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A letter to the future me from the past me read by the present me

Something that at first seemed slightly weird happened to me recently: I received a letter, with the address written on the envelope in my hand writing. On opening the letter, I found myself reading a letter from myself addressed to myself. It had been sent second class, and I initially didn’t recall having sent myself anything in the post.

How odd, I thought. Is someone playing a trick on me?

I looked at the letter again. Yep, it was my handwriting, they were my words. I was stumped.

A couple of days later, the penny dropped. I had written this letter. But I hadn’t sent it. I’d only written my name and address. It was written during a workshop at the NATECLA London day conference we held back in March. During a session led by Meltem Dincer, we learnt about how she had been working with a group of ex-offender Roma women, teaching them ESOL but also incorporating a range of activities to help these women recognise their experience and to socialise them in their new environment.

I can’t remember exactly how she said she used this letter writing technique with her learners, but its surprise arrival has made me think about what the activity may foster, both in terms of language learning and personal development.

Time

Probably the most obvious language point that will come up with this activity. You’re writing a letter to yourself in the future, but the present time you’re writing in will become the past by the time you read it. Wibbly, wobbly, timey, wimey. In essence, you’ll be using verb structures and other phrases to refer to the present in the past (things like ‘You’ve had a stressful day, I know…’ and ‘I bet you’re glad you came to this lesson!’). Already, it’s possibly to see that many verb patterns and forms will emerge. Let’s try and list a few possibilities as far as we can:

  • You’ve had a stressful day – present perfect for talking about recent events
  • I bet you’re glad you came to this lesson – use of the verb bet to create the mood, something like talking about something you thought you’d regret but didn’t, or some advice you should or shouldn’t have taken, followed by a present simple then past simple pattern
  • What a good day! – emphatic structure, in which you can substitute another adjective (great, bad, terrible, …)
  • Wasn’t it good that you didn’t have to do examining today – rhetorical question to self, followed by a past simple structure
  • Try not to stress out too much! – again to self, an imperative form (present imperative?)
  • and so on. You get the picture.

Loads of language. Pretty cool. And I wrote my letter in about 5 minutes. Doing this in class, you’d probably allow more time, particularly so because of the next point:

It is bloody hard to do this kind of writing

As mentioned above, the language is all over the place. The ideas you could write about in this activity, the ones you want to write about, the ones you know you should write about to help yourself recognise certain things. Blimey, that takes some brainpower!

But it can be a really cathartic process. I’d advise here that you might want to reassure students (if you do it as a class activity) that they can choose whether to share their letter or keep it confidential. The only suggestion I would make is that they make sure they read and reflect on the letter when they receive it.

Logistics

So, you want to do this with your students? Well, of course you might! Here are some considerations:

  • Make sure you have enough pieces of paper and envelopes
  • Agree a date that you will post the letters and stick to it(!)
  • Don’t force anyone to write a letter if they don’t want to
  • Write a letter to yourself and give it to a student you trust to post (maybe…)

And would you like to see my letter? 😉

Letter from past Mike

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