Reframing a Project – Open Letters

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[here’s a shortcut to the student work I’m discussing in this]

I think I often end up as a “reframer” – looking for ways to make our MYP assessments more engaging or creative or authentic for students with small conceptual changes which shift the perspective just a bit.

My go-to methods are usually trying to add more student choice, add more connections to their lives or interests, or to incorporate more elements of Understanding by Design, particularly GRASPS.

Sometimes these small changes seem to just confuse or complicate things, but sometimes things seem to click and really shift the assessment into a higher gear. Or a lower gear, I guess, if you’re going uphill. Never mind the gears. I regret mentioning the gears.

Here’s a short description of one of these changes I came up with to a persuasive letter assessment in Year 9 (Grade 8) English. It started as a small reframing change but may have ended up being a more significant modification to the project than I’d intended.

What we tried

The existing assessment was about using persuasive techniques in a personal letter. Students were encouraged to pick a real-life issue, a person to write to, and if possible actually send the letter after the project (or send it as an e-mail).

Writing Apparatus

This was already a great assessment, with a lot of student choice and authenticity, and it built really well on the paragraph-writing and persuasive techniques they had been working on up to this point. For these personal letters, students often wrote very persuasively about things like improving school uniforms, abolishing homework, and other issues they felt passionate about.

As good as I thought the assessment was, I got an idea for giving students the option of sharing this letter a bit more publicly. I proposed that we should give students the choice to write an open letter instead of a personal letter. My thought was that open letters are a slightly interesting text type that could retain all of the persuasive force of a personal letter – but could deal with a broader range of topics and addressees, and could also be shared with a wider audience online.

What happened

My amazing colleagues in the Year 9 English team decided to give the open letter option a try, and in our planning time together we did some thinking about what makes an open letter different from a personal letter, reframed the task directions, and found examples to analyze.

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Our formative preparation for this particular project and the change to it wasn’t extensive, since we’d be building on paragraph-writing skills students had used in recent essays and had been practicing for the past two years. First we reviewed and practiced a palette of persuasive techniques similar to the one in the previous link. Just as with paragraph-writing skills, students had also been exposed to these persuasive techniques the previous year – a great example of how vertical discussions and planning time can really help teachers design projects that build off of previous knowledge.

After studying some more exemplar letters, and listing some of their interests and passions, students each brainstormed several roles, audiences, and purposes for possible letters (this was my attempt to use more explicit GRASPS framing). After getting peer feedback on which of their topics seemed most interesting, they were ready to write.

Photo on 3-14-18 at 7.59 AM

While a few students chose to stick with a personal letter on a more local topic like changing the school cafeteria (<- a personal letter to our cafeteria staff that was so popular that we ended up posting it online with the more “open” letters) or abolishing homework, the majority of my students opted to write open letters on more global issues. For their role, most chose to be themselves, or to be rather anonymous representatives of a force for change, for example “a concerned citizen” or “a female film lover” or “an environmental activist” or “a dog worshipper“.

However, a few students chose very creative roles and audiences, like “Role: Harry Potter. Audience: Hogwarts Students. Purpose: Werewolves are People Too”, or “Role: British Subject. Audience: Henry VIII. Purpose: Don’t Kill Anne Boleyn”.

After some editing and more peer and teacher feedback, we posted most of the letters on Medium. I put all three of my class sections’ open letters in the same “publication”, and I encouraged the students to leave positive comments on each others’ letters.

What we learned

As much as I liked the original personal letter assessment, the open letter format seemed to result in a bit more sharing, creativity, and excitement. I know that I personally, as the teacher, felt more enthusiastic about some student topic choices and where they went with their letters because they knew they were addressed to the whole world.

I overheard a lot of discussion about some of the more creative role choices, for example about the one student who chose to write from the perspective of Pennywise the Clown, and this might not have happened if the letters were required to be real-life personal letters.

However, there is definitely still a place for a powerful personal letter, as seen in Evan’s abovementioned letter about a proposed cafeteria improvement – I think the assessment doesn’t really lose anything if students are given both options.

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Another thing I felt during the project was admiration for just how passionate students could get about their topics when trying to convince through an open letter. Students want to change the world in a lot of surprising ways, whether it’s eating less meat or reducing animal cruelty or even getting parents to see the importance of fiction, and they are very good at arguing for that change if given the chance – something that we have all seen recently in examples of student activists in the US who have been given a national voice.

This leads to another positive thing I’ve noticed after working with open letters as a text type – the real-world examples we’ve found popping up during and after the project give it a current-events interest, and it’s very much a text type that is still thriving  publicly. For example, powerful letters or columns about topics like Rohingya refugees or US gun control have since allowed me to bring up not only the Humanities-type current events issues they center on, but also the English persuasive techniques used. In other words, it’s a good text type to familiarize students with, because great new exemplars with a lot of curricular connections seem to pop up in the news every few weeks.

