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?

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