year on brainstorming by creating lists and using quickwrites.  I’m incorporating Linda Rief’s The Quickwrite Handbook into my bell ringers to help students play with ideas with short pieces of text to jumpstart thinking.  I also use short poems, cartoons, and quotes to inspire young writers.  After that, students will work on brainstorming using our essential questions.

Eight months.  Eight letters.  4,000 carefully-chosen words this year.  They can do this.

Cheryl Stahle is a contributing blogger for WVCTE.  She teaches at Parkersburg High School and is the Co-Director of the Central West Virginia Writing Project based out of Marshall University.  She is a not so regular tweeter @msstahleclass.  Besides teaching American Literature, her other classroom goal is to teach 1970s classic rock to her students.

WVCTE is wondering how this might work in your classroom? 

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