Titan Talk: Pen Pal Letters and Social Health

While sitting in a professional development workshop this summer, Chelsey Avery, a stellar special education and language arts teacher, and I were working on an issue that had been haunting us for days:

“How can we bridge the social gap between our highest academic achievers and students with unique educational needs?”

Our answer to this question has been implemented over the first month of school in the form of pen pal letters. These letters, which we call Titan Talk, are anonymous letters sent between my honors students and Chelsey’s special education students. While they serve vastly different purposes in our writing curricula, they have already shrunken the gap between these two groups of students.

Logistics

  1. Honors English 10 students and 9 special education students will write anonymous letters to one another.
  2. Students will use code names to communicate.
  3. 2 honors students will be responsible for writing to 1 special education student.
  4. Teachers will review each letter before it is sent to the recipient.
  5. Direct and indirect writing instruction will be provided throughout the process.
  6. At the end of the process, students will meet at a reveal party.

Code Names

In an effort to keep the letters anonymous until the big reveal at the end of the school year, students have been assigned code names. For instance, Simba and Nala are writing letters to Batman, while Simon and Garfunkel write to Princess Leia. By asking students to take on pseudonyms, we can encourage them to take more risks in their writing (a natural result of anonymity) while maintaining the authenticity these letters provide.titan-talk-2

Purposes

  • Authentic writing and reading opportunities – students are writing with actual students in their own school. This is not writing a pen pal they will never meet nor is it a contrived assignment in which students write to an absent other.
  • Writing to provide advice and to solve problems – the beautiful aspect of these letters is that the sophomore honors students just finished the experiences that the freshmen have just started. Thus, the expertise of the sophomores will motivate the freshmen. Furthermore, the sophomores will be motivated to provide sound and relevant advice when they know exactly what the freshmen are experiencing.

Short-term Effects

By engaging in the reading and writing processes, students will develop the quality of their diction and syntax. Students will be motivated to read and write because of the immediacy of the letters and the proximity of the recipients.

Long-term Effects

By engaging in the reading and writing processes, students will learn to develop empathy. By connecting the neurological development of freshmen and sophomores with the need for an affective component to the curriculum, these letters will allow students to engage with one another while being mindful of their own socio-emotional development.

Possible Pitfalls

These letters are being written and received by students at varying ability levels. The complexity of each letter may be overwhelming or lacking depending on the reader. This means that we must demonstrate sound intervention strategies while teaching. We need to make deliberate choices about the pairing of individuals based on each student’s needs.

titan-talk-1Topics

So far, each class has written one set of letters. The sophomores began with an audience-awareness lesson in which we aimed to discover the most effective number of questions to ask in a letter without overwhelming an audience as well as how much personal information to divulge while maintaining some humility. The freshmen focused on letter-writing basics as they discussed the components of a letter (address, date, salutation, body, and signature). Clearly, these topics differ in complexity; however, they are tailored to the needs of the students while.

 

Possible future topics include:

  • Write about change. When is it good? When is it bad? How has change affected you?
  • Sometimes, stressful moments turn out differently than you anticipated. Write about a time this happened to you.
  • Everyone worries. What worries you?
  • What was the first job you ever wanted? Why? Is this still your dream job?
  • How do you feel about surprises? Write about a time you were pleasantly or unpleasantly surprised.
  • What would be your ideal way to spend a weekend?
  • Who is your favorite person in the world? Why do you feel this way about them?
  • What does your favorite book or movie say about you?
  • Describe one of your routines? What does it take for you to get ready for school in the morning? How do you prepare for work? What do you do when you get home from school?
  • Is my writing clear? How could I make my writing stronger?
  • Do you enjoy reading what I write? How could I make my writing more entertaining?
  • Simplicity is important in writing, but it can be overused. Is there something I have mentioned before that I need to explain better?

Almost definitely, the use of these letters will evolve. I can see myself using them as reflection pieces as we study Macbeth or within our research unit. Chelsey will use the letters as opportunities for her students to teach others about the transition-to-life skills that she has integrated into her curriculum. Important to note is the fact that this evolution is not only expected, but also necessary. We want this process to mirror our own writing processes. We have planned and drafted. Now, we must edit and revise as we see fit. By tapping into our own writing processes as well as our pedagogical views, we can allow this project to grow in ways that best serve our writers.

How do you account for the social gaps at your school? How can the writing process factor into this issue? You can connect with me on Twitter @MGriesinger or on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters.

-Matt

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