I don’t believe things happen for a reason, but I do believe the universe has a way of aligning similar vibrations. Thus, it should come as no surprise that after my November blog post, A Love Letter To My Student Writers, I have continued to be psychologically “pinged” by the concept of letter writing as a means to apply the lessons of a text to our lives, as well as a way to to open lines of communication between students and teachers.
I recently had the pleasure of attending one of the Hudson Valley Writing Workshop’s Saturday Seminar programs. The theme was In These Times: Authentic and Responsive Teaching for 21st-Century Learners, and I attended a workshop led by the inspiring Tina Tamweber from Arlington HS called, Let’s Get Personal: Letter Writing for Literary Response. As Tina led us through a powerful reading and writing activity, we talked about the genre of letter writing as underrated not only for self-discovery and connection, but also as a way to help writers articulate their ideas, capturing them for a moment to be later revised, or crystallizing them to be cherished.
Tina prompted us to write letters of our own, and later to think about how we might use the concept of letter writing as we work with young writers. I was reminded of a letter I’d recently written with my students during an assignment in the fall, the first written activity of a semester course I teach called Exploring Teaching As A Profession. I asked them to write a letter to a hypothetical (or real) teacher based on the prompt, “I Wish My Teachers Knew.”
As you might imagine, students can get quite personal, and these letters can be intense to read and process. We always know as teachers and as humans that behind every pair of smiling or sad eyes is a story or twelve; yet it is quite another to read the perspectives and emotions and heart-felt desires of those at the cusp of young adulthood.
The four times now that I have done this writing, sharing, feedback, and meta-reflection activity have helped me become a better teacher and person, and I have always been tempted to share these letters with colleagues.
I have learned from previous letters that sometimes, students want their teachers to intuitively know things without having to actually tell them. This is, of course, impossible; however, I bet my students’ letters could have been written by YOUR students, too. So, NYSEC colleagues, here are unedited excerpts of what our charges have on their minds, courtesy of my high school group who just wrote last week:
“Answering questions outloud for math in 2nd grade scared me. I was always wrong. I memorized the twitch of my teachers lips when I couldn’t subtract two numbers. I’m still not good at math. I could’ve tried, maybe…but I was shot down before I could try.”
“I wish my teachers understood that our home life could be hectic and busy. How some of us could be so sad that its almost impossible to do work…I wish my teachers knew that not being in class, not doing work, not being present, even though not absent, can be a sign that we need help!”
I wish you knew that sometimes I won’t have any questions, I just want to review at extra help.”
“I wish teachers knew I rarely sleep enough I never mean to disrespect & I want to learn as much as you want to teach. I want to get better & I like a disciplinary / free bird by bird kind of teacher & I love class discussions…1-1 time between student & teacher is very important due to shame I’ve felt like that I’m stupid or I’m trying too hard in class if I ask a question.”
“…my favorite teachers weren’t boring and robotic and encouraged students to think outside the box and be more conscious of our society and the world we live in.”
“…teachers who create a warm environment are ones that I typically learn better from.”
“Most of my past teachers have been great, they made sure that my classmates and I were actually absorbing information. Others just assumed we knew what was going on and blew on to the next topic.”
“No matter how happy someone may seem, you can never assume what someone goes home to. No matter how loud someone’s laugh is, they could be experiencing the hardest thing and are very lonely. Life brings a lot of joy and pain, some more than others, and people become stronger and grow from it, and others get caught and swallowed in the pain and don’t know how to get out of it.”
“Just remember treat your students as you would want to be treated!”
“If a child is struggling they just want to feel heard and have a voice and may not come to you if they don’t feel welcome in the class. Honestly when a classroom is colorful and decorated it is easier to learn in because bare walls often feel like a prison. When desks are set up in rows it feels very isolated at times and is hard to relate to other students and even the teacher.”
“…I’ve struggled in a class but my teacher is not…[sic] nice. I’ve been scared to go to extra help…”
“I would like teachers to know that as a human being, there is nothing more that I want, then to make others happy…We deal with hate on social media, which destroys our self-confidence, we are very stressed from school, we strive to be the best student and get the best grades, but when we do that we forget to just be a teenager sometimes.”
“School isn’t that bad except for the main subject’s they are boaring.”
“I had a teacher in 6th grade who didn’t believe I was struggling and would always call me lazy and that I ‘wanted’ to go to summer school. This hurt me a lot and made me feel so embarrassed…I wish teachers knew that their respect and support means far more to us than anything.”
The closing to one poignantly critical letter:
“Thank you for all the amazing things you actually do.”
And a final one who writes to his future teacher self:
“You helped me accept myself, let my creativity out, and gave me a place where I looked forward to going to….You let me have fun in class and with projects and homework and even helped me find a talent that I did not even know I had.”
Excerpted, they are powerful; intact they are an education. We are imperfect yet well-intentioned, to be sure. But so are they. I hope reading them provides you as much of a “learning moment” as they do me.
Michelle G. Bulla is a high school English teacher and the 9-12 department chair at Monroe-Woodbury High School in southern Orange County, NY. She’s also a Teacher Consultant with the Hudson Valley Writing Project, and a member of the Executive Board for NYSEC where she serves in several capacities. She’d love nothing more than to continue this conversation with you as her favorite topic is her hashtag, #TeachersWhoEvolve. Find her on Twitter @china93doll or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.