The Magic of Letter Writing by Dana Johansen
Letters from authors are magical. “Choose an author you’d like to write to,” I remember my third grade teacher, Mrs. Szuba, saying to our class. I knew instantly which author I’d choose- Beverly Cleary. I adored all things Ramona and Beezus. I couldn’t wait to tell Mrs. Cleary about my love for her characters and how they were similar to my sisters. I remember waiting patiently for the mail to arrive each day, hoping a letter would come. I wanted to connect with the special woman who wrote the stories that inspired my imagination to run wild.
Hoping to bring the same magical experience to my fifth graders, I started a letter-writing project with my students last year, which I hope to continue this year. We began this project by brainstorming ways we could connect with authors. Many ideas were offered, and we considered which options worked best. We thought about using Skype, mail, Twitter, email, and blogs. After much discussion, we decided that we wanted to send letters through the mail, as well as use Twitter to connect with authors. We called our project, “The Owl Post.”
We wrote our first batch of Owl Post letters in October. Pens and pencils flew across lined paper. One of my students, Alexis, said, “I am writing my letter to Louis Sachar. I have read Holes over and over and it is my favorite book. But I don’t think he will write back. He lives far from here and is probably very busy.”
“We’ll see,” I said. “Anything is possible.” Alexis was right though, and I warned all my students that authors have very busy lives and might be in the middle of writing new books. As students sealed their envelopes, many were confident that their letters would be answered. My heart beat fast, thinking about my own experience waiting for a letter, and yet I was hopeful that some authors would reply. Just one would be magical.
I rejoiced when the first letter arrived. Thank you, Judy Blume! I ran to my classroom with the letter and gathered my students together. “Sarah received a letter!” I sang. Everyone cheered and gathered around Sarah. Magic filled the room. It was as though Judy Blume was there with us.
As Sarah read the letter aloud, the room was silent. Every student clung to Judy Blume’s words about being a writer and reader.
After Sarah finished reading, Alexis turned to me and said, “I don’t think Mr. Sachar will have time to write back. He is probably very busy.”
“Let’s wait and see,” I said.
The following months brought letters and tweets from Sarah Weeks, Ann M. Martin, Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Rebecca Stead, Tom Angleburger, Adam Gidwitz, Brian Selznick, Julie Andrews, Sharon Creech, Rachel Renee Russell, and many others. My students rejoiced with every reading of a letter or tweet. It brought joy to our classroom. Joy for reading and writing. Joy for making connections to a community of authors. With each new letter, Alexis’s eyes lit up, hopeful that the letter was for her- hoping to connect with the author she admired.
One day in February, a letter arrived. When I saw the return address, my heart leaped. I rushed downstairs and said, “Alexis, something arrived today.”
When she saw the letter in my hands, a smile spread across her face. “Mr. Sachar?” she whispered. I nodded. The class gathered around Alexis as she gingerly opened the envelope. She carefully unfolded the letter and read the words aloud to the class. In that moment, Louis Sachar was there with my students, and his words inspired them to read, write, and be passionate about what they love. When she was finished reading aloud, Alexis hugged the letter tightly, then quietly began rereading it, holding tight to every word.
As I begin this new school year, I look forward to beginning our letter-writing project again. Perhaps it will be the same, or perhaps we’ll change it. I’ll take my cues from my students and hear what they’d like to do.
To all the authors who Skype, email, write letters, tweet, and visit schools, thank you! Receiving your messages is a magical experience that brings joy and inspiration to the classroom. You are not there to see the smile on a child’s face when she or he receives a message from you, but I can tell you that it is unforgettable. You are making a difference in the life of a reader. A heartfelt thank you to all of you!
Typically found wearing mismatched socks, Dana Johansen spends her time teaching, negotiating with her yellow lab about doggy dinner options, and plopping down on the floor in bookstore aisles to find new reads. She has taught elementary and middle school for more than ten years and currently teaches fifth grade English at Greenwich Academy in Connecticut. Her first book, Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning, co-authored with Sonja Cherry-Paul, combines her love for teaching reading with digital resources. She can be found on Twitter at @LitLearnAct and at www.LitLearnAct.wordpress.com.