Writing Thank You Emails to Spread Kindness
After a long, hard year of writing essays, the last thing students want to do in May is write another. Teachers are right there with them. Who wants to sit around grading papers when there's warm weather and sunshine to be had? Teachers can help students celebrate the end of the school year with a meaningful, real-world writing assignment they will remember for years to come: the thank you email.
This activity can be completed either electronically or the old school way (by writing an actual letter!). Snail mail is fun for students who live in a digital world, but emails are more modern. While students can quickly type a thank you email, a hand-written letter is more personable and traditional.
One of the keys to spreading kindness is helping students learn to see outside themselves. Taking time to think about how someone in our life has taught us, helped us, nurtured us, or mentored us is humbling. Because asking students to write to a teacher is staged, I don't force students to write to an educator in the building. I just tell them they should write to someone in their life who they consider to be one of their greatest teachers. Some students might choose a parent, a coach, a pastor, or a family friend, and others will choose a teacher who made a difference in their life.
This end-of-the-year writing activity can actually take place during any part of the school year, but it's refreshing to reward students with a low-pressure writing assignment when attention spans are waning. Teacher Appreciation week is a great time to spread kindness. Here are a few skills to cover when teaching students to write a note of gratitude:
INTRODUCE THE OPPORTUNITIES
Many students don't understand the versatility of a thank you letter or email. It's important to help them see its potential use. For example, explain to students that one way they can show consideration and encouragement to someone else is by highlighting someone's strengths. Sending a thank you note for a small act of kindness or generosity can be easy to overlook, but its power is unquestionable.
Students might often overlook the importance of sending a friend or family member an email of appreciation. I enjoy teaching my students that it's important to reflect on how people are impacting their lives. If someone makes a difference by offering encouragement, lending them property, trusting them with a job, or buying them something, students can write thank you notes in return.
Leaving a note in someone's locker at school is another way students can spread kindness. Perhaps students have noticed one of their classmates has been eating alone, acting depressed, or behaving differently. When teachers remind students that it's important to show others that we care, it brings students' empathy to a new level.
Some secondary students have job interviews. Teaching students to get in the habit of writing thank you letters or emails early on in life sets the tone for later (when it really matters!). Potential colleges and employers are impressed by candidates who are generous enough to write a thank you note in reciprocation for consideration of entrance or employment.
CREATE AN AWARENESS OF AUDIENCE
Make sure students are aware of who will be receiving their note. They might know the recipient, but do they understand how to change their dialogue appropriately? For example, teachers can model how we might alter the closing sentence(s) for different audiences. Consider:
Thank you again for the opportunity to interview for this position. I look forward to the possibility of partnering with you. (to a potential employer - formal tone)
Girl, I can't thank you enough. We make an amazing team! (to a friend - conversational tone)
It's important to make students aware of the differences between high and low register. When they write to a friend or family member, informal language is appropriate. However, they should consciously be able to reconstruct those same ideas to a more formal tone when writing to a college, church, employer, teacher, or other formal audience.
encourage them to BE SPECIFIC
Teach students to be specific when writing thank you notes. When letters and emails are vague, they seem insincere. You may choose to give them examples, like these:
Dear Mr. Jameson,
Thanks for all your help with English this year. I wouldn't have passed without you.
Instead, maybe Teddy could have written something like this:
Dear Mr. Jameson,
You may never know how much I have appreciated your help with English class this year. I've always felt like a bad writer, and it's frustrated me. This year, you taught me that writing is not about perfection. You also taught me that improvement happens when we learn from and correct our mistakes. While I still wouldn't consider myself an expert, I definitely have more confidence in my writing abilities. What's more, I don't dread it like I used to.
Thanks again for being a teacher who cares. I know it must have taken you extra time and patience to guide me toward improvement, but I am so grateful that you did.
Talk with students about how it makes them feel when they receive a heart-felt thank you as opposed to an empty and brief one. If your students need enrichment, this lesson is a great time to incorporate the concept of pathos. Introducing students to the emotional element of writing opens doors in many genres.
FOCUS ON THE HEART
Ultimately, my goal with the thank you letter or email is to show students that what they carry in their heart is valid. Thank you notes are a way to bless other people by expressing the thoughts we all too often keep inside. In life, we hear more complaints than appreciation (in all professions!). I want to teach my students to focus on gratitude and on using their writing skills to encourage others. More importantly, I hope my teens will continue to channel that positivity in tangible ways as they leave my classroom.
Kindness? It matters. Let's teach students to throw it around like confetti.
Ready to get started? Download this one-day lesson to guide students as they craft their thank you emails. Following through... If you are asking students to draft a handwritten letter, ask students to bring the recipient's address to class. See if your school will pay for the stamps and envelopes, which will help to ensure the letters actually get delivered. And, if you're ready to take your students' writing skills to the next level with business writing, try out this email etiquette mini unit. It's the perfect real-world writing unit for any time of year.
Read more about why teaching email etiquette is so important in middle and high school, and find some practical teaching ideas.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Melissa is the creator of The Reading and Writing Haven and a collaborative blogger on Teachwriting.org.
An English teacher for over a decade, Melissa is an avid reader and writer, and she loves sharing ideas and collaborating with fellow educators. Melissa use her degrees in English, Curriculum & Instruction, and Reading as well as her Reading Specialist certification to ponder today’s educational issues while developing resources to help teachers, students, and parents make learning more relevant, meaningful, and engaging.
When she's not teaching, Melissa lives for drinking a good cup of coffee, loving on her family, working out, and contemplating the structure of a sentence as well as how she can lead her students to deeper reading comprehension (Melissa's true nerdy passions).