As a teacher during the final days of the semester, how do you help students to circle back around and think globally about the lessons and themes they’ve learned over the past fifteen weeks? You may use final essay assignments or final exams to help students connect the dots, you may close the last class session with a reflective discussion, or maybe you leave it entirely to your students to reexamine the overarching themes of a semester that has left them staring, zombie-like, into the distance.
I’ve tried a variety of strategies for the end-of-term reflection, but often we don’t plan for it until it’s already upon us—until one of the busiest, most hectic times of the semester. This time around, I planned ahead to give my upper-level early American literature class a short, low-stakes, fun assignment that would encourage students to think about the class’ content and about their own, personal takeaways from it. This post will explain the assignment, provide you with its instructions, and show some examples of the work that students produced. I was amazed at the results and at the amount of energy and conviction that students put into their work. It was one of the most enjoyable writing tasks I’ve given, and I’m sharing it with you so that you can incorporate it into your own pedagogy as well.
The class was “Early American Literature: The Individual and the Community in Early America,” and two of its most prevalent themes were rights and equality, specifically regarding race and gender. For anybody who thinks early American literature is boring, irrelevant, etc., guess again. For each class, my students were writing impassioned Blackboard posts about the injustice that figures like William Apess, Margaret Fuller, and Frederick Douglass spoke against. They came to class marveling at Whitman’s writings about sexuality and with their “blood boiling” (as one student often phrased it) at the disparate definitions and administrations of rights and equality for Native-Americans, African-Americans, and women. I didn’t want them to lose these feelings, lessons, and connections, so I modified an assignment that was shared with me at Nassau Community College’s IDEAS Symposium this year: a letter to one’s government representatives.
For a few reasons, I didn’t require the letter to be written to the president, as the original model did. There’s an entire website that publishes open letters to the president, and the teacher who introduced me to this assignment uses the website as a publishing platform for her students’ work. That’s a great idea, and I encourage you to check out the website and consider using it, but I wanted to give students the chance to address not just the national issues occupying the spotlight, but local issues as well.
The assignment directions are as follows:
Think about the foundational values and ideals of early American culture that we’ve been reading about all semester. You’ve had a rare opportunity to closely study the culture, concerns, values, etc. that America was and still is built upon, but many people, including our government representatives, may not have had the same opportunity.
Write a one-page letter to the American representative of your choice, teaching him or her an important lesson that you learned in this course. Structure it like a professional letter:
Include an introduction in which you actually introduce yourself (ex: “My name is X and I’ve been studying early American literature and culture, and I want to share something with you that you might not have known”).
In the body, teach him/her a lesson! Use specific examples (ex: “in Frederick Douglass’ famous ‘What to a Slave Is the Fourth of July’ speech, he states, ‘XYZ’”).
In the conclusion, influence change. Tell the representative what he/she could do better to honor those values (or what he/she is doing correctly). Is there something he/she did that contradicts (or supports) the values we’ve been learning about? Let them know!
This would make for a great longer or more formal writing assignment, but I kept mine low-stakes. Students had about 48 hours to write it, and it was to be graded as the daily Blackboard discussion post that it was replacing (there were about 30 discussion posts throughout the semester, totaling 10% of the students’ final grade, so it was worth very little). Grammar mistakes would not affect their grade, either. In the future, I’d consider making this assignment worth more points, but the products that students turned in were great without the pressure of a significant grade. In fact, I think that the low-stakes element of it was a key factor of its success. I even noticed that students who, in previous assignments, had saturated their writing with misused thesaurus words and illogically complicated sentences, now found a more natural writing voice that was far more effective.
I’m confident that my three goals for the assignment were accomplished:
- To encourage reflection about the overarching lessons and takeaways from the course.
- To provide a self-guided (not teacher-regulated) opportunity for students to connect their somewhat abstracted college/Humanities education to the current historical moment that they’re experiencing first-hand. This is one of the most important lessons for all of us to consider as academic professionals: How are we making sure that we’re giving our students a useful and meaningful education? How are we demonstrating to our students, to our administrators, and to the public that the Humanities are effective, important, and worthwhile?
- To give students a personally meaningful assignment with a useful and concrete result—to give them an authentic writing assignment. They now have letters that they can actually send to their representatives, and hopefully they’ll be more confident about writing for civic engagement in the future. One student, who had been reserved most of the semester, emailed me the following message after the class responded to her letter with overwhelming applause and support: “It sounds silly but I really appreciate the encouragement in class today. It’s been a discouraging few weeks with the work load I have and it put me back the positive mind frame I needed.”
So, here are a few examples of my students’ letters to their government representatives: