Writing Letters to the Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets
In the spirit of Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, students will write a letter to a contemporary poet, asking about a poem and the poet's voice. By Madeleine Fuchs Holzer, EdD
- Grades: 6–8, 9–12
- Unit Plan:
During National Poetry Month 2013, the Academy of American Poets is celebrated the role that correspondence has played in poets' development and writing lives.
In the spirit of Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, in which Rilke replies to letters from a military cadet and aspiring poet asking for his advice, the Academy invited students to engage with poetry by handwriting letters to some of the poets who serve on the Academy's Board of Chancellors.
You can see some of the students' letters and poets' responses on Poets.org.
- Write a formal letter to a poet who is a present Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets
- Write the letter in his or her unique voice
- Provide evidence that they have read a poem written by the Chancellor
- Pose questions to the poet about the poem and the poet's voice as a writer
- Use proper format and writing conventions
Whole Class Warm-up
Remind your students that now they will be writing formal letters to some of the Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets. The following activities are all concerned with writing these letters.
- Have your students write in their journals or on a separate piece of paper quick associations to this sentence stem: My writing voice is…. (They should write between three and five associations.)
- Ask them to form writing groups with two other students who are familiar with their writing.
- In their groups, one student should share his or her completions to the sentence stem.
- Students who are listening should add constructive descriptions of the student’s voice that they think are missing. If nothing is missing, they can simply agree with the student’s assessment.
- Students should go around the group, sharing their stem completions and commenting until each student in each group has had a chance.
When they are finished, ask each individual student to choose a poem/poet that spoke to them from the five poems they read by Chancellors of the Academy during the Reading Poems From the Academy of American Poets lesson.
Generating Connections and Questions
After your students have chosen the poet to whom they would like to write, ask them to read their chosen poem carefully again, jotting down lines, words, and images that jump out at them. What questions do they have for the poet about the poem and how it was written?
When they have finished writing lines, words, images, and questions, ask for volunteers to share some of them with the whole class. Record some of these on the board at the front of the room. Explain why you chose the ones you did.
Writing a Formal Letter
- Review the format for a formal letter including date, internal address, greeting with punctuation, and appropriate closing.
- Ask for a volunteer (or volunteers) to recall what it means to write “in your own voice.”
- Ask for another volunteer to recall the general form of a letter, i.e. opening idea, several paragraphs containing their ideas and evidence, and their concluding thoughts.
- Ask your students to write a draft letter to their chosen poet, telling him or her what in the poem spoke to them, and asking questions relating to how the poet wrote this poem and writes others.
- If they do not finish this draft, they can continue to write for homework. Or you may prefer they do all of their writing as homework.
Peer Review: Mirroring Activity
When your students have finished writing their first drafts:
- Place your students in heterogeneous groups of three (or in their usual writing groups, if you do peer review regularly).
- Ask students in each group to exchange letters so they each have someone else’s.
- If necessary, remind your students how to give constructive criticism, citing positives first and then specifics on what can be improved.
- Ask one student to read aloud the letter she has to the other members of her group.
- After she reads it, ask her to tell the writer what she thought the letter said and what was confusing about the letter. Is the letter writer’s voice strong and clear? The reader should also make helpful comments about voice, format, and conventions.
- The writer should take notes and incorporate helpful comments, especially those about how the reader’s interpretation differed from the writer’s intent.
- Continue the process in each group until all three people have had their letters read back to them and have recorded helpful comments.
This can be accomplished in class, as a combined in-class and homework activity, or as homework.
- Ask your students to rewrite their first drafts paying attention to the comments they received from their peers.
- Students hand in their second drafts to you for questions and comments.
- Return students’ second drafts so they can polish handwriting for a final draft for possible submission to the Academy.