My name is Vanessa Gonzales. I'm a writing instructor at both Daytona State College and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. I've been leaving mystery-author notes for strangers in random places since junior high, which I'm reluctant to admit was twenty years ago.

I also have a long history of letter writing. My family moved a lot when I was a child and back when land-line calls were charged per very-expensive minute, letter writing was the only affordable way to stay in touch with friends. I camped out by the mailbox and cherished those letters. Writing so prolifically as a child—some letters reaching up to forty pages—no doubt contributed to developing the skills I use most in my career. But why am I incorporating letter writing into the classroom?

In earlier times the "art" of letter writing was formally taught. Letters were not only a common medium of communication among individuals, they were important in communities as letters were shared, read aloud and published. Letters did the cultural work that academic journals, book reviews, magazines, legal documents, business memos, and diplomatic cables, etc. do now. The loss to what people in the future know about us today may be incalculable.

Letter writing is not only a lost art but a disappearing survival skill. World Vision recently commissioned a study, finding that 1 in 10 children have never written a letter, and most junior high age children haven't written a letter in over a year. Forty-six states no longer require cursive handwriting as part of the curriculum, and one of Britain's largest exam boards has suggested that some handwriting is so bad that adults should be allowed to act as "scribes" for students during tests. What!?

I did the majority of my letter writing from ages twelve to fifteen. My penmanship improved considerably and this was ultimately when I learned how to spell. Also, the boxes of saved letters from those years are precious—pure gold as keepsakes go. Can you say the same for a single text or email you received this past week? How about in the past month? And did you print it out and save it in an envelope covered in notes or doodles from your friend—all written in their favorite color pen?

My interrelated point is that electronics are making it harder to make real-world connections with people and when we do we can barely spell or form complete sentences. Writing a letter by hand addresses both of these issues. It's also a more intimate form of communication that helps to improve the way we express ourselves, often by inspiring us to share things we don't feel compelled to share while typing with our thumbs.

We put more thought into what we're saying when we hand-write a letter. And in fact that's exactly what I see my students doing during this exercise. Sometimes out loud because they're worried about "screwing up," but mostly because writing by hand slows and focuses their thoughts. Letter writing doesn't just vastly improve literacy, it's a fun way to escape the blinding glow of our computer screens and interact with people in a less isolating way.


Vanessa Gonzales