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Using Letters to Teach the Holidays (and History)

One of the parts of my job that I've always disliked is the fact that social studies teachers are often explicitly or implicitly tasked with teaching the holidays, or national days of rememberance. Resources abound for teaching 9/11, Constitution Day, Columbus Day, and on and on. I get that teaching kids to appreciate our civic and cultural heritage is important, but sometimes pausing, for example, for the second Tuesday in November seems like a random interruption from the longer units of study that wrap our year cohesively. I'd much rather teach an authentic series of lessons on September 11th during the month of May, when we've learned the whole scope of American History, than do a one-off lesson about it in September that's sandwiched between the Puritans and the Wampanoag. Even when the lessons are good, the whole thing feels disjointed; every holiday means a sudden jump of years or continents for my curriculum. I feel like Ebenezer Scrooge for admitting this, but there it is. Bah Humbug.

My main gripe with teaching holidays is that it's rare to find (and hard to write) a lesson that gets students to deep or complicated historical thinking on a topic in one day. In my experience, worthwhile historical discussions take days of background information and scaffolding. Students need multiple exposures to different viewpoints and aspects of an issue; otherwise they're getting trivia rather than a worthwhile learning experience. There are some good resources out there, like a set of great lessons on Columbus by the Zinn Education Project; however, in my curriculum I use those well before the actual holiday is celebrated in October.

This year I've been experimenting with a new approach to teaching holidays that makes me feel like less of a grouchy grinch. Last year I was gifted two remarkable books, Letters of Note and Letters of a Nation that contain beautiful, poignant historical correspondence on a range of issues. Reading these letters you get a small and beautiful slice of history, perfect for a brief stand-alone discussion or as a hook to a longer lesson on a holiday or commemoration. Letters of Note also has a rich blog dedicated to highlighting more examples of what the editors call "correspondence deserving of a wider audience."

I got the idea when I was revisiting Letters of Note a few weeks ago and I stumbled across a letter from Jack the Ripper to George Lusk, the detective who investigated him. With Halloween coming up, I realized this was a great time to share this with my students. Letters of Note contains both a scan of the original handwritten letter and a typed version that's simpler to read. I gave students both so they could get a sense of the reality of a murderer's hand scrawling out taunts to the detective pursuing him. It's a grisly letter, so I made reading and responding to it an optional extra credit assignment. Still, more students than I thought took the opportunity, and their interest was palpable in their written assignments. It was a dream come true ... close reading of authentic texts, it was a common core¬† at its best. The letters did the hard part for me—student engagement—I just had to plan what questions to ask.

This week, of course, we celebrate Veteran's Day. These two collections contain a host of fascinating artifacts that demonstrate the bravery and honor of our fallen soldiers. The options are endless; I could chose a letter from Patrick Hitler to FDR pleading to be allowed to enlist to fight against his well known Uncle Adolf, or there's Civil War soldier Sullivan Ballou's love letter to his wife on the eve of battle. Or I could select the letter from George, an African-American soldier in World War II, who described fighting both Germany and discrimination. I'm deeply moved by Mary Ewald's letter to Saddam Hussein, demanding the release of her son, who had been taken prisoner in Iraq. So many choices, with such real and relevant content.

These possibilities are content rich and do an excellent job of making the holiday meaningful. I can honestly say I've never been this excited to teach a holiday!  

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