Authentic Work Series: Who would have thought writing an email would be so darn tough?

Throughout my experience teaching at a high school, teachers, parents, support staff, people looking to employ students… all said the same thing, “Why don’t these kids know how to write an email?!” As such, it seemed that teaching emails should have been a slam dunk. We would tell students that they needed to refine their skill of writing professional emails and then they would willingly write these emails to people in our community, they would get replies, and we would have fulfilled the need to teach emails.

Here’s what really happened…

We introduce email writing to students. We are jazzed. We are excited.

Adam raises his hand, “This is dumb. I know how to write an email.”

Rebecca raises her hand, “Yeah. I write emails all the time to work. I’m an expert at it.”

Michelle, “I write emails to Mrs. Redding about Social Studies. I think she understands what I’m saying.”

We had to regroup and reevaluate what we were doing. We realized that our students thought one thing about their writing, their tone, and manner of getting an idea across, but their audience had different feedback.  

As teachers, we had to take step back and determine what we do in our daily practice. We have to communicate to all types of people via email. Unlike many of our students, our emails are often to people we don’t know personally and who don’t know our tone. We had to take a step back and explicitly tell students that sometimes, we write emails to people we don’t know, and we have to sound professional and knowledgeable. Many of our students had never written emails to people they didn’t know.

Step 1

  • Identify the skills that we wanted to assess
    • W.2.a Introduce a topic; organize complex ideas, concepts, and information so that each new element builds on that which precedes it to create a unified whole; include formatting (e.g., headings), graphics (e.g., figures, tables), and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.
    • W.2.e Establish and maintain a formal style and objective tone while attending to the norms and conventions of the discipline in which they are writing.

Step 2

  • Have students help develop the indicators that would go into a rubric. Since they believed that they didn’t have to improve their writing skills for this genre, we wanted them to identify what would “exceed the standard” for email writing.
our email rubric

Step 3

  • Provide a low stakes, authentic use for practicing emails. For us, we had students write to past teachers.
  • We used the student-generated rubric to help guide students in determining what they needed to improve.
  • We worked one-on-one with students to ensure that the emails were clear, concise, and informational. We found that this was a hard balance for many students to find.
  • Once the email met the standard, students were allowed to send them to their intended recipient.

Throughout this process, we would not allow students to send their email until the email exceeded or met the standard. Since students were writing to authentic audiences, their writing had to be strong – they were not only representing themselves, but also our class as a whole.

This part is challenging to manage for a variety of reasons. Students are very accustomed to completing an assignment, hand it in, and moving on. Most of their academic career has been spent doing this – fill out some ideas, hand them in, and move to the next topic or assignment. One of the pieces of personalized learning is how the work students put into assignment is always evolving and changing. The “work” is never done. For the first time in many students’ academic careers, they could not move to the next step until the product “met the standard.”

The management of students “meeting the standard” can be challenging for everyone involved – students, parents, and teachers. Students often submit assignments multiple times, but each draft is “not quite done.” Parents will sometimes call and want to know why their child still has an “incomplete” for an assignment they have seen submitted numerous times. And as teachers, it can be overwhelming to have dozens of emails in Google Classroom in various phases in the process.

Here’s the thing.
Don’t give up.
Don’t accept work that doesn’t meet the standard.
Your students will get better.
They will internalize what you are telling them.
They will learn.
They will get it right.
Don’t give up.

Our student Tom crafted and recrafted this email to a teacher in our district many times. However, after instruction about conciseness and conferences with his teachers, his writing became much better. The time we put into this instruction paid dividends in his journey in English in Action.

Tom’s Email with Kristen’s Suggestions

The struggle of writing coherent emails is real. Each year we think it will get easier, but each year we have to reintroduce this idea to make it clear that this type of communication is alive and well in our world today.

However, our moment of buy-in happens a few hours after the first emails are sent. Teachers across the district start receiving the emails from our students and respond back to students. Some teachers have not heard from some of these students for years and are pleasantly surprised.

Emailing past teachers is low-hanging fruit as an educator. We all love positive, kind emails (the types of emails we don’t receive nearly enough of). We can help our students learn the importance of crafting high quality correspondence, while also being gracious and kind.

One thing that also happens with this activity is that our students send emails that we don’t know about. Our student, Dave, wrote this email to a teacher in our district. I was BCC-ed on the email, and had the best surprise ever. These are the kinds of emails we all should get – because we all deserve it.

Dave’s Email
A photo of the card Dave received before the start of 8th grade, which he attached to the email above

PS: When you have your students write emails to past teachers, make sure that your students write a thank you email back to the teacher. Trust us, teachers notice these things.

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