Contributed by Whittier Strong, 2015
Connect the classroom to the larger world by having students write a letter to the editor regarding a class subject. The letter challenges students to consider tone, brevity, audience, and authorial intent. It also encourages students to consider how their writing can change the world around them.
Students are to write a letter to the editor of a real-life newspaper regarding a class subject. The assignment was due two weeks from when it was assigned. I gave this assignment within the larger context of a semester-long project in which students had to write about a concern within a community to which they belong, but it can be adapted to any subject of a community-level interest from their reading, writing, or class discussion. Similarly, I had my students write to the Sun Star, but the letter could be written to a Fairbanks-area newspaper, or a newspaper in their hometown. You could also adapt this assignment to more global issues and publications with a larger audience; I chose the smaller scale because the theme of my course was community and because it would feel more manageable and less intimidating to students.
I explained the genre conventions of a successful letter to the editor. First, it does not simply point out a problem, but offers a viable solution. Second, the tone is respectful, but not necessarily formal or academic. Finally, it is brief; I gave my students a soft guideline of 150 words for the assignment. I asked my students to consider the audience of the letter. On the surface, it appears to be the newspaper editor, but in truth it includes everyone who reads the particular newspaper. I also encouraged students to read the Letters to the Editor section in the Sun Star to better familiarize themselves with the genre. Were I to give this assignment again, I might have them read some sample letters in class and have them discover the conventions as a group. You can decide which approach to take based on how advanced your students are.
A few days before the assignment was due, I had them bring in their letters for a short in-class small-group peer review of about thirty minutes. The brevity of the letters was what concerned students most, so as they reviewed each other’s letters, I encouraged them to look for ways to express the same ideas in fewer words, and offered some rules of thumb regarding words and phrases that make writing overly wordy.
I didn’t require that students mail in their letters, though I strongly encouraged them to do so. You can decide how best to approach this. The assignment produced some of the strongest writing of the semester. It pushed the students to consider rhetorical situation outside of an academic context and then apply it to their writing.
ï‚· Recontextualize class writing and discussion
ï‚· Analyze and practice the genre conventions of a possibly unfamiliar form
ï‚· Practice revising for brevity
ï‚· Consider tone in writing and how it relates to a text’s audience
ï‚· Practice writing outside the academic context
ï‚· Consider the connection between writing and community