Students’ letters to their former selves
As readers of this blog know, I am a big fan of using letters in various ways in both English teaching and teacher training. In fact, my most recent (which was not all that recent as it was from December 2020) blog post was me writing to a previous me of a month before. That post was spurred on by an activity in which I asked students to write a letter to a previous version of themselves, the one just before a recently concluded intensive course started. So at the end of November students were writing to the them of early November. Clear and not at all confusing or unusual, right?
I just finished another intensive course (something like a pre-sessional academic English course) here in Ho Chi Minh City and gave my students this same assignment. The exact wording of the task was “Write a letter to your former self. Your self before you started this course. Tell yourself the important information (course related or otherwise) that you wish you knew when the course started.” I suggested that this assignment be “letter length” and said students could “Feel free to give any advice, tips, warnings, ideas (related to the course or otherwise.)” I suggested that they could “Be encouraging or threatening as needed.” I said that they could write anything from local restaurant recommendations to very specific tips on class assignments.
While potentially disrupting the space-time continuum, this activity can be a nice way to see what students wish they’d known before the course started. It can also be a way to see what students viewed as important and meaningful in the course (or, at the very least, what they think the teacher wants to read in that regard). This time around, the letters provided some glimpses into group turmoil, stress regarding homework, and anxiety with public speaking in addition to the above. The letters also provided moments of humor and sincere pride in students’ accomplishments in the short period of time. I enjoyed reading the letters and got a lot out of the process since they provided a lot of fodder for reflection.
Dear reader, I suppose by now you must be excited to read these letters. So, shortly (and with apologies for the parts that say how great I am) I will provide some (lightly edited) excerpts from these letters from various students. Do let me know if anything jumps out at you or if you are suddenly inspired to do something similar in your own classes. Enjoy!
- How are you today? Can you turn off your phone and give me some minutes ?I am your future, after nearly finishing the course, after gaining a lot of useful and practical experiences from this course. I just take you some minutes to tell you something really important for your preparation for the course.
- How’s it going? You must be nervous before the course, huh? I know you are surprised and a little bit scared when you read this, right? I know this sounds ridiculous and kind of… weird but actually I’m you from the future and I’m writing this to help you by giving some advice as well as warning before you take classes. I know you are skeptical about me but trust me this time because what I’m going to say is 100% true. As I just told you, I’m from the future so I can know exactly what will happen and I also know clearly what you will feel during this course.
- Before March 14th, 2021, I know how insecure you are in your mind, and I know what you are worried about. You aren’t afraid to change, to try a new thing but I know you’re scared that you cannot adapt to a new environment, you’re not confident enough that you can do well or you can overcome the stress and difficulties.
- I know you are ambitious. I am you, so I know you. You want to be the best, but you do not believe in yourself. You are always scared that you are bad. Believe me, you are not too bad. You just need the confidence. You might be wrong in some situations, but it is just a learning process.
- As things shift and change, I hope you remember that you’re better than you think, stronger than you know. But the intensive course ended, and I know you put in a lot of effort to finish all the class tasks and assessment. Thank you for your learning enthusiasm. I hope you know that change is natural, change is normal things that everyone needs to do everyday. Your ability to continuously learn and improve day by day.
Be confident to give yourself a chance to try and believe that you can do it.
Don’t pressure yourself, go for a walk, take a nap, share your worry with your family, your friends. So, all the insecurity, worry will be gone.
- Mr. Mike is really very friendly and kind, you will feel very comfortable being taught and supported by him, and classmates are also very friendly and excellent.
You will truly develop your potential in this classroom. The results were also quite high beyond my expectations. However, you should try to make use the most of your time, watch movies less, read more books, improve your English communication skills.
- The last thing I want to say to you is don’t worry too much about the new school environment. I know you are currently very hesitant about how to make new friends in this new environment but don’t worry. Just confidently and actively speak during class and talk about the topics on the board and you will realize that the classmates are very friendly and Mr. Griffin is extremely humorous and helpful.
Other than that, I don’t know what to advise more. You will do everything well. Be confident and prove what you can do! Remember to take care of yourself because it rains often in the few last lessons. You have to take advantage of going to school early so as not to get caught in the rain and then late to school.
- I know my letter is quite messy because this is the first time I have written this letter for you (myself) in the past. Nevertheless, you must remember that there is not much time for you to waste it. So be ready and the new road is waiting for you.
“Do let me know if anything jumps out at you”
I like these ones for various reasons:
 “How are you today? Can you turn off your phone and give me some minutes ?I am your future … ”
 “I know this sounds ridiculous and kind of… weird but actually I’m you from the future … ”
I often find that half the battle in EAP writing is getting students to grasp what their role is in relation to the reader – a kind of tour guide if ideas, commentator, architect describing the plan of a building while watching a speeded-up time-lapse video of it being built … These two clearly acknowledge who the reader is and consider what they might be doing or thinking as they read so it’s good in my book.
 “… it rains often in the few last lessons. You have to take advantage of going to school early so as not to get caught in the rain and then late to school.”
I like this one’s recognition that the learning experience involves a great deal more than just what goes on in class or studies at home. Moods and experiences (and health) do change with the time of day, weather, etc. and teachers often acknowledge this (the last class on a Friday afternoon vs. the first one first thing Monday morning etc.) so it’s good to see a student verbalise it too.
Thank you very much for the comments! Your point about students writing to a particular audience (and the importance of this for EAP) was not something I’d considered, quite honestly. I suppose that when I set up the assignment I said you are writing to yourself so you don’t need to be academic (and maybe this was a reprieve from the emphasis on academic writing!).
I also like your point about the student recognizing that ” the learning experience involves a great deal more than just what goes on in class or studies at home” and I thank you for highlighting this as well! Thank you!
I mean, yes, you’re right of course that the style of the letters is almost by definition informal and conversational rather than academic.
But since a great deal of academic writing tasks (or certainly in social sciences, business, humanities) can be thought of as a formalised dialogue that sense of having a real interlocutor really comes across in the letter task.
I really like this point that “a great deal of academic writing tasks (or certainly in social sciences, business, humanities) can be thought of as a formalised dialogue that sense of having a real interlocutor really comes across in the letter task” and I am now thinking that being clear on who the true audience is something I want to keep in mind next time. For example, students did presentations and in the first run through they used tons of specific and academic terminology that their classmates didn’t know. I had to remind them that the audience was classmates and not me. It might sound simple but I will try to keep this in mind for future tasks. Thank you!
What a lovely idea!
Thank you! I hope you will have chance to try it out! 🙂