The Lit Letter: Simple & Effective

The Lit Letter is a simple and effective lesson that strengthens student voice and analysis.

By Karla Hilliard

If you’ve ever received a hand-written letter, you know both the power and simplicity of a person putting pen to paper. My maw-maw was a genius note writer, and I received many from her over the years—notes of encouragement, letters explaining the twenty she’d tucked away in the card, often-requested recipes, brief explanations, a simple hello. Her brief and thoughtful notes accumulated over the years. They meant so much to me that I now have a tattoo with a bit of my grandmother’s handwriting.

Just recently, my dad received a typed letter in the mail from an old friend from high school. He was moved by it—by the expression of the typed word on a page. It was nothing that couldn’t be accomplished through email or messenger, but the time, effort, and thought it took for his friend to sit down, type out a letter word-processor style, print-fold-and-mail it—well, that required something beyond the convienence of our contemporary forms. That sentiment was not lost on my dad. He paid his friend a visit not long after, and according to my dad, he and his old pal talked for hours. The power of a letter.

One of my favorite and most effective lessons in AP Literature isn’t really much of a lesson at all. It’s a call for a hand-written letter. One of my primary goals in AP Lit is to help students develop their own authentic voices in writing. It is an incredibly fulfilling and rewarding endeavor helping a student’s voice to take root and bloom. I’ve found that for these students, most of the time, all I have to do is nourish it.

Just before Mary Oliver’s death, I had experienced a staggering loss in my own life. Like many of you, throughout my life, I have turned to Mary Oliver. To her wisdom, to her simple and profound look at Life.

So I turned to this assignment as well. I turned to a few poems I love, to a form that I love, for these students I love. I gave my students this lit letter task sheet where I write a letter to them, asking them to read and think through three poems. I ask them to encounter the poems as people instead of students in a literature course. That is, to borrow a line from E.E. Cummings, “since feeling is first,” I want students to look to poetry, not at it; explore what surfaces, not mine for it; talk to me about poetry, not at me.

Because the new year was fresh, I asked students to read “At the New Year” by Kenneth Patchen, “Rain, New Years Eve” by Maggie Smith, and “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver.

Not only were the results beautiful, but what students wrote in their (what we have fondly come to call) lit letters was some of the smartest analysis I’d seen all year. And I think that’s for a couple of reasons. For starters, the letter provides a safety net for idea exploration. How do you fail at letter writing? Second, and as important, I heard students voices—saw them reach beyond their obligatory “The writer uses x to accomplish y” sentences. I believe the letter provides and enables authenticity in voice to emerge. And I’m in this business for sentences like the ones in these student models…

I hope you’ll find use for this very simple, effective assignment in your classroom with your students. After all, “the world offers itself to [their] imagination”.


We’d love to hear your thoughts and reflections and how this assignment goes in your classroom! Tweet us or connect with us on Facebook @WVCTE or connect with Karla on Twitter @karlahilliard.

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