I’m a middle aged white guy who was always more comfortable on the golf course than the football field. I have hands that are poorly suited for palming a basketball but come in surprisingly handy when getting the last of the Pringles at the bottom of the can. I know some Kanye West lyrics but am more likely to sing Frank Sinatra. I care more about my vocabulary than I do about my wardrobe.
All that is to say, I’m not that cool.
My passion and purpose is reading and writing, so of course I’m going to say reading and writing are important. I realized several years ago that I would never be able to convince students by telling them this. I could demonstrate it over time, but I was impatient. There wasn’t time; I wanted students to know right away that reading and writing, and that education in general, held value for them–even if they were going to be a professional athlete or movie star.
Students needed to hear those words from people who were cool, from people they wouldn’t expect, from people they would assume were beyond the demands that education demands.
So I wrote some letters to actors, athletes, and musicians. The list included Kanye West, Sean Combs (aka P. Diddy), Jamie Foxx, Will Smith, Mark Wahlberg, and Mary J. Blige. I chose people for a few reasons:
- recognition factor
- some demonstration or involvement in charity
- method of contacting them (not surprisingly, their home mailing addresses weren’t listed)
To date I have received one response: from Peyton Manning. It was thoughtful; it was honest; it was exactly what I was looking for. Manning spoke of the hours of studying he still does. He credits the study habits he developed in school for helping him as an NFL quarterback: the study habits in classes like science and English. That is the message I want students to hear. And they can only hear it from me so often.
Now I want more letters. I want to hear from people who are past their education days; I want to hear what difference education makes, particularly in surprising ways: how, for example, did learning to deal with a difficult teacher help you to deal with a difficult manager, director, or coach?
I’m looking for suggestions. I’m looking for addresses. I’m looking to maybe edit a book of responses.
The Generic Form Letter I Started With:
I am writing to ask a small favor of you to help inspire my students. Many of them do not see the value of an education, and even those who do view it as a minimal prerequisite to their future success. Most of them see it as an obstacle to their future. This is particularly true for students who dream of being a rapper or professional athlete, which is not an uncommon dream. I am writing to you because my students respect you as [WHAT], and I know [HOW] that you respect the importance of education.
As an English and history teacher, I don’t see it as my job solely to prepare my students as future workers. Nor do I pretend to believe that the basic facts I teach will be essential to them as adults. The facts, I tell them, are an avenue to critical thinking, to a better understanding of themselves and their world. Moreover, education is about learning to interact with people; it is about disciplining yourself to accomplish tasks especially when you don’t want to; it is about developing habits of mind that will guide you in all aspects of your lives.
Of course, I am their teacher. I’m supposed to say things like that. What I am asking for is a letter from you that I can post in my classroom, encouraging them to embrace the challenge of education and recognize its value beyond the traditional workplace. I would like you to explain what difference education has made in your life, even your life as [WHATEVER]. Are there aspects of education that actually directly assist you [WHEREVER]? Looking back, what characteristics of yours were forged through education that have helped you personally? Given your present circumstances, how would you be different without the education you received? Are there any specific educational experiences that made a demonstrable difference?
Thank you in advance for any time and attention you can give to this matter. My goal is to inspire all students to see education as an opportunity rather than an obstacle.
I am looking for collaborators in this venture. I will post a follow up this week to explain.
If you would like to see a copy of the letter or hear how I shared the letter from Peyton Manning with students, feel free to email me using the contact form at the bottom of this page.