Mentor Text Wednesday: The Open Letter

Mentor Texts:

An Open Letter to Taylor Swift From a Disillusioned Fan by Ashley Devine

An Open Letter to a Canadian Boy by Sher Maryn LeBay

An Open Letter to Hillary Clinton’s Haters by David Hershkovits

An Open Letter from Chris Sale’s Jersey to Chris Sale by Joe Schiller

Open Letter website

Writing Techniques:

  • The Open Letter Form
  • Expressing Criticism
  • Social Commentary
  • Writing About Difficult Subjects
  • Voice

Background:

One of the best things about summer vacation is the time one has to think. My family packs up and spends at least a month on the East Coast, where my wife and I grew up. It puts me in different situations: on flights, on road trips, in different cities and towns.

open-letter_7

Image via theodysseyonline.com

And in my head, I write open letters. The open letter, which I’ve used in class before, is such a great piece for our writers to work with. In its purest form, it’s a critical piece that is written for a specific audience often a group, or type of person, but intended for publication. Of late, I’ve seen it used differently, publicly criticizing specific people. My stats may be inaccurate, but I’m guessing this accounts for 87% of Internet content.

Perhaps this is what makes me feel that teaching the open letter is an important thing for us to do. The form requires them to expand past the limitations of social media posts, hopefully taking them into the expression of criticism, and away from troll-type behaviour.

How We Might Use These Texts:

Open Letter Form– This form is a goldmine for us in our work with young writers. They are working through figuring out who they are and what they believe in. They are I’m sure you’ll agree, full of opinions too. The open letter gives them an avenue to express themselves.

The magic of the form is in the fact that though they are writing to someone specific they are doing so publicly. They must consider the expanse of that audience. Yes they might be talking to one specific person, but in actuality, they are speaking to, and sometimes for, a larger group. Yes, Ashley Devine is writing to Taylor Swift, but in reality she is speaking to, and for, a cross-section of Swifties. She has to keep both of these audiences in mind when she writes.

Expressing Criticism — I encourage my students to question and try to explain. We talk things out. I strive to have their notebooks be a place where they can “think out loud on paper.” The open letter is a great place for this to happen.

Since there is an inherent duality of audience in this form, our writers need to express their thoughts well. They need to give a background, setting up the situation for the wider audience. The letters I’ve included, with the exception of the Chris Sale one, do this well setting the scene for what the writer has to say. The open letter writer needs to explain what’s going on before they tell us what they think.

It’s the expression here that is key. The open letter is a place that our writers can work with their bias – they can express it here. In fact, that is often key in a successful open letter. The reader has an inkling of the writer’s feelings before they fully express them. That comes from the way that they express the background information. Both LeBay and Hershkovits make no bones about how they feel about the situation they’re writing about as they explain it.

Social Commentary — One of my favorite things is to give students something to consider and ask them to express their thoughts.Sometimes that’s a process of questioning, sometimes a matter of expressing opinion. I want my high school students to look at big ideas and struggle with what they think.

It is this form that I think will help our writers actually write social commentary. You’ve talked to them about the news, or pop culture. You know they have strong opinions. They often express themselves in a social media influenced form though. In an open letter, they can’t get away with this, they need to provide context, express their opinion, and pose questions or propose solutions.

Writing About Difficult Subjects — I’ve written here before about writing as a tool for dealing with tragedy. I stand by that – writing is a powerful way to work through tough things, to openly grapple with understanding things which don’t make sense to us.

The open letter format is a good form for this. They can explain the situation, filtering the explanation through their anger, frustration or other emotions. They can express their opinions or questions through those same filters.

Perhaps more importantly, they can address their open letter directly to those who have created the difficult situation. If they have questions, which is likely, as we all do when these things happen, they can ask them. This isn’t likely to garner them any answers, but putting the questions out there may be cathartic.

Voice — Open letters are all about voice. They get to express themselves, vent their emotions, and address their concerns.

Voice, however is why I included the Chris Sale letter. Writing in another voice is a powerful strategy. Although this is, in many ways, the weakest of the mentor text set I’ve included, the fact that it is written from the POV of a jersey makes it worth inclusion. Our writers can adopt a voice, a point of view, and express their feelings through that conduit. This would be especially helpful for those of our writers who struggle with their voice. Instead of “How do I feel?” they can work from “How would this subject feel?” Powerful potential there.

The open letter is a strong form for our writers to work with. A quick Googling will give you current examples, adding to the relevance for your students. This also shows the vitality of the form. It has flexibility, allowing for a variety of topics, purposes and lengths. Consider that Ta-Nehisi Coates’ acclaimed Between The World and Me is an extended version of this form, a book length open letter to his son. This powerful work showcases the relevancy of this form.

What open letters would you have your students read? What open letters would you have them write? What open letters do you feel the need to write?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!

-Jay

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2 thoughts on “Mentor Text Wednesday: The Open Letter

  1. Thanks so much for this post! I am filing these mentor texts away for this school year. This past year I had my IB students write an open letter to Macbeth after reading the play. They could write it from their own point of view, from Lady Macbeth’s viewpoint, the witches etc. and had to include quotations from the text as part of the “language” and evidence. What happened from this assignment was far better than any kind of literary analysis paper I could have asked them to write. The voice was there; the analysis was prevalent, and I, as a reader, was so entertained. I began by writing my own open letter to my students as to why I was altering the traditional character analysis essay to that of an open letter. I then used some open letters as mentor texts and am so grateful for this post so that I can experiment more with this format. Thanks!

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