One potentially tricky aspect of this project was that open letters ARE a different and slightly more challenging text type than personal letters, and successful ones require a different approach, with a few more layers of thought. You’re writing to supposedly change the addressee’s mind, but actually you’re also informing and persuading a wider audience. A really good open letter needs to, for example, summarize all of the main facts about the letter’s topic, for readers who aren’t in the know. A few students wrote “open” letters which were really just in the style of personal letters, referring to events which only the writer and addressee would know about (for example, this was a big problem with the very creative Henry VIII letter mentioned above), or spending too much time insulting the addressee, or urging the addressee to take action – without giving readers enough background info to understand why the criticism or action was necessary.

For this reason, I’m glad we gave students so much choice, including the choice to write a personal letter if they wanted. The spectra of choices the students had – personal vs. open letter, realistic role vs. fictional role, local problem vs. global problem – helped everyone pick a letter that they felt comfortable writing but also (hopefully) felt challenged and motivated by.

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One issue which did come up a few times with the more creative role/audience choices was how to judge the rigor of their arguments. If a student was a Martian general convincing the Earth to surrender, how were we going to judge if their paragraphs included enough examples from research to prove their points? Some students chose a fictional premise for their letters without quite having thought through all the details they would need to invent in order to win a logical argument based on that fictional situation. However, some students really rose to the challenge, for example using their expertise in Harry Potter’s world to cite quotes and examples from the books and agglomerated universe mythos to back up everything they claimed. I really enjoy the creativity of these types of letter, but there is the danger that what they gain in creativity, they tend to lack in authenticity and real-world logic.

On the technological side of sharing these letters: I initially tried posting them all on a Google Site, which I quickly found too static and inflexible. I then thought of having students each post their letters on their personal blogs, but then there would be no central collection of all of them to scroll through. I settled on Medium, which I’d used for a Literature Magazine project the previous year. Medium would let each student post their own letter under their individual accounts so I wouldn’t have to be a monolithic creator of the whole site, but which would also let me collect and if need be curate all the letters in a “publication”.

After deciding on Medium as a posting, er, medium, and getting most of the students to post their open letters, we discovered that a change recently made to Medium’s feedback mechanism made things a bit more fun for the students. I’d told them to “like” each others’ letters and leave some positive comments on letters they particularly enjoyed, but instead of the simple “thumbs-up” choice I was expecting, Medium now has “claps”.

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Each reader can give up to a certain number of… units of applause? to articles they like, and this quickly turned into a very entertaining game for everyone as students compared their clap totals and parceled their claps out to their friends. This interaction was, of course, a bit superficial and silly, but I think the high “clap counts” gave the students some of the excitement they would have if their posts had gone viral or at least actually got more attention from the wider world, and it added a bit of a game element to posting publicly.

We then had a series of very teachable moments about online commenting. A stranger assumed that one student’s fictional role for the letter – the student wrote the letter from the perspective of a parent of a child who’d been bullied – was real, and wrote a comment expressing support. The students initially thought it was hilarious that we’d accidentally “catfished” someone, and gave the comment a lot of “claps” and, before I knew it, a few students had written sarcastic responses to the original comment (which I had to delete / hide). I tried to turn the incident into a chance to discuss online identity, digital citizenship, etc., and, long story short, we put up a disclaimer on our publication pointing out that some of the letters were fictional, and will have to watch out for this reality vs. fictional role problem in the future.

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Another thing I’d like to focus on in the future is the use of Creative Commons-licensed images for things like this. I think we were frantically posting the open letters during the last few days before Winter Break, and the issue of image use just didn’t occur to me at the time. I’ve since thought about going back and forcing everyone to swap out their images for CC ones, but haven’t done it yet.

Overall, as a teacher I found this open letters project one of the most fun and creative assessments we’ve done this year, but also feel it was successful at incorporating the academic content we were focussing on: the majority of the students’ arguments were quite successful in using essay-style logic as well as an arsenal of persuasive techniques, which was exactly what we were trying to assess.

In addition, as mentioned above, open letters have kept coming up in current events throughout the year, and I’ve really enjoyed making those connections. As a text type I also think open letters have so much in common with related text types like opinion column, debate speech, blog post, etc. that all the skills involved in writing one are very transferrable, and being able to post them online is at least one step closer to finding a way to broadcast these great student voices to a wider audience.

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Photo sources:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/ixtussy/8492783813

http://www.flickr.com/photos/kaushiknarasimhan/4504860888

https://www.iol.co.za/news/opinion/an-open-letter-from-desmond-tutu-to-aung-san-su-kyi-11123972

Evan L.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/tevendounclip/8450574410

http://www.flickr.com/photos/marfis75/7968954274

http://www.flickr.com/photos/giuli-o/3421327165

http://www.flickr.com/photos/oatsy40/9230156485

 

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