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Letters to the Rescue, by Elizabeth J. Cygan

A class of special education students turns a letter-writing project into a new way of looking at school

Image of a variety of letters

Teaching special education students in middle school is a real challenge. The students feel that they're looked down on by other students and, as a result, many of them would rather not be in a special education class. Some want to avoid studying and classwork at any cost, while others may rush through their work just to get it done. Either way, it's a king-sized problem for the special education teacher.

I wondered what I could do to help these reluctant learners. How could I get them excited about school and willing to make corrections in their work? After thinking about the situation and putting myself in the shoes of my students, I decided that what they needed most was to feel that school was fun. A good way to do that, I thought, was to turn them loose on a project they really enjoyed.

Letter writing.
I decided that my special ed students might benefit from a writing project of some kind. As I saw it, a writing project would be easy to do and, at the same time, fun to do – just the sort of project I was looking for. The writing project in my class involved writing different kinds of letters. These included query letters, letters of complaint, informational letters, invitation letters and bread-and-butter letters. Each type of letter was approached separately.

Students were taught the correct form and intent of each kind of letter. Then, in order to give the project more meaning for the students, I told them that the letter had to be written to someone who would understand what the letter was about – for example, a query letter to the author of a newspaper column, or a complaint letter to the president of a company.

We started with invitations.
We voted on the person we wanted to invite to school. Then we located his address and sent the letters to him, along with a cover letter giving details about our class and what we hoped to accomplish with our project.

Darien, CT postmaster Diana Samuelson and letter carrier Ray Potts

You might want to have your students investigate what happens to letters once they're mailed. Before long, letters end up in the hands of people like Darien, CT postmaster Diana Samuelson and letter carrier Ray Potts.

Unexpected bonus.
At first, the students were sure that no one would reply, let alone actually show up at the school. Were they ever wrong! We invited a weatherman from a local TV channel. He accepted our invitation, came to the school, discussed weather forecasting and answered questions about the TV station. There was an unexpected bonus, too. That evening, he mentioned our class on his TV program.

We followed up that first invitation by inviting local news broadcasters, sportscasters, politicians and athletes. Most of the time, they came. As might be expected, the acceptances worked wonders with my students' self-esteem.

By now, the students realized that the purpose of writing is to be read and understood. At first, they balked at correcting their mistakes but gradually, as they read their letters to each other, they began to realize that a letter might need work to make it understandable.

Trip to the State House.
One invitation was particularly memorable. We invited our Governor to visit our school and, though he had to decline, he invited us instead to the State House at Christmas time, when it was decorated for the holidays. A guide showed us around.

While at the State House, we met with our Senator and Representative and had pictures taken with the Governor. He answered questions and gave autographs to the students. About a week later, we received the pictures and a letter from the Governor.

The students were eager to write thank-you letters. They wrote and rewrote their letters until they were happy with the results and felt that the letters conveyed what they wanted to say.

Our State House visit wasn't the only special event to come out of our letter-writing project. Take, for example, our brush with the law – a happy brush for everyone in the classroom. We were studying the court system and were planning to hold a mock trial, complete with a judge, witnesses, lawyers and jury.

Well, we sent a local judge an invitation to visit our school. He accepted, presided over the trial in the classroom and stayed to answer questions about the legal process as well. All in all, it was a wonderful learning experience for everyone involved; even the judge had a good time!

Pan mail.
We also wrote letters of complaint to companies whose products or services we considered unsatisfactory. We addressed each letter to the president of the company. Many students received answers. One student got a three-page reply from a soda company. Another student received a replacement product, free of charge and delivered to his door.

The children were able to share their experiences with the students in their homerooms, which made them feel important and confident of their own abilities – two large steps forward for any class of special ed students. Learning was tied to reality. My students appreciated what they learned, because they saw that they could make an impact on the world.


First Year Letters
by Julie Danneberg (Charlesbridge, 2003)

Messages in the Mailbox: How to Write a Letter
by Loreen Leedy (Holiday House, 1991)

Regarding the Fountain: A Tale, in Letters, of Liars and Leaks
by Kate Klise (Avon, 1999)

Elizabeth J. Cygan is certified as a guidance counselor, special education teacher and school psychologist. She taught middle school in Sudbury, MA for 27 years.