SocialEducation 59(3), 1995, pg. 158
National Council for the Social Studies

Exchanging Opinions Through Letters and Editorials:A Social Studies Activity

Michael D. Evans
Writing is one of the most important skills students can acquire. Effective writing can be a valuable and satisfying vehicle of self-expression. In addition, learning to express oneself succinctly fosters the development of high-level cognitive skills. Yet many students consider writing a highly unpleasant experience.
Social studies teachers can help students learn the writing process by utilizing a variety of formats such as essays, themes, and journal or diary entries. Another important writing activity, which is sometimes overlooked in the social studies curriculum, is letter writing. Since all citizens must often respond to or question information contained in a letter, the social studies classroom provides the perfect opportunity to teach and reinforce this process. In addition, an exchange of informed opinions through letters and editorials can provide an enjoyable way for students to improve their reasoning and writing skills. The following activity, which focuses on reading, analyzing, composing, and responding to letters, is always a popular project in my middle school social studies classes.

Historical Background
Prior to the American Revolution, Massachusetts colonist Samuel Adams instituted the Committee of Correspondence, a group of patriots who wrote letters and pamphlets stirring fellow colonists with news about unpopular edicts, such as the Quebec Act and the Intolerable Acts, which the British imposed upon the colonies. Adams believed that private letters and pamphlets could exact "colonial justice" more effectively than newspapers. He felt these personalized forms of communication would eventually convince the colonists to rise up in rebellion.

Stage One
To begin this activity, I give students examples of editorials and pamphlets to read. We then discuss the intent and purpose of these forms of writing. Next, I ask the students to compose a poster or pamphlet that expresses any idea they feel is important. After completing this assignment, they explain their work to their classmates.

Stage Two
Next, I randomly assign students to one of four groups. Students in one group write editorials praising Great Britain for passing the Intolerable Acts. Another group takes the colonial perspective and sharply criticizes the acts. A third group assumes the role of patriot and writes letters to another colonist. The fourth group takes the role of loyalist and writes letters to a colonist criticizing colonial violations of British law.

After students have completed these assignments, I collect their papers and group them. Editorials for and against Britain are then exchanged, as are patriot and loyalist letters. Students must then read and respond to a letter or editorial that opposes their assigned position. I ask them to include statements designed to persuade the other writer to switch to their side. This assignment is given as homework to allow appropriate time for careful reflection and writing.

The benefits of this assignment are enormous. Reading and critiquing others' work requires high-level thinking skills. In addition, since peer evaluators often make the toughest judges, students feel a responsibility to do their best work. Further, using both letters and editorials allows students to practice working with a variety of writing formats. Finally, students greatly enjoy this opportunity to respond to other classmates who have expressed views contrary to their own.

With minor adaptations, this letter exchange activity can be applied to many topics. For example, geography students could take the role of travel agents and write informational letters to prospective travelers about various countries the class is studying. Economics students could request information from leading economists about the interplay of economic forces, such as the stock market, the Federal Reserve Board, or the tax system. World history students could assume the character of a citizen from a certain period and write to a famous leader, such as Alexander the Great, Queen Elizabeth I, or Joseph Stalin. English students could write a letter to a favorite author commenting on his or her books. Other students acting as those authors could respond. Science students could pose as famous scientists and exchange their hypotheses and discoveries. In addition, students could write and respond to diaries or journals. All of these activities teach important curricular concepts, while also helping students to express themselves more accurately and persuasively, and better comprehend the feelings of others through writing.

Michael D. Evans teaches at Francis C. Hammond Middle School in Alexandria, Virginia.