Teacher Hack: Writing Letters

I wasn’t a huge video game player as a kid. In fact, my family never splurged on one of the big console game systems that were stylish back then like Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo, so I was resigned to spend my weekends staring at the greenish screen of my 1st generation Gameboy while my friends were embracing the future in their 32 bit gaming system bliss. I thought my parents were trying to torture me. Every time I went to a friend’s house, I nerded out on video games as if I were unnaturally deprived of something my generation intrinsically needed. My brief moments with Mario captured my mind as he jumped, kicked and spit fireballs through fantastic, albeit pixelated, worlds.

I was like an 11 year old with a playboy. It was magic.  

I learned enough about video games to know about cheat codes. These were just simple little tricks, hidden within the coding of the game, that made the challenge of the game a bit more palatable. For example, maybe you would hit the “A” button 10 times when it was on a certain screen to make your character immortal. Or you would the push left arrow and down arrow at the same time just as the game was starting to turn your basketball player into a fire-breathing dragon who would instantly kill all the other players. These were goofy little tricks that gave the players a reason to buy overpriced gaming magazines and we all giggled fanatically when they worked. Cheat codes gave us a way to play the game with an unfair advantage.

This intro is not just for nostalgia, but to say I’ve been thinking more about these little cheat codes that I have found in the classroom. Some of them are much more complicated than hitting the “A” button 10 times, but I think all of them have the same kind of payoff that fire breathing dragons on a basketball court have. I can’t do this all in one post, so I do it over a couple weeks, and try to remind myself of a few things I have found that work.

The first cheat isn’t really a shortcut at all, but it might be the most important thing I ever learned about teaching. LIke all things of value, it takes some work. I figured this out by accident when I was teaching a bunch of noisy 8th graders that I couldn’t get to stop talking. They were amazing people, and I could see that, but they were way too loud for us to accomplish anything in class. It was late in the day and they were 13 years old. That is a terrible combination. So I would stand in the middle of the classroom and beg them to listen a little. And they wouldn’t. It was embarrassing.  

I knew that if I could just talk to each of them, we would be able to work out some kind of learning truce. The only way I could think to do that was to write them each a letter. I quickly noticed that typing or writing took too long, so I opened the notes app on my phone or ipad and began using the speak to text function (I tell the kids this to avoid them making fun of small grammar mistakes). I told them the positive things I had noticed, the ways they could improve, things they could work on, and how they could be a leader. The next day, as they read their letters, it was completely silent. They wrote back heartfelt responses about what they were noticing in the classroom, what they needed help with, and how they were going to to work to improve.

From that moment on, everything in that class changed. It was as if I found some secret code in the game that made it work in my favor. So I kept doing it. Over the last 5 years, I have probably written (or spoken to my phone) 200 pages worth of letters to students. Some of them are academic, telling students that they need to work on developing arguments in essays or reading skills, but others are more personal and they focus on the positive things I notice about the student in class. When I have a weekend with minimal planning or grading, I take a few hours to write letters. I pick a class that I want to address, copy my roster from that class into my notes, and take the free moments on a weekend to write a few letters.

By way of example, I pulled a few examples from some saved letters.

The first one is to a great student who had faced a tough year.

“The truth is, that you are one of those amazing kids that I have been lucky to have in class. You keep rising to the top in life, even when life circumstances might make it difficult for most people. I'm not going to lie, you had every reason to slip this year. But you didn't. Even for a day. So I really mean it when I say “I want to be like you when I grow up.” :-) Sometimes, kids teach adults more than we ever give you credit for. I hope that I have taught you a few things along the way.  Keep doing big things. You rock.”

 

This one is to a brilliant person, who had not been a great student in high school. He was caught up in some things out of school that were holding him back.

“I am pretty sure this book will hook you.  Which, if I may be honest, is no small feat. You are so talented and you have ridiculously important viewpoints. But you do everything at half speed when it comes to school. I wish that I could find ways to engage you in learning, and more importantly, thinking. The less that you are thinking and speaking, the less meaningful our world is. Believe me, we need a lot more of your voice in the world, and probably a little less of guys like me. But I think you will like this book. And I want you to read it. Take some time, sit down, and read.”

Students tell me all the time that the letters that I wrote them are saved in one of their journals or binders, or they are hanging above their bed in a dorm room or at home. There is certainly part of me that likes that this practice means so much to my students. There is a vanity in wanting to be the kind of teacher that students remember in the future. But there is also a value in making a habit of telling students how they can grow and how they are amazing. When I force myself to do this occasionally in letters, I get better at saying those kinds of things every day. That changes the atmosphere of the room and pushes students forward in ways that I never expected.  

The letters can't be cheesy and I try to give special care to make sure they don't sound like a bad retread of some kind of motivational poster that is hanging in one of their classrooms. Instead, I pretend that each letter is my chance to talk to that kid over a coffee or while we are eating lunch. I try to give each letter a special dose of humanity. 

But in the end, learning has increased because of these letters.

“Here is why you are awesome. Here is how you can get better.”

Those kind of statements have changed my classroom.