I have a plan. Well, I’m starting to plan, because I have a mission.
We need to write more letters.
I read an article by Malcolm Jones in Newsweek years ago, that made the point that historians rely on a written record to have something to study. According to Jones,
“The decline in letter writing constitutes a cultural shift so vast that in the future, historians may divide time not between B.C. and A.D. but between the eras when people wrote letters and when they did not. Historians depend on the written record. Perhaps a better way of saying that is that they are at the mercy of that record.”
With the advent of email (and, the article posits, even the advent of the telegraph bears some blame) we are losing records of daily activities that historians study.
Since I was teaching History and Government at the time, this was something that really made me say, “Hmmm….”
So, I’m going to have my students write letters. This may be in their journals, or maybe as an assignment where they write a letter to the editor with an argument, or even a letter to someone that they know. I’ve set a goal that students will write at least three letters of some form by the end of the year.
A few years after that Newsweek article, Charlotte Higgins wrote about “The Lost Art of Letter-Writing” and noted that she had recently received a letter from a friend who had authored a book about letter writing. She described it:
Last week I received a letter from him….It was a wonderful letter: thanking me for dinner, yes, but also giving me some advice on a tricky work question, and in general showing that he’d thought about the conversations we’d had that night.
Such a simple thing – for a letter writer to show that they were thinking about someone else. (Sounds like a lesson in empathy for my students. Perhaps a letter as the final task for that lesson?) A letter is a chance for the writer to show not only that they are thinking about someone else, but also to share a part of their day with someone.
It doesn’t have to be something momentous. The details shared in a letter connect two people – the author and the recipient. My sister in law is the best letter writer I know. And part of what I love about her missives, is that she sometimes writes them over an entire day – or two. She will tell me what she did that day – gardening, laundry, canning, home repairs – and will describe how long it took her, or how she felt when she finished, or why she had put the tasks off for so long. Those small details are interesting to me. They help me picture her, in her red and white kitchen, filled with Coca-Cola memorabilia, taking a few minutes to think about me and share something about her day.
It’s better than a phone call. Because I can save it, reread it, and return to it over and over when I’m missing her. Her letters bring me joy.
I want to share that experience with my students somehow. Jones points out how important the written record is to historians:
…to the historian, nothing written is trivial, because it all contributes to the picture we have of the past. In the last century or so, as historians have turned away from their fixation on the doings of the great and included the lives of average people in their study, the letters those people left behind are invaluable evidence of how life was once lived. We know what our ancestors ate, how they dressed, what they dreamed about love and what they thought about warfare, all from their letters. Without that correspondence, the guesswork mounts.
But on a personal level, handwritten letters are also important for the connection between people. Higgins pointed that she admired the elegant handwriting of her friend in his letter. I was thinking about that when I went back through the cards from our wedding recently. My grandmother died a few years ago, and I had a moment of melancholy when I saw the card she had given us, written in her crabbed script by her gnarled-by-arthritis hands.
It was an even more poignant moment when I found a little note, written by my cousin Dena, in her neat-as-a-pin print. The message wouldn’t make sense to anyone but me…and even the context for it is fading in my memory. Dena drowned when she was in her early 20s–a loss that I think about regularly. But her handwriting was so distinctive that I was really struck by it in that moment – rereading her last note. Anyone watching me would have seen a visible pause in my movements.
I’ve heard friends say that they type emails because their “handwriting is so bad.” We need to get over that handwriting issue – imagine a child who can’t recognize their parent’s handwriting, or their grandparent. (Or their cousin, in my case) What a loss! If students don’t practice letter writing when they’re young, how will they develop the habit as an adult?
My friend Shelley has had the same handwriting since we met in 7th grade. Even without my name on this letter, I would probably have known it was from her.
Aside from handwriting, letter writing is usually more informal and a place where someone’s “voice” appears. For students, it’s a chance to write and share their style, their thinking, details about their life. I think I will challenge them to choose a moment in their day and share it. They can practice writing description, including specific detail, and organizing their thoughts to include relevant information and give context to their thinking – all targeted standards for my subject and grade.
Yep. I have a mission.
I’m working on a plan. Students in my little corner of the world will hear about why letters are important. They will practice what to include in a letter. They will send a letter – and hopefully they will receive a response so they begin to learn the joy that a correspondence brings.