From Now On
|Vol 10|No 7|April|2001
Note: FNO is proud to publish this article as a way of illustrating the power of e-mail in student hands at a time when many school districts are taking the easy way out and denying school e-mail addresses to young people. As with many issues in our society, the press has vastly exaggerated the dangers of e-mail and created a panic reaction that ends up widening the digital divide as students with home computers learn to communicate with digital tools and others are left behind.
Please feel free to e-mail this article to a friend, a principal,
"Dear Mom, Have you ever had one of those days ?"
I knew something was up when I saw the gleam in her eye and her hands behind her back. "Hmmm" I smiled, "What is she up to now?" With Amanda, my daughter, it is always something and usually something good. Now, more often than not, she puts it in writing. From behind her back, Amanda pulled "a proposal" bound in last years plastic report cover.
"Dear Mom . . .
??Have you ever had one of those days where you just wanted to get home, kick back, and take a nice hot bath? Well that problem is solved! At 9007 Hazelhurst there is a bubbling hot tub waiting for you. How do you like the idea of a beautiful pond with an array of fish? What about a yard filled with luxurious trees?"
It was a hard sell. Amanda had found the perfect house for us. I realize this might seem unusual, but my daughter is quite average. Most twelve year olds would just tell their parents about the cool house they saw for sale or bring home the realtor information sheet from the house. But my daughter had written me a persuasive letter. To bring home her point, she created a list of all the positives aspects of this house, included the reality information sheet and printed out the Internet listing. You see, moving to a larger home close to her friends is very important to her. She has learned the power of writing.
Amandas motivation and enthusiasm to become a better writer started when she began writing letters asking for free stuff. As a teacher, I have always been aware of the link between learning, motivation, and real life experiences. I created a "free stuff" center for my students to provide meaningful, motivational writing experiences. Students were able to request various free things through mail.
By virtue of being in my classroom after school everyday, my daughter would play in my writing center and write for free stickers etc. Everyone would get excited about the things they received in the mail. Writing letters for give-a-ways was usually short and sweet. This type of writing did not allow for elaboration. Although I saw a rise in motivation and enthusiasm, the writing wasnt stellar.
I found that students were more eager to improve their writing when someone other than myself was the audience. So, I began finding other avenues for my students' writing. Besides requesting free stuff and information, students made submissions to childrens magazines, and entered writing contests. With new audiences, students were eager to improve their writing. Getting results from their requests and submissions increased their sense of importance and accomplishment.
Increased motivation and the opportunity to write letters isnt enough to produce great writers. I wanted to find a way to stress the importance of what they said in the letters. That opportunity came several weeks after a few students mailed a letter to a toy company with an idea for a new toy. After the first week, the children eagerly asked me if we had received a reply. After several more weeks, they began to wonder if they would even get a response at all. I took out the copy of the letter, and we reread the letter as a class. The students put themselves in the toy companys place and realized their suggestion had been very vague. It would have been hard for the company officials reading the letter to envision their idea because they had not expressed themselves as clearly as they thought.
The children and I decided to conduct an experiment. We called this experiment "the language of letters." We wanted to find out if it really made a difference how you said things. We composed two letters the first letter was composed solely by the students, with the intention of being short and sweet, and the second letter was written with a lot of input, editing and checking against a list of quality letter ingredients. One student was astute enough to suggest we use different return addresses on the letters so we would not compromise the experiment.
Amanda was also aware of this experiment. She felt that the letters being submitted by my class were of such extremes that it wasnt a fair experiment. She said the second letter with so much input was too formal, so she wrote a third letter. She discovered along with my students that what you said in a request was important and often determined the quality of response you received. It made a lasting impression on her.
Of course the first letter did not receive a response and the second letter had a warm response with extras added to our request. My daughter received a response as well. It was a form letter response with the requested information. At first, she felt a little angry. She felt that all responses should be equal and was upset at "the people" of the company. I gently helped her learn not to blame "the people" but "the words." Amanda learned an important lesson along with my class the company was merely responding to the words and could not read between the lines. I pointed out that the more expressive the request, the more detailed the response would be.
