OK. I should have expected this. The students wrote their letters to General Shinseki on Thursday (see Dear General Shinseki) and they were more focused and on task than I had seen them all year. They were earnest and thoughtful. They were serious and committed. Even the students who are not always the biggest cheerleaders of school experience were hunkered down and spent the entire double period writing the letter. Because of all of our close reading and discussions and exploration of historical context, they were ready to put their energies, ideas, and creativity to paper. And they had a lot to say. I was most surprised by all of the questions they had for me —Where does the period go- after the citation or after the quotation marks? Did I do this right? Is there a comma here before the quotation marks? Should “general” be capitalized? Does this make sense? Since when are 8th graders, one month from graduation, so concerned about proper punctuation or articulating their ideas so “clearly”? “When we write for you, we know what you want, but this is different. We have to explain things.” Isn’t “being aware of audience” what I have been trying to teach them all year?
The next day GF said, “The letter to Shinseki was a nice way to reflect on All Quiet because it let us really express ourselves much more than responding to a quote or essay question that you assigned, by connecting it to something real.”
TR added, “Instead of giving you our opinions about the book, we gave it to someone who can possibly change the situation….not that you are not capable.”
“It was a good way of putting our knowledge into the world,” EN said. “It connected the actual, tangible, goin’ on all around us outside world to things we’ve been doing behind closed doors, in a classroom.”
Below are just a few quotes from the letters that made me smile at the poise and confidence my students demonstrated with their words:
…I am fourteen years old, and in the eighth grade…, but that is of no import. I wish to be considered in the same way as you would consider an adult, since I write as such.
Greetings. You have received letters like this and will receive more (roughly forty from my peers alone), telling you how to do your job. My apologies but I am going to be one of the people who writes those letters.
We’ve just finished reading All Quiet on the Western Front, a war novel chronicling the experiences of a young man fighting for Germany in World War I—experiences which have given us some window into a world we (or at least I) have never seen as more than the ARMY STRONG booths at amusement parks.
…As I’m sure you can see, General, there’s a problem.
Thank you for taking the time to read my passionate response to a powerful book and concept. I hope that one day these statistics will not exist. That one day there will be no homeless veterans, no untreated cases of PTSD, and no veterans in jail. I hope that one day we’ll live in a world where the battlefield at home is nowhere near as severe as the battlefield overseas.
I will definitely post any response we may get from the General.