Archive for Non-Fiction Pairings

Non-Fiction: Letters of Note Week in Review

           Friday Dialogue from                

                                      Your Two Favorite Educators 

As Emily and Aubrey look back over the week they use their razor sharp wit to discuss the role of letters and non-fiction in the classroom.  

1.  What value is there in teaching students about the language and style of correspondence? 

What does Emily say?Emily:  I think you have done a great job this week providing lessons and samples that highlight the honesty that is found in physical correspondence, not just emails.  Studying the language and style of the correspondence helps students recognize various ways in which emotion and personality can be conveyed through writing.

Aubrey: I do think there is an intimacy and truthfulness in letters that we rarely see in email.  Maybe that’s just because it’s hard to be nostalgic for email and being nostalgic is something we like doing.  Most email feels like a chore or worse a punishment.  

2.  How to do you go about teaching students to read annotate a letter versus a speech?  

Emily:  I think the key difference for students to recognize is the role of exigence in the construction of the letter itself.  Unlike a speech, something precipitated a personal and intimate response.  Analyzing the contextual situation of a letter is vastly different than that of a speech because of the role of intimacy.  Similarly, while I use SOAPSTone with letters and speeches like you suggest this week, I think asking students to spend more time thinking about the “Audience” is important in analyzing the text.  

Aubrey:  We spent a lot of time talking about voice.  It’s so much different inIs Aubrey right? correspondence than that of a speech.  I also like to have students consider the element of eavesdropping.  Not only is this conversation not for them but it was never meant to be seen, heard, reproduced or annotated.  Considering yourself as an “intruder” of sorts should change your interaction with the text.

3.  When is the last time you received a letter?  Do you save letters?  If so, why?

Emily:  Let’s be honest.  Every teacher has a box they use to save letters they have received from students that we open up on bad days when we question our profession.  I’m kind of a letter baiter.  I basically force my students for whom I write college recommendation letters to write me a thank you card, most of which include really nice letters.  They are so uplifting and reaffirming in a profession established around test scores and GPAs.

Aubrey: I actually have all of my student letters in a folder I’ve marked “Happy Thoughts.”  Sometimes I use those letters as my “breathing exercises” when I’m really irritated with a student.  I’ve also  I’ve kept all of the letters my husband wrote to me in college.  Now keep in mind, I demanded these letters because I believed true John Keats like love required a series of love letters.  Let it not go without saying that I was romantic and demanding at the same time.  What I didn’t recognize is that demanding the poetry of Keats does not necessarily mean getting the poetry of Keats.  It’s a good thing that he was a patient 19 year old.  

4.  Do you think the art of letter writing is dead?

What does Emily say?Emily:  It isn’t dead but is certainly dying.  But, as a result, the letters that are being sent are written with more care and consideration.  Since letters are written sparingly I think their writing and reception are so much more special.  I know I’m going to sound old by saying this, but when letters were more commonly written and received I didn’t think twice about them.  Now, when I get a letter I value it so much more than I did before.

Aubrey: I honestly can’t remember the last time I received a letter.  My mother sent me a birthday card and it had notes written in it but I’m not sure that technically counts as a letter.  My students don’t even really know how to formulate them and I simply don’t write them.  So, yes.  I’m pretty sure it’s dying.  I can’t decide if this is a loss but I do know that I agree with Catherine Field’s argument in The New York Times.   There is something about holding a letter that breaks down the barriers that separate us and it is both rare and special to feel that way.

5.  If you could receive a letter from anyone explain who would it be? What would it contain?  

Emily:  Hmm…this one is tough.  I know it might sound silly and is impossible, but I’d love a letter from my future self.  Receiving a letter from myself might be vain, but I think it would be nice to see what is in store for me.

Oh, crap.  That  sounds all philosophical and useful.  I want a letterIs Aubrey right? from David Sedaris telling me I’m funny and one from NBC News Anchor Brian Williams telling me that I’m important.  There.  I’ve said it.  I want to be funny and important. Kind of like Tina Fey or Justin Timberlake.

Non-Fiction: Letters of Note & Letter Writing

In February of 2011 Catherine Field wrote an op-ed for The New York Times that argued the attributes of letter writing.  Using her mother-in-law as an example, Field suggested that while email provides immediacy, letters establish intimacy.  While true, consider the last time you actually received a letter.  Not just a birthday card but an actual letter.

Time taken on letter writing seems non-existent, yet we see evidence of correspondence everywhere.  President Obama reads 10 letters each day, often answering two or three of those in his own hand.  Carolyn Hax, a syndicated advice columnist for The Washington Post, responds to a variety of correspondence on a daily basis.   Most major publications allow for “letters to the editor” regardless of their format.  Still, how many of your students actually know how to craft a letter or even an email in a way that is both engaging and appropriate?

