Epistolary Writing: Historical Figures, Poems, and Letters
Writing to a Historical Figure
Last week we discussed Dear Martin in Flow’s middle school book club. In Dear Martin, Justyce (the 17-year old Black protagonist) writes letters to Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in part to make sense of his feelings about his experience being racially profiled and abused at the beginning of the book but also to understand whether MLK’s approach is still relevant and what would be the most useful form of protest against systemic racial inequality today. The following writing assignment can be adjusted for many different ages and could be completed over the remaining weeks of summer depending on your kiddo’s interest level. First you might want to discuss what interests your kiddo. For example, are they into inventions? Maybe they want to research Thomas Edison. Are they into art? Space? Politics? Travel? With younger kids spend some time looking over lists of historical figures and determining together a person who they want to know more about. For older kids they can complete this process on their own. Once they have selected a figure, ask your kiddos to begin their research by reading a biography or autobiography, viewing interviews or speeches, reading letters, etc. Once they have completed their research, they can write one letter to the figure or they can begin keeping a journal with multiple letters to their chosen historical figure.
Epistolary poems are poems that read as letters. You can visit the following website to learn more about the history of these poems: https://poets.org/glossary/epistolary-poem
Read a variety of epistolary poems with your kiddos - we used the poem “Letter to Someone Living Fifty Years From Now,” by Matthew Olzmann in FLOW last week, but there are many others such as: William Carlos Williams, “This is Just to Say,” Evie Shockley, “From the Lost Letters of Frederick Douglass,” Leonard Cohen, “Famous Blue Raincoat” and many others. Ask your kiddos to try writing a letter in the form of a poem to either one person, a group of people, their future self, or someone in the past. For reluctant writers, they might use one of the letters they wrote or read for the assignment above and try experimenting with line breaks.
In the digital age we don’t hand write letters much anymore, but summer is a great time to
begin a letter exchange with a pen pal. Maybe this is a friend, cousin, or other relative who lives out of state or in another country. Kiddos could pair this writing assignment with reading I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives.