by Jane Jones
Parents: writing letters to the editor is something you can do at home with your child or children and set a wonderful example as an advocate for positive activism. Harnessing the emotional energy generated by outrage, the desire to voice an opposing view or amplify a valued mind set, is an opportunity for us to help our children produce a finely-polished piece of writing. Letters to the editor are limited to 200 words in most cases, so it’s a reasonable task. But within that limit, every revision and editing choice is critical. Once a child has found his or her target topic, and the fire of passion is ignited, the next several hours spent editing, revising, refining, researching and looking at other examples of successfully published letters are typically self-imposed.
Before you and your child start this thought-provoking project, here are a few tips about preparation from the The Washington Post. The instructions the site provides seem to be the standard for most publications, but some magazines and other sites have even tighter word limits. The editors also explain how hard it is to be published which is helpful encouragement for revision and cushions the blow of potential rejection.
Generating and sustaining excitement throughout this project and seeing learning take place is easier if this is time you spend writing with your child. This effort is collaborative, and not a typical school assignment. Once you and your child have the letter to the editor standards in mind, sit with your child, skim through newspapers (or other publications), either in print or online, and get a feel for what grabs his or her attention. It is a rare day that I don’t pick up the newspaper or read an online article that generates an emotional response. Perhaps a school issue, like budget cuts or new curriculum, will prompt a response for you or your child.
Each of you should a start a rough draft and during the first revision, check to see if your child knows the correct letter format. Next, check to see that he or she realizes that their first sentence must not only be engaging, but include a dated reference to the information that caught his or her attention in the first place. Using published letters as models can help you get it right. As you both move through the revision process, word choice is critical for clarity and so is accurate factual support. Varying the length of the sentences and using your conclusion to support or express a strong or pithy point of view increases your chances of being published.
If you know your school includes snail-mail letter writing format as part of the curriculum, perhaps you may want to consider using the following questions to help your child practice proper formatting of the letter and the signature along with addressing the envelope. Does your child know how to use the word count function? Does your child know how to use the synonym function as they revise, revise, and revise their letter down to the ever important 200 word limit? Here is a link that will help in selecting appropriate vocabulary for Microsoft Word, considering many schools use the program. This next site from Microsoft offers mini courses with various side bars. This allows you to customize what areas of Microsoft Word you wish to learn more about, which can be very helpful for young or novice Word users.
By working side by side with your child and modeling writing your own letter, you will demonstrate all the appropriate steps to your child. Let them know what it takes by sharing your difficulties choosing a suitable topic; possible frustrations linked to drafting multiple revisions; and your final fine-tuning and editing to produce a letter worthy of submission. Knowing you felt compelled to write and submit your own letter to the editor lets them know how much you value sharing your opinion or your commitment to persuading others to understand your point of view.
Once the letter is complete, a process that can take several hours and lots of rereading of the original piece of media that started the quest to voice an opinion, it can be hard to push the submit button or drop the letter in the mail box. Parents, the time and effort are worth it even if your letters don’t get published because the motivations that drive this project are intrinsic. When children I taught submitted their letters or were lucky enough to see their letters in print, their eager joy burned brightly and I could see their minds racing – thinking about their next letter. Parents can have the satisfaction of lending a hand in creating a lifelong skill. Authentic topic choice, voice, ownership and the added bonus of relating reading and writing are created with this collaborative home project. It is compelling for a child to see his or her writing in print. When your child e-mails or snail mails his or her opinion piece, it is a moment of pride. If the letter is published, it is a home run.
Jane Jones is a retired school teacher with thirty-five years of teaching experience in a variety of grade levels and multiple disciplines in Fairfax County and Prince William County, Virginia. She remains committed to excellence in education posting researched, updated materials and information for the educational community to her blog: http://uniqueteachers.blogspot.com/