We’ve spent this entire week discussing how to use Letters of Note as a “textual” resource.  But the site itself is evidence that fan letters do get answered.  The exercise today uses the resources from of Letters of Note and the Maria Popova’s post on Brain Pickings, a resource we’ve highlighted in the past, about a high school student’s Symbolism Survey.

  1. Have students read Popova’s overview as well as original story from The Paris Review that provides a bit more background.
  2. Have students discuss what would motivate an author or any celebrity to respond to a “fan.”  Have them examine letters from fans at Letters of Note.  I’ve included a moving example below from a parent to Patrick Stewart in regards to her son’s love of Star Trek before Duchenne muscular dystrophy ended his life.
  1. Ask that students review responses to fan letters from Letters of Note. You will want to select examples in advance as some of them have language inappropriate for school.  I’ve included some examples below.  Consider having them SOAPSTone, etc.

Letter Project to a Living Author or Journalist

You might then assign students the task of constructing their own letter based on those characteristics necessary to engage a person in the public eye.  A person they believe has little chance of responding to them.  Now, that could honestly be anyone but you might want to theme your focus.  You could set limits making it a living author or writer you’ve studied.  Have them write to columnists at The New York Times or The Washington Post.  Consider having them write to Brian Williams or Anderson Cooper.  Think about having them write to David Sedaris, Jonathan Safran Foer, Amy Tan, Ian McEwan, Khaled Hosseini, Sara Gruen, Aravind Adiga, or any author represented in your course.  You might even have them write a documentary filmmaker if you’ve used any in class.  The end goal is to have students practice voice and to get a response. They should come up with a way to do this without many limits/parameters.  A “fictionalized” conversation with Hemingway simply won’t do.  They need to struggle with the idea that this could actually be read and that filling in space won’t suffice.  Finally, have them give you a copy and have them mail one.  I’d even suggest displaying the best ones with the student’s permission of course.

Non-Fiction: Letters of Note & Media Literacy

As we discussed in yesterday’s post, the website Letters of Note can easily fit into preexisting units of study.  It helps to have Mark Twain the “letter writer” teach Mark Twain the author of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  However, part of what makes the website so enjoyable is its archive of letters that deal with popular culture.  Letters from cartoon characters, animators, cartoonists, astronauts and Muppets find their way onto the list and for no small reason.  They offer some of the most interesting content and rhetoric.

When using letters from this popular culture category consider asking that students reflect upon what these letters argue about society and culture.  What importance can be found in a fan letter to Charles Schulz?  Is there significance to the fact that Marge Simpson “writes” to First Lady Barbara Bush?  This exercise asks students to assess the role of popular culture and its impact on the individual and helps them to learn those pesky critical thinking skills that often elude them.

One of the most interesting ways to employ these letters is to shape them into units based on topic.  Pairing “passages” together allows students to examine history, popular culture and television to create big picture arguments about who we are culturally.  Below I’ve included three letters that deal with space exploration. Perhaps it’s been on my mind since the AP Language test used space exploration as the theme of its synthesis questions in 2009.  Or perhaps it’s because I have a Star Trek problem.

Whatever the case, all three letters explore the final frontier in an effort to show you how to partner images, video and letters to create a “themed” focus for writing and discussion.  The first is William Safire’s contingency speech for President Nixon in the event that Apollo 11 was unsuccessful and all astronauts were lost.  The second letter is from Neil Armstrong on the 25th anniversary of the moon landing extolling the virtues of his spacesuit.  The third letter, and a personal favorite, is from Muppet Labs to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.


Consider showing students the included video clips in order to lend context.  

William Safire for President Nixon, “In Event of Moon Disaster

  1. Read and SOAPSTone.
  2. Consider the title first. What tone does the language set?
  3. Examine the opening line.  Explain the choice of the word ordained.  What effect does it create?
  4. Record the number of times the word “men” is employed.  Explain the impact of this repetition.
  5. Examine the progression of the word mourned.  How does this mourning change as it progresses?
  6. Identify two implicit arguments made about the U.S. in this speech.  Explain the significance of these arguments.

Neil Armstrong, “It’s true beauty, however, was that it worked

  1. Read and SOAPSTone .
  2. Examine the image of Armstrong’s suit.   What importance is there in choosing the word “spacecraft” to describe it?
  3. Identify Armstrong’s tone.  Explain the difference between him as a person and as an iconic based on this language.
  4. Discuss Armstrong’s use of the phrase “it worked” to describe his suit.  How does this language relate to Nixon’s speech above?

Consider using the Muppet Labs video below to introduce Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker.

Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker, “Scientifically, yours

  1. Read and SOAPSTone.
  2. Explain and identify the use of quotation marks throughout the letter.  Explain how these add to tone.
  3. What role does the P.S. have in this letter?  The P.P.S?
  4. Why would clearly fictional characters find the need to “write” a letter to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab?

