Monday, November 11, 2013

Here's my Classroom, Plain and Simple

In the educational field, the importance of a developed relationship between parents and teachers has been growing. For the best student results, it is believed that the channels of communication need to be open between these two groups. And while there are several parent-teacher conferences throughout each school year, this type of interaction is too infrequent to make a difference in the everyday life of a student. Therefore, it is important for teachers to immediately establish contact with parents, and set up several channels of communication, including email, telephone, and personal letters. Many teachers believe that sending a letter home with students on the first day of class, addressed to parents, is the best way to establish this immediate contact.
          If a teacher chooses to write a letter to the parents of their students, they have multiple considerations to make. Their goal should be to come across as both professional and approachable, while also writing in a readable, yet intelligent manner. Striking this balance in writing can be extremely difficult, and failing to meet these expectations, especially for new teachers, can start off a school year on the wrong foot. And it’s not only teachers who must consider this balance while approaching a writing task, in many writing situations, including fields such as business, personnel management, and health, you are dealing with readers of varied skill who are expecting your writing to come across in this manner. In these cases, certain measures must be taken to ensure that your writing is accessible and clear. Generally speaking, writing in what is known as the plain style is one way to create this writing persona. Despite running the risk of sounding simple, it often seems that using certain elements of the plain style correctly enables a writer to find this balance between accessibility and professionalism.
However, if a beginning teacher is struggling with these types of situations, they have resources that they can rely on to assist them. For example, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) website includes a “sample letter to parents” that teachers can use as a template. There were several different versions of this letter on WEAC’s page, and each one uses similar techniques and writing styles, and could be adapted to multiple different classrooms. Focusing on one example, we see the way these sample letters utilize the plain style to maintain readability, while also maintaining a level of intelligence and professionalism, make them an effective tool for new teachers to draw from for their own use.
         Studying this letter shows where three different levels of community in the educational system are interacting. On one side, we have an interaction between veteran teachers and new teachers, and on the other is an interaction between parents and teachers. These are both highly important relationships in an educational context. WEAC’s website is the artifact that creates the interaction between teachers, as it is a resource designed by veteran teachers for the use of other teachers, and they are pooling resources that are shared across the community. The sample letter itself is where we see the interaction between teacher and parent, as now the artifact that has been created is being used for its intended purpose, communication across two separate communities.
When studying the interaction of the veteran and new teachers, we gain a sense of collaboration and shared purpose. The letter is posted on the new teacher resources page on WEAC’s website, which demonstrates the way veteran teachers are collaborating with new teachers; they are making their experience-proven tools available for use by others. On the WEAC website there is a large amount of resources that a new teacher can access, including ideas for sample lesson plans, classroom management, and classroom organization. When a new teacher chooses to use these resources, they are aligning their goals and purpose with those of the veteran teachers. The fact they would be approaching their role in education in the same manner, through using other teachers’ techniques, implies this mindset of shared goals.
          Turning from the context behind the letter, and focusing on the artifact itself, we see that the way that teachers and parents interact in an educational setting is tough to explain, because each parent and teacher interact differently based on multiple factors. It can be assumed that the socio-economic class of the family, the educational history of the parents, the past relationships with teachers, and the student’s performance can shape each interaction in a different way. Considering this, we can never predict the relationship between a teacher and parent prior to the first actual contact, and each relationship will be different. Despite the nature of a parent-teacher relationship, every single parent has the right to be as active in their child’s education as they wish to be. To allow for that, it is important that any communication between the teacher and parent is done in a clear, professional manner. As we can not assume the educational level of any parent, a complexly written, jargon-filled letter would be of no use, as it would be denying some parents access to a role in their child’s education. The way the “sample letter to parents” uses techniques of the plain style, like active voice, concise sentence structure, and parallel sentence structure demonstrates how to write a letter that would meet the needs of all parents and students, and is an example of writing that would be clear and effective.
          Looking at the “sample letter to parents,” the first thing that is noticeable is the constant use of the active voice throughout. For example, examine the style the second paragraph is written in:
Psychology is a very demanding course. We will cover 19 chapters in 18 weeks. There will be homework assignments almost daily. Each student will need a single subject notebook, a pocket folder, blue or black pens and pencils. These materials should be brought to class every day. We cover a lot of material in one class period so locker passes will not be issued.

Each sentence utilizes only active voice, keeping the verb of the sentence directly to the right of the subject. By keeping the subject near the action of the sentence, the reader is easily able to interpret what goal the sentence has. In other words, the reader will know who is doing what in each sentence, and there is no ambiguity in the interpretation of the sentences. The paragraph avoids using techniques like appositives, participial phrases, and absolute phrases, which are ways to delay a sentence start, and add complexity and ambiguity to writing. By keeping the sentence structure simple, and active, there is no chance of losing the meaning in the sentence. Considering the parents who may be reading this letter, it would be a wise choice for a teacher to write in such a manner, because this creates a better opportunity for those with lower literacy levels to interpret the intended message of the letter.
          A second important aspect of this paragraph is the clear, concise sentences that it employs. The writer of the letter sticks to one idea per sentence, and one verb per sentence. One of the easiest ways to confuse a reader is to include multiple ideas subordinated and embedded in a sentence, which only confuses the meaning and purpose of the sentence. A standard method of embedding these ideas is through the usage of multiple verbs, either all relating to the same subject, or relating to a newly introduced subject. While these techniques can be used effectively, in a letter like the “sample letter to parents,” it makes more sense to keep your sentences simple, so that each point being made is done so in a clear way. Writing these concise sentences also helps keep the letter moving as the reader goes, and doesn’t force a reader to pause while reading to decode meaning in a sentence. In doing this, the writer is ensuring that all levels of readers are able to access the text. In the various writing situations an educator may be faced with in their career, being able to communicate clearly to all readers is the most important consideration, and using techniques that keep their writing in a more plain style makes this possible.
The letter also demonstrates effective use of parallel structure, as these techniques of the plain style hold throughout the entire letter, and only one sentence deviates away from standard subject-verb-object construction. The beginning of one paragraph uses a sentential adverb, “hopefully,” to begin a sentence, however it immediately introduces the subject after the sentential adverb. While perhaps the letter may seem overly plain due to its repetitive sentence patterns, by maintaining a similar structure, the writer again could be comfortable assuming that the message carried in each sentence is being expressed clearly. And in this instance, a clear and concise message would be valued over stylistic flair, especially considering the varied reading levels of the parents reading the letter.
          However, while the writing style is in the plain style, the letter maintains a certain level of professionalism. The writer’s obvious grasp over what they hope to say, and the explicit, clear manner it is laid out provides the sense of an author who has an understanding of their task. Based on these qualities, this “sample letter to parents” is a tool that new teachers would be wise to take advantage of as a framework to build their own letter. While I wouldn’t suggest simply cutting and pasting the information for your class into this template, I would suggest utilizing similar prose strategies in writing a letter such as this. As a writer, I would consider the ways in which all writers can use styles of plain language to make their message more clear and accessible that are presented in this letter, and consider how to adopt those strategies for my own needs. In writing situations that ask you to establish a connection with an audience of varied reading levels, higher precedence should be given to the clarity of your message, rather than creating technical, stylistic writing. However, by simply replicating what is on this sample letter, a teacher may fail to develop a letter that appropriately captures their intentions and that presents their persona as an educator correctly. And yet, for a teacher, keeping a letter in a plain, concise style, as demonstrated by this letter, will ensure that all parents reading their correspondence will be able to access the information and use it as they see fit.

By: Brandon N.

Works Cited

"Section 6: Sample Letters to Parents." Wisconsin Education Association Council, n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2013. <

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