Open Letter

Posted by Michael Grover on February 28, 2013

Michael Grover
Scarborough Centre for Alternative Studies
Scarborough, ON

March 1, 2013

Facing History
World Wide Web

Dear Facing History Members,

Re: Open Letter as Teaching Strategy

I would like to take a moment to elucidate why teaching students to write an open letter can be a powerful strategy. When we teach powerful content such as genocide it is hoped that our students will engage the material as more than just possible future test fodder. We want them to remember, to discuss, and to get involved. An open letter is a tool that asks students to reflect on the content, engage empathetically with that content (they speak in the first person and must do so both analytically and emotionally), and find a way to actively pay tribute to and seek redress of the content.

In teaching our students to write letters, the value in developing the skill is both necessary, and fortunately, easy to explain: we need to be able to write a letter in pursuit of a job, to keep in contact with family and friends (emails are letters), to make contact or requests (think love letters…), and we need this skill in order to advocate for ourselves (even non-textual verbal requests)! An open letter simply allows us to bring these ambitions to a larger audience.

An open letter is a letter like any other; what distinguishes it is the intended audience. Where a standard letter has a limited intended audience, (often a single person or organization), an open letter is intended for public consumption. This means that a standard letter will focus on influencing its addressed reader alone. The entire energy of the letter is thus designed to influence the addressee through a binary discourse. The open letter, however, relies not only on the discourse between the addressee and author, but also seeks to engage public opinion in its influence of the addressee and to engage (or subvert) the addressee’s influence (positive or negative) over the public.

An open letter follows the standard format of any other letter: we begin with an introduction to the audience in which the letter’s purpose is revealed (e.g. in a cover letter I would explain that I would like to apply to position X as displayed under posting Y); we continue with an explanation as to why the audience should share our purpose (e.g. in a cover letter I would now explain why I am the best qualified candidate); and finally we end the letter by offering our regard to the reader for their consideration. The letter is a common tool and an opportunity for authentic learning. An open letter teaches these skills and offers the writer an opportunity to become actively involved with an issue, to become an upstander.

There are many examples to which we can refer in order to scaffold the open letter. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is a famous example of how the open letter has been used to pursue social justice. Although this letter is ostensibly written to King’s claimed ‘Fellow Clergymen’ to explain his behaviour, the letter’s true purpose is clearly to influence a much larger audience. Here King is not only able to exert a greater influence on his fellow clergy by engaging the public, he also now is reaching a broader audience, hopefully of like-minded individuals, regardless of the impact his letter has on the addressees. While Martin Luther King Jr. had the power and prominence to ‘deliver’ an open letter using his unique ability to access the publishing power of the news media, most people, at the time, would not.

Today, though, almost everyone, regardless of personal status and public stature, has the capacity to publish material publicly. “Why Can’t I Own a Canadian” is a more modern example of how the open letter can be wielded to pursue social justice. In this we see the power of humour (especially irony) as a rhetorical tool. Moreover, here we have an example of the power of the internet. The letter is published by ‘Jim’ (no last name: no personal status, no public stature). Based on its merits alone (it is well constructed, well supported, and humourous) the letter went viral and became prolific in the public consciousness (if not so much as King’s, it is nonetheless impressive). Here we see the power of the individual with a computer and internet access to actively influence the public debate (rather than just being a passive recipient of said debate). Here social justice has become more than just a topic in the classroom, more than just something big men do and we watch. Here social justice has become something my students and I can pursue, and it has become something my students and I are a part of.

Some methods to consider for publishing an open letter might include Blogs (Blogger, Word Press), Social Media (Facebook, My Space, Google+), Wikis (Wikispaces), and many, many more. In fact, if you are not sure how to publish an open letter, ask your class. It is quite likely you already have students that know how themselves!

I hope this appeal is one you will consider. If you have any further thoughts or resources that would support the teaching of the letter with social justice as an end in mind, please comment.

Yours faithfully,

Michael Grover

Topics: History, Strategies, Lesson Ideas, English Classroom


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