Tag Archive for Ian McEwan

Non-Fiction: Letters of Note & Letter Writing

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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 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.

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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

Poets

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

Novel & Unit Projects: Day One

Ah, the dreaded end of the novel or unit conundrum.  It’s as if I believe F. Scott Fitzgerald himself is watching me to determine if I do justice to the end of The Great Gatsby or if I cop out and just quickly talk about the importance of being “ceaselessly born back into the past” while mouths yawn and eyes roll.  Should I give them a full-length multiple-choice test?  A culminating project?  Oral presentation?  Chances are that by the time anyone gets to the end of a novel, they’ve tired (at least a bit) of teaching the text.  Does that mean quickly tie up loose ends and move on?

Most of us feel compelled to come up with some type of “fitting” conclusion when we finish teaching a book.  It seems appropriate, as if we do a disservice to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chinua Achebe or Ian McEwan if we bow out with a brief in-class discussion.  I often feel as though I owe it to that all knowing THEM.  But do I?  Or is it all in my head?  Then there’s always the trouble with how “big” the project shoul be? How much class time should it usurp?  Should it be creative or rigorous?  Or both?

It should be clear, simply by the awful rhetorical questions, how plagued I feel by this issue.   And guilty.  I cop out, too.

Prep work for end of novel projects begins well before you even start passing out the books.  That means that even if I plan on teaching All the King’s Men two months from now, it would be helpful to figure out my “angle” now.  The first thing to do is considering making a list of all the books or “units” you plan on covering for the year.  Decide which ones need a culminating activity.  My argument this week is not to suggest that all novels must end with a bang.  Even great final projects can be wearying to students and educators if overdone.

And it’s not Fitzgerald’s disapproval that should worry me.  I mean come on.  If anything I should probably be more concerned about Edgar Allan Poe’s power from behind the grave.   Or maybe not.