This post is written by member Patricia L. Schall.
Our current political climate in the US is inspiring people to take action as citizens. One of the ways we can share our ideas with an extended audience is to write letters to the editors of newspapers and other publications.
Teachers sometimes despair that their own voices are not heard often enough in public forums. We become exasperated with all the non-teaching “experts” who claim to know what is best for classrooms and schools and who, because of their prominence or connections, often have “bully pulpits” from which to express their views. Writing letters to the editor is a manageable way for busy teachers on tight schedules to advocate in their own voices for what their experience and education have taught them about teaching and learning. Writing a letter to the editor will not consume extensive time or resources. One good letter may be sent to multiple newspapers, magazines, or online forums. It is easy to save the letter and revise it for future commentary.
I recently wrote to my member of Congress about a bill that was under consideration in the House of Representatives. I sent the letter and posted a copy of it on the Facebook page of a political group I have joined. Many people commented that they liked the letter, and one of the group organizers suggested that I revise it and send it out to newspapers as a letter to the editor, using the guidelines the group provides.
My first step: check the target newspapers for their requirements for letters to the editor. When I saw that these newspapers had a 200-word limit for letters, I recognized the immediate challenge awaiting me: I had to reduce a 489-word letter to 200 words without losing the main point.
I started by focusing on my main idea and my audience. I was no longer writing to a member of Congress. My aim was to make my point to a much wider audience of general readers. I cut anything that seemed tangential or irrelevant to my main point. I removed whole paragraphs and sentences.
I then continued to wordsmith the document, doing word counts as I progressed, until I reduced the letter to exactly 200 words. I remembered the advice I would always give my doctoral students as they wrote: aim for high-impact words, especially power verbs, and say what you can in the fewest words possible. I followed the guidelines the group provided. Their tips were excellent, and they helped me write a more focused, appropriate letter. As I wrote the letter, I recalled my ninth-grade social studies teacher, Mr. Sloan, who always encouraged us to be active, informed, vocal, voting citizens. I give him credit for helping me become a citizen-activist, and I urge you to be vocal, too. Teachers also might consider teaching their students to express themselves on issues that concern them by writing their own letters to the editor. Holding students to a 200-word count and showing them how to make their points in succinct and powerful, publication-quality prose is an excellent exercise in real-world writing and citizen action.
I encourage teachers to let their voices and the voices of their students be heard by a wider audience. These times demand action.
Patricia L. Schall is professor emeritus at the College of Saint Elizabeth, where she taught in and directed graduate and undergraduate teacher education programs. Her specialty is English education, and she taught courses in elementary and secondary education literacy, research, foundations of education, and educational leadership at the undergraduate and graduate levels. She was an English teacher for thirteen years, twelve of them at Watchung Hills Regional High School in Warren, New Jersey. She has been an active member of NJCTE and NCTE for many years.