It appears that I will never truly be a regular, consistent blogger.
In any case, today’s post is brought to you by our good old friend, The Business Letter and our age-old nemesis, Marking!
In Alberta, the ELA 9 program requires students to learn about functional writing. Of course, this term is ridiculous because all writing serves a function, but essentially AB Ed uses that term to describe the business letter. Usually, on the standardized exam that occurs at the culmination of the course (the Provincial Achievement Test, or PAT), students are asked to write a business letter, but within the parameters of a scenario laid out within the exam. For example, perhaps you are Jenny Strong from Cochrane, Alberta and you are writing to Bryan Oak, the owner of a local company, to complain about a poor experience you had with his business. Usually the prompt will give students direction for expansion, asking them to outline ways that the company could better deal with the issue at hand as well as potential methods of avoiding that same problem in the future. You get the idea.
The prompt that I gave my grade 9 classes most recently is one that was used on an old PAT. It asked students to imagine that they were a student at an Alberta junior high, writing to the school principal to propose the implementation of an environmentally-focused student program/committee. The program is meant to be student-run, though it could be open to forming partnerships with local businesses and organizations; ultimately, it is meant to be beneficial to students, teachers, administration, and custodial staff. The prompt asked students to outline these benefits and to anticipate any potential problems that might arise, as well as suggest ways around those problems.
What has fascinated me as I have marked the letters that my kids wrote is how differently they responded to this prompt when compared to the kids I taught at my last school. The school where I currently teach hosts a predominately affluent student population. And affluent isn’t even really scratching the surface for some of the families who send their children here — some of them are straight-up riiiiiiiiiich. These are kids who roll up to school in cars nicer than many of the vehicles the staff drive. They wear brand name everything, have the latest gadgets and toys, go on multiple trips yearly, etc. In comparison, the school I taught at for two years prior to my move this past summer is located in an area of town that most would immediately associate with a lower socioeconomic status. It is not seedy or ramshackle for the most part, but its demographics skew high for immigrant families, lower-earning families, and so on.
When I marked this same business letter last year, at this less-privileged school, most of the kids responded to the letter prompt in similar ways. Many kids saw immediately that the program in question would be beneficial because it would remind all people in the school that energy and resources are precious and should not be wasted. Not only would this awareness help to save money in the long run, it would create wide-spread awareness and school spirit as the staff and students alike worked together to support the initiative. There would be more emphasis on recycling, especially in terms of separating different kinds of recycling. There could be bottle drives. The student committee could give presentations to the school during assemblies on ways that everyone could contribute to creating a more environmentally-friendly community. All people in the school would try to conserve energy by turning off lights, not running taps needlessly in the washrooms, bringing reusable water bottles instead of disposable ones, packing lunches in containers rather than baggies, etc.
Fast forward to this year. I can’t even tell you how many letters I read where my students had obviously forgotten (or neglected) one of the main aspects of the prompt, namely the part about the environmental program’s activities being student-led. So many of my students tossed aside the whole bit about asking the principal to support the implementation of a student-led initiative and instead, their letters became a request for funding! The kids suggested that the principal change out all the faucets and toilets in the school to be lower-efficiency, and that an electrician be brought in to change out the lighting in the building for the same reason. Suggestions also included changing lightswitches and incorporating motion-sensors for classroom lights, knocking out walls and bringing in higher-grade insulation, and installing solar panels on the roof of the school. Some kids at least had the idea to put recycling bins into each classroom, and I was loath to point out to them that most schools already have this revolutionary idea in place. It was so interesting to see how these two groups of students, from two very different slices of the city, approached the same problem. The solutions my current students came up with seemed to reflect the ways in which they see problems being solved in their everyday lives. It was astounding that the first ideas that seemed to come to mind for them was to spend more money, or to appeal to an authority for funding, rather than solving the issue with simple gestures and thoughtfulness that I’d presume they have access to independently. The cherry on top was when these same kids would finish off their letters by telling the principal, “I think this program will help us save money.” Ha!
Anyway, I was just sitting here, about to start my next batch of marking, and I was trying to figure out why this set of letters had gone so far off the tracks. That’s when I realised that the struggles I witnessed in my kids’ writing was a direct result of their life experiences peeking through in their work. So many of the letters I read from my last school were right on the mark in terms of content and detail, but that’s also because their life experiences of growing up in hardworking, less-privileged immigrant families taught them the value of these resources and of taking care of the environment. For them, this prompt would have been something accessible because it asked them to access a train of thought that is already relevant and real for them every day.
For my more privileged (and in many cases, sheltered) kids, some of whom probably don’t often worry about their water/energy consumption, or whose families can afford to get them new clothes and electronics on the regular, or who have never really thought twice about purchasing bottled water, this prompt was asking them to think outside of a very specific box in which they live. It never occurred to me until this year that this prompt could be difficult for some of them. Of course, I don’t mean to paint all the kids in my current school with one big brush; not all of them are affluent, and many of them do still come from hardworking families, immigrant or otherwise. But it is interesting to see how kids who are raised with financial access tackle a writing prompt that asks them to look at a problem and propose solutions that do not involve money, and that require personal initiative and volunteerism.
I share this because as a teacher, this was an important reminder about perspective and the ways in which the work I see coming out of my students will be directly impacted by their life experiences. When it comes to personal essays and narratives and reflections, we expect to see this diversity and individual quality emerge from assignment to assignment. But when it comes to a task like the business letter, where the prompt is so specific and the parameters are so exact, it was a surprising thing for me to find that students will still inject their own perspective and worldview into their writing.