Letters on the first and last day of class

In this era of text messages, instant messaging, and Snapchat (whatever that may be) I somehow find myself more attracted to the old-fashioned paper letter. It’s not that I send out many letters to friends and family, though I wish I did. Sorry, friends and family. However, I frequently ask students to write letters. In this post I’d like to share two types of letters I asked my students to write last year. The first is “a letter to a future student” and the second is “a letter to myself.”

For my “day job” I teach second year students on an intensive 2 year graduate program in interpretation and translation. Many students find the rigorous nature of the program and their prospective field challenging. In my course, students simultaneously interpret political, cultural, and economic speeches from Korean to English and this can prove difficult and stressful. I think some words of advice, support and empathy from those who have gone through the program can be extremely helpful. In my final class of the year after students have taken their final exam I ask them to pen a letter of advice to a future student. In this I hope they will share some insights they wish they’d known before they started the year and pass this knowledge along.

Before I ask students to start writing I give them a few questions to think and talk about. Last year the questions were:

  • Do you remember the letter of advice from former students you read in March? What was memorable from it?
  • Did you follow the advice?
  • What do you wish you knew when you started this school year?
  • What advice could you pass along to future students in terms of language points, interpreting skills, time-management, studying for the exam, getting along with others, mental health and anything else that comes to mind?

This conversation is often quite active. The discussion seems to give students a chance to reflect (and unload) about their recent experiences (including the notoriously stressful graduation exam). After students share ideas I let them know it’s time to start writing and that when they are done with the letter they are done with the course. I usually give a big block of time for this, around 20-30 minutes. I’ve written about this process (especially about students reading the letters) in more detail on my personal blog.

Just before writing, some students claimed (and perhaps lamented the fact) they hadn’t been a good model for future students or met their goals. These students felt they didn’t have any advice to offer, to which I said “This sounds like you have some great advice to offer. You don’t have to talk about what you actually did and can talk about what you wish you’d done” and advised (and requested) they share the challenges and roadblocks they faced. The letters offered a range of advice and some food for thought (including advice on food, alcohol,  energy drinks, and coffee consumption.) I got the sense after they started writing that students appreciated the chance to share their experience and expertise by “paying it forward.”

Letters from former students

Last year I tried a new type of letter. I had students write a letter to themselves, to their future selves. On the first day of class in March (after reading letters from previous students, or their “seniors”) I asked my students what they’d like to tell themselves after the exam in December.  I promised I’d hold onto the letter until the last day of class. Students had the option of writing in English or Korean and also the option of folding the paper in half which meant I would not read it. Around half the group opted for the folded paper so I am not sure what they wrote. From what I saw, my students mostly wrote messages of congratulations and reminders of that they were thinking and feeling in March. Some offered advice to their December selves about how to celebrate.

It was interesting to see the personal messages students wrote to themselves. Memorably, one student wrote, “I’m 100% sure you have quit smoking by now.” She hadn’t but she was happy to see the reminder and she seemed touched when she considered all that she’d been through in the year and how far she’d come.

Another memorable moment for me was one student evaluating and editing his original letter because he’d written it in his L2 and could see some ways he’d improve the letter after a year of study. This was something of a surprise for me because I didn’t expect students to examine their letters in this way.

What surprised me most about this activity and process was how interested students were in seeing their letters. Students mentioned the letters throughout the year and expressed interest in reading what they’d written. One student who had to miss the final class made special plans to get her letter delivered and another postponed a family trip in order to come to class to get the letter. Don’t tell her, but I would have mailed it to her. As a teacher, it was nice to see the interest these letters generated.

I got the sense my students enjoyed sharing aspects of the letter with me and their classmates. Some were touched by what they’d written and there were a few damp eyes in the room as students read their letters. I think it was a culmination of a year of hard work and a good chance to think about how far they’d come and what they’d been through. I was pleased with the experiment as 2017 was the first year to try the “letter to myself.”

I think both these letters and the related thinking and conversations provide some chances for reflection, needs assessment, and sharing. I believe they also provide some continuity between the first and last day of class. I will surely try both activities this school year. I hope this post has given readers some ideas for activities they might be able to adapt to their own contexts.



Author’s Biography: Michael Griffin is a New School MATESOL graduate who has been teaching on the program since 2010. He’s taught both the Portfolio Course and Curriculum Development. Additionally, he’s the curator of this blog. Michael works in the Graduate School of International Studies at Chung-Ang University in Seoul.
His personal blog is: https://eltrantsreviewsreflections.wordpress.com/