Posted Date: 09/05/2023
This was no ordinary letter that was found in an email inbox. In fact, it wasn’t an email at all. It was an official letter from President Biden at the White House addressed to Moreland Hills Elementary School fifth grader Navah Levine.
“Mrs. Shapiro got it over break, and I was really shocked that I got a letter back because he’s the President, and I didn’t think he would have time to write back,” effused Navah, who also received an autographed photo of the President.
This all began when Navah and her classmates in Mrs. Kim Shapiro’s fourth grade writing class had participated in a letter writing activity last February to tie in with Valentine’s Day.
“We thought it would be a meaningful writing activity for the students to think of someone they admire and write to them,” said Mrs. Shapiro. “Letter writing ties in to so many of the standards we cover including communication, critical thinking, producing clear and coherent writing, and the use of technology.”
The students used technology to explore information about their letter recipients as well as to learn how to create and share their writing. Students chose to write to a wide range of celebrities ranging from YouTubers, artists, entrepreneurs, rock stars, athletes, and yes, even the President of the United States.
“It’s cool because you get to write to someone you admire and you think is cool and if you get a letter back from them it’s cool to see what they wrote about themselves,” noted Navah. “It’s a fun project.”
Two other students in Navah’s class also received responses. Skyler Oakley wrote to the pop rock band “One Republic” while Evelyn Milosh wrote to author Kate DiCamillo.
“I wrote to One Republic because I like their music,” said Skyler, who heard back at the end of March. “Mrs. Shapiro called me over to her desk, and she showed me the envelope. And I was really excited because I didn’t think they would write me back.”
Evelyn, who is a huge fan of DiCamillo’s books (“They are the only books I read any more!”), was the first one to receive a response.
“I was really excited,” she said. “To get a letter back and to think about it – that a celebrity touched something that you were touching and wrote something directly to you. And signed it, ‘your friend, Kate’ just for me!”
The project originated when, as a child, Mrs. Shapiro wrote to her favorite author Laura Numeroff who wrote If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and the If You Give A… series. Not only did she hear back from the author, but she still keeps it close to her heart. She and fellow fourth grade writing teacher Vicki Lazuka decided to continue paying that feeling forward.
“Nothing beats the excitement and joy that results from students getting responses back,” effused Mrs. Shapiro. “Even if it’s months and months after the fact!”
As part of the letter, the students were encouraged to tell the intended recipients a little something about themselves and then ask questions to get to know the person they admired better.
“Something cool that I learned is that President Biden had a stutter and overcame it by reciting Irish poems,” said Navah.
Songwriter Ryan Tedder (One Republic) not only wrote a lengthy letter back to Skyler, but did so on the same piece of pink paper that she used to write the original letter.
“I was so surprised they wrote it on the same letter on the other side,” she said. “It showed me that if you write to someone it might actually happen that they could write back!”
“It’s like they took the time to read it and write it when they probably have a whole bunch of other stuff they need to deal with as well,” said Evelyn.
Before learning how to address an envelope appropriately and sending the letter, the students were asked to go through a number of drafts. One of the fourth grade writing standards focuses on developing and strengthening writing as needed ‘by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach…to improve its clarity, organization, and style.’
“Letter writing is a good opportunity for students to practice these skills,” noted Mrs. Shapiro.
“It also taught me the importance of writing back,” said Skyler. “Because it could make someone really happy, and it could make their day.”
And the activity is definitely something all three students would recommend for future fourth grade classes.
“It’s fun, and it can happen that you get a letter back,” said Navah. “I thought it would be cool to write to the President….it’s really nice that (he) took the time to open the letter, read it, write back and send it.”
Added Evelyn: “It’s exciting for the fourth graders because if you told them they were going to write to someone, and you said they were going to write back, they would be really excited about it like we were!”
For Mrs. Shapiro, that truly brings it full circle back to her author writing days. After all, to take a page from her selected author Numeroff, ‘If you give a student the opportunity and tools, they’re going to want to write a letter…”.