This spring, there was a flurry of letter writing in sixth grade: a letter to Secretary of Education James Peyser asking for greater arts funding for Massachusetts public schools, a letter to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver asking that NBA playoff games air earlier so that young east coast fans can watch, and a letter to Governor Charlie Baker asking for high-kill animal shelters to receive government funding so that fewer animals have to be euthanized. What inspired this grassroots advocacy? Sixth grade students were learning about the art of writing a persuasive letter.
An elegant and organized letter has the ability to influence, but an articulate and well-written letter from a young person is uniquely compelling. Sixth graders end the year with the “Letter of Change” writing project. The assignment requires students to identify a local or national issue that they care about, research it, and write a persuasive letter to someone in a position to effect the change they are proposing. “It takes writing outside of the classroom to make a true real-world connection,” says sixth grade writing teacher Lara Gleason. “It’s an empowering exercise as the kids realize that they can make a difference and that their voices matter.”
What’s my idea?
Lara begins by asking students to brainstorm ideas in expanding spheres of influence, from home and school to local, national, and global issues. As students wade through the problems they have identified, they discuss which prob- lems are worth solving and acknowledge their complexity. Perhaps a student really wants world peace, but what will they propose and to whom will they write? “We often work backward to come up with an idea that identifies a similar issue within the local community,” says Lara.
The breadth of issues identified by the students is immense, and this year was no exception, as the letters touched on topics as diverse as gun safety, 5-6 athletics at Fay, overfishing in Massachusetts waters, and homelessness. Of course, there’s always a student who just wants to convince their parents to get a puppy. “But it’s the kids who push them- selves to think about what’s happening in their community that find this assignment the most rewarding,” says Lara.
Once students isolate the issue they want to address, they research the problem and identify the recipient of their letter. Then they brainstorm what they need to know about the topic. “To have a compelling argument, you need a good understanding of the problem and the possible solutions. Then you have to figure out the audience and how that person fits into the situation,” says Lara. This part of the assignment provides a valuable lesson in civics as many students must wade through local and national government websites to research how decisions are made and to identify the appropriate person to receive their letter.
Crafting a powerful letter
Students write across the curriculum in Lower School. They write analytical essays about their reading, explanations of their thinking in math, and explanatory conclusions to their experiments in science class. Each type of writing draws upon different skills and requires practice. “Writing needs time for direct instruction,” says Head of Lower School Lainie Schuster. “Persuasive writing is especially important, and being able to articulate ideas, positions, and arguments is an important life skill.”
So before students begin to write their letters, they explore good examples of persuasive writing. They learn about writing a strong introduction, tailoring a letter to its audience, supporting an argument with facts, and anticipating a counter-argument. Lara also emphasizes the universal elements of good writing, such as good sentence structure, effective word choice, correct grammar and cited sources. At that point, students dive into their own drafts, writing, editing, providing peer feedback, and revising, until they are satisfied that their letters are ready to send.
Did I make a difference?
Each year, the students address and mail their letters during the last week of school. Of course, it’s exciting to receive a response, but Lara prepares the students for the reality that many of them won’t. But does that mean their letters didn’t make a difference? “You’re not always going to know whether your actions made a difference, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t,” says Lara, noting that many government offices like the White House may not send individual responses, but they do keep a tally of the number of citizens calling or writing to weigh in on certain issues. “I also believe that when adults read a well-written letter from a child, those are really powerful moments for those adults,” says Lara. “Based on the letters that we have received in response, our students are making a very strong impression.”
Case Study: Bring Hamilton to Schools!
Nathan Kikonyogo ’21 is a big fan of the musical Hamilton, but he was frustrated that the show is not currently licensed for schools to perform. So for his Letter of Change project last spring, Nathan wrote to the Tony-award winning creator of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, telling him how powerful and educational the show is and asking if Miranda would consider granting schools the rights to perform the show. “As I wrote it, I wasn’t thinking that I would get a response, but I decided to make the letter as good as I could,” says Nathan. “I did my research and did what I could to convince him.” A week after he returned from school in September, Nathan received a handwritten letter from Miranda thanking Nathan for his support of the show. While Miranda said that he couldn’t grant Nathan’s request, it didn’t dampen the unexpected thrill of getting a personal letter from one of his heroes. “I feel like my voice was heard, and it felt good that he cared enough to send back a thoughtful note.”
Case Study: Keeping Protections For Animals
Last year, Isabella Zhu ’21 learned that the U.S. government was planning to make changes to the Endangered Species Act, and she was concerned about reduced protections for the nation's most vulnerable wildlife. She wrote her Letter of Change to Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and asked her to take a public stand against the proposed changes. “I asked her to represent me and others who agree with me and to speak out about our perspective,” says Isabella. About a month later, Isabella received a reply from Senator Warren noting that she was glad to hear of her interest in the topic and promising that she would raise the issue in her next meeting. Isabella’s concerns and those of other citizens were clearly registered. In September, Senator Warren (along with 32 other U.S. Senators) co-signed their own persuasive letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Department of Commerce expressing their strong concerns about the proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act and urging them to rework or rescind their propos- als. “I think that this project was very effective, and the results of my effort showed,” says Isabella.