Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Story Behind My Novel, Class Letters

Fabulous cover design by
the incomparable Amanda Oaks

I was a high school English teacher for a decade. I loved English, and I loved being with the kids. Some of the other aspects of teaching, not so much. When the opportunity arose for me to "retire" I jumped at it. For the record, I did all the normal things an English teacher does: we read and analyzed poetry, novels and plays, researched topics for a paper, gave speeches, practiced grammar and etymology, and did some creative writing. Of course, kids being kids, some worked harder at finding ways around the assignments than they would have if they had actually done them in the first place.

This is the assignment (and the suggested work-around) that sparked the novel:

I thought it was important to read (silly me!). Most of my students did not (although, to be fair, because Libras are always fair, many loved to read and, in fact, preferred it to doing other assignments I gave them). This was especially true of the novels that were assigned as part of their curriculum....like Hawthorne (completely understandable; sentences are three miles long and have humongous words that I don't even know) or Fitzgerald (adore Fitzgerald) or Steinbeck (awesome). But I wanted them to read, and I wanted them to love it, dammit!

So I created my "novel project" assignment. They had to read a novel each semester and do a project over it. They could read anything they wanted. Dean Koontz, Meg Cabot, J.K. Rowling or Stephanie Meyer were all perfectly acceptable. I didn't care if it was one hundred pages or one thousand. I just wanted them to read (and love it, dammit!).

I gave the assignment, deflecting the moans and groans. Then I heard a whisper in the back of the classroom. Teachers have supersonic hearing when they are at school. Mine magically disappeared when I returned home to The Husband, however.

The whispering student offered the following advice: cheat using the Internet.

I wanted them to read. Is that so bad? Woulda/shoulda said: Just do the motherfucking assignment!  But I couldn't....at least not without getting fired, or giving away all my cash in the form of bribes, which would never work on a teacher's salary. Neither do food nor rent, but I digress….

I wrote a letter instead. It wasn't hostile or accusatory. I wanted them to think about cheating and its ramifications (thinking AND reading? What kind of a monster was I??). I included a poem, "The Woman in the Glass" by Dale Wimbrow, and asked LOTS of questions. Their assignment was to read the letter, think about it (there's that word again), and craft a page long response. 

I received many answers that were similar. Yes, I cheat on little things like homework, but nothing major like a test, and it's no big deal. Or No, I don't cheat and don't like when others cheat off me.

But these are the answers that blew me away:
  • I've never really thought about stuff like that.
  • I believe that the letter...may have changed...a lot of people's ways of thinking about that topic.
  • I don't think I've ever read a poem that made me think as much as this one did.
  • I think you're showing people a message they may not want to see or read but it is good for them because they need to hear it. (yeah, I know...but look at the intent behind the word choice)
After that, I wrote letters every month about other "life" topics such as authenticity, self-worth, and gratitude. I looked forward to the responses and often found myself thinking about a topic for the next letter. There was an unexpected bonus. The kids opened up because we connected on a deeper level, especially when I shared about my own challenges and experiences. I got to know them...really know them...and vice versa. I became a better teacher. I became a better person.

I wanted to share this story of connection with other teachers, counselors and parents. I felt like anyone could use this "tool" as a way to communicate with kids. My original idea was to create a "how to" with examples, but I ran into copyright and privacy issues. Class Letters is a fictional version of an English teacher who, due to an incident remarkably similar to the one above (amazingly enough), connects with her students through letters and, hopefully, makes them think about topics such as balance, motivation and kindness. Her/My goal was, is and always will be to help students be the best they could be. I hoped that by making them think about these intangibles, they would also consider the people they were at that moment, and the people they wanted to become. 

If you’re interested in a sneak preview, subscribe to the newsletter (you can always unsubscribe later). You’ll receive a download of the first three chapters of Class Letters. Thanks!

Have you found effective ways to communicate? Have you ever tried letters?

Have you been there?


  1. I've used letters with my classes over the years in various ways. I also try to get to know at least one passion of each student and try to connect in that way. I have "first day" cards, that the kids fill out in class, and there's more focus on what they love/hate to do - and that helps. I share mine with them. I think your project was an amazing one - for them, I'm sure, but maybe even for you, especially. When kids open up to us, it's the best. I can't wait to read more of class letters, too!

  2. Letters really are a wonderful way to open people's eyes to the depths of other people. Writing letters to inspire a class of kids sounds quite creative - as someone who writes letters constantly, I wholly approve.


Yes! I've been there, Claire!