Overall topics for writing

  1. Construct a paragraph that makes an argument about space exploration based on all three letters.  Use one piece of evidence from each letter.  Be sure to assess the role of the “final frontier” in your commentary.
  2. Construct an argument about Safire’s speech for Nixon and Armstrong’s letter.  How to the two texts relate to one another?  What is the argument about Apollo 11’s mission?  Use language directly quoted from each letter to formulate your argument.
  3. Construct an argument about the interplay between television/film and current events.  What can be argued about fictional and reality?  Why?

Non-fiction: Letters of Note for Literature & History

As overviewed yesterday, this week’s goal is to easily implement non-fiction in the classroom with resources from the website Letters of Note. One of the best things about Letters of Note is the simplicity of the website itself.  Letters are presented in their original copy as well as typed for easier reading.

The archive on the site is also incredibly straightforward.  You can search by correspondence type, year of publication, topic categories, author and so on.  For a teacher these choices are incredibly helpful.  Say I’m teaching how satire and humor create distinctive voice.  I click the “Humorous” link under “categories” and immediately I’m taken to a series of letters that range from Mark Twain to the Simpsons.

Finding letters that supplement your preexisting units of study is so easy you might even become slightly giddy.  I know I did when I realized that Shaun Usher, the site curator, had posted a Fitzgerald letter that referred directly to The Great Gatsby

One of the most charming is Mark Twain’s letter to a burglar who broke into his home.  I’ve included some areas of focus for possible implementation.

Twain’s “To the Next Burglar

Consider using this if you’ve taught some of Twain’s shorter pieces such as “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” or “How to Tell a Story.”  If not wait until you’ve taught them Twain’s style of humor via The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  You’ll want to have them examine the drawings as well in the letter since they add whimsy.  Pull up on your SmartBoard or have them examine on computers, tablets or SmartPhones.

Possible Areas of Focus

  1. Read and SOAPSTone the letter.
  2. Identify 3 elements of humor that Twain employs.  Discuss their impact.
  3. Examine the images Twain includes in the margins.  How does this add to the humor of the piece?
  4. Examine Twain’s sentence structure and language.  What tone does he produce as a direct result?
  5. Clearly, there is a limited chance that a burglar, any burglar would actually read this, let alone follow its “instructions.”   In that case, what is the purpose.

Below I’ve included a list of letters that would work fit perfectly into novel-to-time period studies.  While it would be quite simple to have students simply SOAPSTone these letters, you can choose to implement them as texts to respond to in student journals or as a means to understanding style.  These are of course just a few of the letters that would work in any classroom.

Federalism/Revolutionary War

Abigail Adams, “Remember the ladies

Ben Franklin, “You are now my enemy

Civil War/Slavery

Abraham Lincoln, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong

Frederick Douglass, “I am your fellow man, but not your slave

Jourdan Anderson, “To my old master

Sullivan Ballou, “I shall always be near you

American Authors

Mark Twain to Walt Whitman, “What great births you have witnessed

Jack Kerouac to Marlon Brando, “Common on now Marlon put your dukes up

Issac Assmiov, “ A library is many things

Ernest Hemingway, “For your future information

Kurt Vonnegut, “Slaughterhouse Five

Harper Lee, “Advice from Harper Lee

British Authors

Thomas Pynchon, “In defense of Ian McEwan and Atonement

Charles Dickens, “Happy Birthday, Dickens


John Keats to Fanny Brawne, “If I cannot live with you, I will live alone

Sigfried Sasson, “Finished with war

Ralph Waldo Emerson to Walt Whitman, “ I greet you at the beginning

Non-fiction: Letters of Note Overview

Incorporating more non-fiction is a consistent goal within most English curriculum planning. Common Core expectations focus on literary non-fiction and analyzing rhetoric as does AP, Honors and IB curriculum.

But supplements can be difficult and time consuming to find.  Trolling through websites can eat away at my sanity especially as we march closer and closer to the end of the year.   Between AP tests and state mandated testing it can feel as if there just isn’t time.  No time to find material and certainly no time to implement it.  It’s easy to give up, become frustrated and revert back to all “Gatsby” all the time.

Never fear. Letters of Note is an excellent online resource for a classroom teacher of English or History. Shaun Usher, website curator, has compiled over 700 letters that span centuries and whose topics range from Stark Trek to the Civil War.   While letters include the handwritten notes of celebrities and iconic historical figures, some of the best correspondence is that of people we do not know.

With a post per day, it’s more than likely you will be able to find a new non-fiction supplement each week for things you already teach.

This week we’ll highlight some of the best letters and discuss how to seamlessly employ them within your preexisting classroom structure.  Expect letters from Mark Twain, Frederick Douglass, John Adams, Steinbeck and more.  Expect letters ready made for teaching style. But most important, expect assignments about the role of correspondence in modern culture.  All will be easy to implement, and all will help enrich literature and rhetorical analysis.