Slice of Life Tuesday: Letters to Mrs. Levin

This post is part of the weekly Slice of Life challenge from Two Writing Teachers. Check them out!


Each June, I ask my fifth graders to write me a letter reflecting on what they’ve learned in our years together – what they’ve learned about language arts, and what they’ve learned about life. I ask them to make it heartfelt, sincere, and handwritten. This letter is what I will remember them by.

My tradition is to wait to read them until a summer day when I’m just turning that corner between relief that school is over and sadness over missing my loveys. Then I sit down with my folder full of letters and read them, one at a time.

It’s a veritable treasure trove! So many hearts, gathered together in one place.

I’ve been doing this assignment for several years now. Each year, I can predict how the crop will go. There will be some sweet, thoughtful notes. There will be perfunctory letters designed to fulfill the nature of the assignment. Some will astonish me. Without fail, each letter, regardless of length or depth, brings me every child’s essence distilled on paper.

“Do you like the cat?” and “Can you please write back?” Yes, and absolutely yes! All of this, down to the cartoons and doodles and parentheticals, sums up a child I’ve taught for five full years.

I’ll be honest. Sometimes I struggle with this assignment. I don’t take praise well. Compliments make me uncomfortable, and I don’t like the feeling that I’m asking for them or expecting them. So, I feel strange (arrogant, even) asking children to write letters that may wind up with them telling me I’ve done a good job. It feels self-serving. I can’t shake that.

But life is short. It’s important to reflect, to consider our evolution and growth. It’s important to see who helps us along our way, to articulate our gratitude, and to recognize the power that words carry in our relationships. And now that I’ve begun writing the children back, it’s much easier accepting their gifts of love and sincerity knowing I’ll be able to do the same for them in return. It feels good.

A handmade bracelet in my student’s favorite colors: crafted with love, looked over by a jealous doggo

This morning, I sat down with my folder of letters, and WOW. The whole experience was…unexpected.

My students expressed themselves with a level of trust, honesty, reflection and vulnerability I had never before experienced. I asked them to write from their hearts, and they responded with such openness that several times throughout the reading I just had to stop. Absorb. Feel. It was ovewhelming.

It shouldn’t have struck me so hard. I mean, c’mon. I’m a teacher. Teachers know it’s our job to reach our kids. It’s our job to make them feel seen and heard, valued and understood.

But I had grown so close to my students. I’m more attached to my students this year than I have in quite a while. They have my heart.

All of this astounds me. How is it possible to spend the last year and a half seeing one another only through a bunch of pixellated boxes, yet still come out of the experience so tight-knit? How is it possible despite not having our hugs and handshakes, not having moments to lay eyes on one another, not being able to build on that in-person energy together?

What is it that allowed us to strengthen our relationships in the face of our limitations? What was so different about what we created this year? Was it because we had to be so purposeful with our time and attention? Was it because adversity brought us closer?

I can’t completely say. But I’m determined to figure that out. And once I do, how much more will be possible once we’re back in person? The very thought is exhilarating.

Now. If you need me, I’ll be with my stationary, my Flair pens, and a folder full of letters. I’ll be spending the next several days telling a group of eleven year-olds how much I love, admire, and appreciate them.

Next step: mailbox!

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18 Responses to “Slice of Life Tuesday: Letters to Mrs. Levin”

  1. Patty O'Connell Says:

    I love this! I have been thinking about the very same thing. In many ways I felt closer to this class than every before. And I absolutely love the letter idea.

  2. Fran McCrackin Says:

    I see in the photo one of your students wrote a little side note asking you to write back, “even if its an email.” I think you and I agree there is magic in paper, handwritten letters! I love reading about your excellent tradition. It’s not asking for compliments, it solidifies 5 year long relationships, right?
    I love how you describe holding on to the letters until that just-right moment in the summer! And I love how you bring out the doodles and colors when you write back.
    When I taught first grade I invited my very young writers to write me over the summer, and I promised to write back. Some sent postcards or notes, a few actually corresponded- amazing!
    I also consider this a covid piece, in that you ask and examine how these connections flourished during a strange and virtual year. Great phrase- “seeing each other through a bunch of pixilated boxes.” I am fascinated by these reflections and what we can learn from this year.
    So good that you captured your tradition, reflection, and photos.

    • Lainie Levin Says:

      I love that you started pen pals with your first graders – it’s always so sweet to get those correspondences in the mail! You also bring up a good point about this being a COVID piece, and I wonder how much of our connection happened *despite* the physical separation, and how much of our connection happened because we were forced to reckon with it. As for the waiting to open the letters, I think that part of the tradition started one year when I misplaced the folder and then came across it late July. I realized how much more I enjoyed their words with a bit of distance behind me. Ah. Tradition. Glad I could take part, glad I could share.

