My secret weapon for building classroom rapport: literacy letters to establish instant connection with students

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I’m wrapping up a semester of teaching here in Paris, which always gets me reflecting on my practice–and on the relationships I’ve formed with students and other teachers. Recently someone asked me how I could put up with a certain class (notoriously difficult assignment where I am), and I had occasion to share my secret weapon with her. And so I thought I’d share it with you, too.

The idea is deceptively simple, and it comes from Randy Bomer’s fantastic book, Time for Meaning. (I talk about Time for Meaning more here.) Here’s what you do: whatever subject you are teaching, you write a letter to your students sharing some of your experiences (positive and negative). Next, you ask students to write back to you, personally, with some of their own stories. You can give them prompts, but you also want them to have the freedom to share whatever they’d like you to know. Finally, you read the letters and write back, personally, to each student. That’s it.

Now, I know that last part–writing back–might sound a bit overwhelming, especially if you are teaching high school and have many students (one semester I had 210). But even in your case, it is so worth it. You will reap much in terms of connection–and increased motivation–because of this up-front investment of time.

Why does this work? By making yourself vulnerable to students–presenting yourself as a human whose had good and bad times, not the superman/superwoman ruling the universe–you make it easier for students to be real with you. When they are honest, they often reveal their particular blocks when it comes to your subject matter (whether it’s math, English, foreign language, or another topic). Their letters will humanize their struggles to you, too, making you more willing to work with them. And by asking for–and proving you have read–their stories, you show that you are actually interested in them as human beings. I talk more about teaching through weakness (or vulnerability) here.

What does a literacy letter look like? I have a whole folder of lit letters I’ve written over the years; here’s one from one of my high school English classes to give you the idea.

Dear Scholars,

I’m so glad to be here; I have high hopes for our time together. But let me get down to the point of this letter: who are we as readers and writers?

The fact that we can read and write–no matter how we feel about the subject–is a blessing we all owe to a teacher. Ms. Keyes, my kindergarten teacher, pointed a ruler at words and told the class to recite them. I hated the thwack her ruler made against the paper and the rasp of her voice calling, “Neeext?” But I loved how the words turned into pictures and ideas in my brain. Somehow, when she pointed at the word “apple,” a secret window in my mind opened to a shiny, sweet fruit. The word “forget” made me think of the sick feeling I got when I went to bed without remembering to tell my dad that I loved him.

With each book, I seemed to grow a little bit as a reader. I imagined myself as a vine climbing up a wall that extended infinitely far into the sky.  There was so much to learn–how characters thought and changed; the way places influence people; what happens when tragedy strikes; the way things work in other families, countries, time periods, or planets (in science fiction, of course).

Reading never got easy, but it got GOOD. I read everywhere. I worked in a photography lab as a teenager, and I always brought my book, a dictionary, and a stack of index cards with me.  While photographs developed in deep trays of chemicals, I would strain my eyes to see in the darkroom’s red light. When I came to a word I didn’t know, I would look it up and write it down on an index card. I’d even write a sentence to help me remember. (No, it was not a school assignment; I was just that dorky.) When I scan the top shelf of my book case where I put The Sound and the Fury, The God of Small Things, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Kite Runner, No Telephone to Heaven, Anna Karenina, and my other favorites, I remember the words I learned with each book.

All of this is just great, right? But my experiences with words have not been one long success story.  Every time I go to Mexico, I’m reminded of how vexing it is to have an idea but not know how to express it.  Since I speak Spanish as a second language, I sound like a stuck record repeating, “¿Cómo se dice…?” during conversations.  And when I first starting reading in Spanish–¡Ay, Dios mio! After four pages of a novel, I felt exhausted.  Writing a simple note took me an hour and lots of paper. By the end, my fingers were sliced with paper cuts from using my Spanish dictionary so much. Even now, years deeper into the language, I feel less intelligent, less interesting, and less funny when I try to express myself in Spanish.  It’s like I’m a shadow of myself–a shadow with bad grammar. But the language itself is worth it.  So are the relationships it’s made possible.  I keep plugging away.

Don’t think that I only struggle in Spanish, either.  This summer, I vowed to write a novel.  For two weeks, I stared out the window and drooled.  Nothing.  When I wrote a sentence, it looked to me like something an inebriated Chihuahua had composed.  I cried and complained. I felt sorry for myself and ate chocolate chip cookies.  Then I sat back down and tried again.  Instead of trying to write THE NOVEL, I focused on writing notes about the novel.  “Calm down,” I coached myself, “this is not the real thing. Just write it.” I read books about writing novels. I timed my sessions at my desk to keep myself from taking a break every 35 seconds.  I wrote more notes.  Then–praise the Lord–I finally started THE NOVEL.

It’s not finished.  I’ve got about 20 pages typed up, not the complete manuscript I hoped for.  But I do know where it’s going now, and I am going to do it.  I know it’ll hurt sometimes. I’ll hate the story I’m telling, and I’ll want to quit.  Don’t let me, please. I need encouragement (and a little pressure), too.

All these experiences–and many more–are with me as I teach you each day.  I have a passion for my subject, yet I also know that you’ve had many different experiences that may have affected how you see English, for better or worse.

In this room, there are enough stories to fill a book.  You don’t have to tell me everything, but write back to me and give me a piece of who you are as a reader and writer. How do you feel when you read or write? What books or writing are important to you? Why do they matter? I’d love to hear your stories.

Sincerely, your teacher,

Ashley Pérez

Keep in mind that you can change the focus of your letter depending on your subject matter. For example, when I teach Spanish as a foreign language, I focus on what it’s like to encounter problems when I express myself in other languages… the point is to connect to some of the struggles your students may face.

If you find this helpful, you might also want to check out my other teacher resources here on the website.

 

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