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Giving Thanks: Letters of Acknowledgement and Appreciation
Looking for relevant, real-world writing projects that appeal to a wide variety of students? The task can be quite challenging.
Many years ago I attended a conference session conducted by Ross Burkhardt who was then a teacher at Shoreham-Wading River Middle School in New York. Ross had recently attended the National Writing Project Summer Institute and was inspirational in his belief that it is possible to teach writing effectively to most of the kids, most of the time. I was struggling with so many aspects of teaching writing: How do I make this relevant? Will I be able to teach grammar and mechanics through writing? How comfortable am I with modeling by sharing my own writing? and on and on. One hour with Ross and I was hooked and immediately rethought the way I “taught” writing. I learned several lessons that day including the importance of designing writing lessons that have relevance and value.
“Letters of Acknowledgement and Appreciation” was just one of the assignments I borrowed from Ross. I soon made it my own, and it became a favorite of my students and teammates. While the assignment is appropriate for any time of the year, I found that the days before Thanksgiving could be especially effective. The purpose of the letter is to bring joy to someone who has been influential in the writer’s life by acknowledging that person’s contribution.
After several years of experimenting with how to prepare the students for this assignment (with mixed results), my teammate found an article entitled “Thank You” by Alex Haley in the Sunday newspaper’s Parade Magazine. In it Haley shared how he had spent a miserable Thanksgiving as a cook aboard the USS Murzim in 1943. He was feeling pretty sorry for himself after a long day spent cooking for his shipmates but knew that he would feel much better if he could salvage what little was left of the day by making it a day of thanks giving.
In the article Haley wrote, “It must have taken me a half-hour to sense that maybe some key to an answer could result from reversing the word “Thanksgiving”…to “Giving Thanks”. After awhile, like a dawn’s brightening, a further answer did come—that there were people to thank, people who had done so much for me that I could never possibly repay them. The embarrassing truth was I’d always just accepted what they’d done, taken all of it for granted. Not one time had I ever bothered to express to any of them so much as a simple, sincere, “Thank you.”
These powerful words combined with my humble model written to my second grade teacher served as an excellent opening for this project. There are many stories and works of non-fiction that could serve this purpose equally well. For grades 4-9, the Langston Hughes story “Thank You, M’am” is one example. However you choose to start this writing, it is important that the letters are delivered in order to create the sense that real world writing is important and valuable.
If you are interested in learning more, check out Ross Burkhardt’s book Writing for Real (Stenhouse and National Middle School Association 2003). It includes his suggestions for this assignment plus several real world strategies that he used successfully with his students.
Theresa Hinkle is a retired middle school teacher, literacy facilitator, and researcher who conducts workshops on literacy.