  3. jaclynfre Says:

    What a beautiful way to let students know connection matters. I love this idea and your candid reflections on inviting students to do the same. Stationary and a good gel / flair pen are some of the best things in life. Thanks for sharing!

  4. arjeha Says:

    What a great way to stay connected with your students after the school year has ended. The honesty and heartfelt comments made by your students could only have happened because of the way you made each one feel valued throughout the year. Whether in person or through a screen, that caring came through . Bask in their compliments. You have earned them.

    • Lainie Levin Says:

      Thank you! I think the most validating thing about the process, at least this year, was to be reminded of the fact that I still CAN make a difference. Maybe I’m always swimming upstream where it comes to systemic problems in education. Maybe I feel alone in some of my soapbox passions. But put me in a room (or a zoom!) with children, and I know we can do good things. =))

  5. edifiedlistener Says:

    This is a lovely practice for all of you. Letter writing may be underrated but once we learn that our words and thoughts and feelings are invited and welcome and will even receive a response – well, then the process becomes its own reward. And I get it about feeling uncomfortable about receiving compliments- that takes practice, too. Others can give us credit that we might not give ourselves.

    • Lainie Levin Says:

      Oh, you’re so right about others giving us credit that we might not give ourselves – it’s a gift that we *should* accept with both hands, but like you say, it does take practice. I also hear you about words and feelings that are welcome and responded to in sincerity. Now that you put it that way, that’s probably something else we worked to build in our community: a genuine value and regard for one another. I’ll have to think on that one more. Thank you for your kind and thoughtful response. =))

  6. Fran Haley Says:

    A fantastic tradition, and one that would serve all students and teachers well…as to the exceptional “trust, honesty, reflection and vulnerability” – that is the gift of COVID-19. More than ever, we have realized our frailties, the fragility of life itself, and our need for one another. We clung to another through screens when we could not be together physically. The contact was still contact and precious for being all we had…and we have ENDURED. The kids, while young, sense it all (they always have astounding insights). And we don’t even know all of their stories…and so your love and smile and openness and being there, providing that desperately-needed familiarity and maybe accountability, mattered enormously – not to mention the gift that writing is. That you encouraged them to write in many different ways, in a time when writing proved itself more valuable evaluable than ever…how could their hearts not be knit to you, as that lovely bracelet and all their words illustrate? Well-done, Lainie – what an absolute treasure trove, in so many ways.

    • Lainie Levin Says:

      Fran, you’re right. COVID has definitely forced (allowed?) us to live more honestly and openly in a lot of ways. You’re also right that they are much more insightful and perceptive than many give them credit for. Come to think of it, maybe that’s another key: honoring and celebrating what kids know and who they are. And, in a year that had me doubting my ability to do big or important things, these letters are a reminder that yes, indeed, I can. Thanks, Fran, for your encouragement and validation. It means the world.

  7. Juliette Awua-Kyerematen Says:

    Thanks Lainie for sharing this activity with us. I like the way you wait to read them during the holiday. Children notice what their teachers want for them to achieve. I think this year more than ever many students took up that challenge and were resilient, persevering through the new modes of learning. You gave them the opportunity to share their learning and experience of learning with you, this is a great reflection for all parties.

    • Lainie Levin Says:

      Thanks, Juliette! You are absolutely right about children and their resilience. We have so much to learn from their courage – so much more than we give them credit for…

  8. Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski Says:

    I mean…I just love everything here! I love that you have this assignment and then wait to read the letters! I love how you write each student back. What a gift it must be for them to receive your words in the middle of the summer! This just shows your heart so beautifully. (Also love the jealous dog! Lol)

    • Lainie Levin Says:

      Thank you! I hope my kids receive and treasure these letters. Guessing, just as it was with their work, that some will take it to heart, and others, not so much. Guessing that’s pretty much what we teachers do in a nutshell. As for the dog, she’s quite the attention hound…

  9. GG Says:

    Are you saving these for a book? I hope so.

  10. Tim Gels Says:

    Such a wonderful post on such a wonderful topic. I’ve missed working with students more than I realized, and this post is the reason I’m going back into the classroom: relationships. Your students are blessed to have you, just as you’ve been blessed to have them!

  11. Raivenne Says:

    My absolute favorite thing in all of this? That these are physical, actual took personal time to put words to paper letters. We may or may not be losing the battle on cursive, but I am completely enamored that you encouraged them to write. The cat sticker and the bracelet just for you. Your drawn speech clouds and rainbows… Emails and texts cannot capture such magic.

    It’s a magic they will feel upon receipt of your letters and that’s way you get the complements.

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