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Letters to the Universe

An english teacher draws on student experiences with losing a loved one to help them cope with the Sept. 11 tragedy.

By Tracy Wagner

The night of Sept. 11, unable to stop watching the constant news coverage of the day's tragedies, I knew I had to plan a special lesson for the following day. I pulled an old box out of my closet, decorated it with bits of postcards and envelopes, and, after cutting a slit in the top, labeled it "Letters to the Universe."

Earlier in the day, I had encountered some students who said they were "unaffected" by the attacks. I knew my students needed a way to begin processing the attacks, and I hoped the lesson would be a start. I also wanted to help my students understand the power of empathy, and how people gain strength by coming together in times of crisis.

I started out my first hour class by asking students what they had heard on the news and how it made them feel. Some students shared; most remained silent.

"I felt very sad watching the news last night, and even though I felt that way, I still couldn't turn the TV off," I said, trying to model that it was OK to feel frustrated and upset.

My lesson plan was based on the idea of the guided freewrite - students are given a topic and given time to write whatever they want. I passed out a sheet that asked students to "share a time in your life when you lost someone, and offer advice from your experience and what you learned." The students were to write their response on the back of the sheet.

Familiar with guided freewrites, my students knew they would have 15 minutes to write quietly and that they would not have to sign their name. After helping a few of the students choose to whom they would write, I sat down to write my letter.

When I called "time's up," we folded up our letters and dropped them into the "Letters to the Universe" box. Then, I opened the lid and students passed around the box, each picking out an anonymous letter. The students began to read.

Marcus, a boy in the front row, started to cry. "Man, this is so sad, so sad. Ms. Wagner, come look at this," he said.

The writer had shared the experience of losing his grandmother the year before, saying, "The day she died part of my heart did, too." The writer advised: "Be strong for your family and never forget the good times you had with your loved ones. Our time on earth is short and we all know that." I knew that Marcus's grandmother had died earlier that year, too.

Marcus was the first to volunteer to read a letter. Soon, a panel of readers had assembled in the front of the room. One by one, students passed up letters through the rows to a reader who read it to the group. Sometimes, students who were listening asked that a particular line, or an entire letter, be read again. Following are excerpts from two of the letters:

The student panel of readers read right up until the bell. Surely, not all students were as engaged as I had hoped. I had envisioned each of them reading a letter out loud instead of a uniform panel of readers. I had hoped that more students would feel comfortable saying about a letter, "That's mine!"

I also knew that teaching about Sept. 11 was not a one-time event. I continued to plan lessons almost instant-by-instant for the following week: playing the game of "telephone" to make students think about how many people information had passed through before landing in their ear; finding a piece of factual news information and responding with poetry or artwork; simply discussing what we knew, and sharing our fears.

I do not know what the future holds. But I hold tight to the hope that my students remember how good it feels to write, listen, and to respond together in times of tragedy.

Tracy Wagner currently teaches English 9 and 10 at Madison East High School, in Madison, Wisconsin. All students' names have been changed.

Winter 2001 / 2002