The Presents of Mind: I’m Thankful for… Letters!

Last month, I introduced two new means of reflection–a set of brainstorming questions inspired by Reading with Presence and a “poetry prescription” activity–that I hoped to implement in the weeks that followed. Today, I’m here with an update. Readers, they worked! 

The poem analysis letters inspired by The Paris Review’s “Poetry Rx” column were full of wisdom, kindness, encouragement, and good humor (the kind that most of the writers probably could have used themselves). Take, for example, this letter in response to a query about finding one’s place in a family:

Or this response to a letter about college application stress:

Or this reply to a letter requesting a poem to assist a “Florida Man” with a recent adventure (an example of the sillier side of things). Suggesting that the writer follow the titular advice of Seamus Heaney’s “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing”:

Once they received their responses, the “Dear Poet” writers, as they would after a call to a help desk or customer service, completed a brief Google survey to indicate their level of satisfaction with their poet’s recommendation and advice. Each respondent shared one critique and one compliment, and those were detailed and thoughtful, too! 

In the deepest parts of my teacher brain, I know that authentic tasks with a live audience (other than the teacher) usually yield better results, but confirmation of that truth is always powerful. So few of my seniors will go on to study literature at the undergraduate or graduate level, and life will rarely require a literary analysis essay, but offering good advice or a consoling message to a friend? That situation is timeless.

The seniors’ insightful and heartfelt letters make me wonder whether I can harness the friendly and reflective energy of letters for other analytical exercises. Perhaps students could frame research questions as a letter to an expert and then write their own replies? Write to an author or literary scholar and then take on the role of that “expert” to analyze a text? Does analysis become easier when it’s framed as a transaction or conversation rather than a lecture or a monologue? In the coming months, I think I’d like to test this hypothesis. 

And the Reading with Presence-influenced brainstorming for IB assessments? That worked, too! Completing an informal, metacognitive reflection before creating a more focused outline led to better-organized and more cohesive oral presentations. While some of the thinking between the two activities was repetitive, I think the repetition worked in the students’ favor, in the same way re-reading a text allows us to recognize details and nuances we didn’t see the first time. 

Where do we go from here? As I review seniors’ brainstorming reflections, I still see a lot of “word salad” that could be grounded by more concise and explicit examples, so a challenge for December and January will be guiding seniors to think critically and deliberately about reflection. Excuse me while a I write a letter to myself about exactly that!

Have you tried a new assignment or strategy that really worked? Prompted reflection in a new or exciting way? Please share your ideas in the comments below or on Twitter @MsJochman.

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