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Writer as Reader Workshops

In Their Own Words: Historical Documents in Letters of a Nation

November 2, 2012

As teachers of history, social studies, and cultural studies we know the value, and the challenge, of teaching with primary documents, of engaging students’ interest in conflicting perspectives on the past. We ask students to read all or parts of public documents such as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, FDR’s 1941 State of the Union, or Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to deepen their understanding of the Civil War, the origins of World War II, and the Civil Rights Movement. We read primary documents to engage students’ curiosity and interest, inviting them to understand how the lives of private citizens were changed by an event at critical moments in history. What about letters? As primary documents, letters are vital, informative, colorful, and complicated. Even in this digital age of instant communication of information and opinion, the private letter, written by public figures and private citizens, remains among the most compelling and complicated primary documents for historians of American culture and society—and often the most accessible to students.

Working with selections from Letters of a Nation (edited by Andrew Carroll), this workshop does two things: applies IWT writing-to-read strategies to a selection of letters drawn from critical moments in U.S. history, and examines the value of using letters, as well as other primary documents, to teach history. Focusing on letters of arrival and immigration to the new nation, and on times of social upheaval in the 19th and 20th centuries, the workshop investigates what we can learn from letters, in what ways they are unreliable as witnesses to an event or the mood of the country, and what counts as “information” in a letter.

Text: Upon registration, participants will receive information about which letters from Letters of a Nation (Broadway, 1999) to read in advance.

Workshop fee: $150 (includes morning coffee, lunch, and 
workshop materials)