Extending the Reach of Young Ones
Im an opportunistic teacher/parent that is I take every opportunity I can to teach my students and daughter more. The transition from "letter" writing to E-mailing seemed to provide even greater possibilities. Almost every Web site has the option to contact the company, organization or webmaster.
Now that my daughter is interested in being a better writer and is open to the idea that not all letters are equal, I show her E-mails from my bicycling group. When my group hears of an issue concerning cycling E-mails fly. Unbeknownst to my friends, I use their E-mails to teach my daughter about the importance of language, tone and word choice. We compare different letters submitted to the group. I ask her to put herself in the position of the group being lobbied, and we discuss whose letter we would listen to: the letter from person A or the letter from person B. She is more interested in reading and reviewing these E-mails because these are real events and she sees herself as having a stake in the outcome and a reason to learn: so she can write compelling letters, too.
Now my daughter is a self-editor who critically looks at her letters, her E-mails, and her responses. She is learning the "language" of information requests. She even notices the vocabulary in the responses she receives and incorporates these new words into her own writing. I have also noticed that her story writing has improved since she has had the opportunity to E-mail and engage in correspondence with other adults and students. Her mastery of details, descriptions and vocabulary has increased dramatically this year.
She is proud of the network feeling that E-mailing others has provided her. She feels empowered to be able to continue to reach out to others around the world, and she feels comfortable asking for information, permission or giving suggestions. She has figured out what information people need:
She understands that she needs to be concise yet detailed. She improves with every E-mail she writes. Besides the academic value of writing, Amanda gets to experience the feeling of importance, of being a participant in the world instead of being on the sidelines until deemed old enough to fully participate.
The Power of Positive Response
Up to this point, 100% of her responses have been positive. I usually try to write a short thank you to these individuals as well, thanking them for being positive with children and supportive of my parenting/ teaching efforts. It is important to me to let those who are kind enough to respond know that their efforts have a tremendous impact on these young students.
With so many initial positive responses, my daughter is developing more confidence in writing E-mails and interacting with others. As a parent, I feel it is important to instill in my children the feeling of ease and confidence when approaching adults whether it is asking for directions, help from a sales clerk or clarification from a teacher. It is curious to me that my outgoing daughter can become shy and uncertain in some of these instances. Since she has been using E-mail, she has become more confident and assertive in her interactions with adults. Other peoples reactions to her letters build her self esteem in a way an "A" never would.
When you ask my daughter to tell you about her projects or where she found her resources, she will begin by telling you about her experiences with asking for permission and/ or information as well as whom she met and what their responses were. It is this interaction that she is most excited about.
Often children look at books and other materials and do not consider that their origin was from someones mind / hands. By asking permission and getting a response, she realizes that there are real people behind books, web sites and advertising. My daughter realizes that she, too, has the ability to create, and her work can hold the same importance as an adult's. She feels very strongly about copyright and realizes permission is just an E-mail away. She knows that there should never be a question if what you use in your project is "legal or not." She tells her friends "when in doubt just ask its fun".
She feels an equal sense of pride in answering questions about her own projects. I posted a PowerPoint presentation she and I created of a day trip we took, and she was so excited that someone wrote her and asked how she created one of her slides. She E-mailed back a perfect "how to" paper telling another student how she did a certain transition in the software on the web page.
Her level of concern about the quality of her work has increased because her interactions are real. Even the fact that she receives E-mails from students of all ages is exciting to her. "Mommy, a sixteen year old asked me how to do something today" Although I am very proud of my daughter, her level of writing for her schoolwork isnt always so high. If the assignment is for the teacher, for the grade shell hurry through it to get it done so she can get down to the business of writing a letter to a web site (Save Texas Cemeteries) telling them about a great African American cemetery we visited over the weekend, wanting to know how she can save it from further deterioration. Then she will write a monument company asking how to repair limestone cemetery markers.
E-mail has become a powerful learning tool for my daughter. It seems it has introduced her to a whole new world of possibilities, and she loves every minute of it.
Judy Harris at the University of Texas at Austin has compiled a great list of projects . . . (http://ccwf.cc.utexas.edu/~jbharris/Virtual-
"Waste Not Want Not" by Jamie McKenzie, January, 1999, From Now On. http://fno.org/jan99/waste.html
Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie.