Ideas for a “Letters” documentary

1. Student plan to put six letters found in family records or community archives on the web (or create a pamphlet for local library), along with interpretations. This will be lead to a 10-minute segment in the finished video.

1st visit: Documentary film crew makes three visits to site. At first visit, interview students and teachers about the “find.’ Film footage of place where letters were located (home or museum) and ask general questions about why students are tackling this project, what they expect to find, what they hope to learn. Get footage of students reading and handling the letters, ask questions about how they care for the documents.

2nd visit: Film students scanning letters, working at computers. Record students reading selections from the letters. Interview them about what they have learned, what they know about the letter writer and his/her times, challenges of this sort of work, successes and frustrations.

3rd visit (after website completed): Interview students focusing on their evaluation of the experience. Get shots of the finished web pages. Interview teachers and any community members touched by the project, about what they see as its value.

2. Students create documentary recreation of the story of Abigail and John Adams, as told through letters. At least three full length plays have been produced based on this correspondence: American Primitive, Rush’s Dream, and Jefferson & Adams.

This material could be turned into a 10-minute video several ways. Staff, including teacher, could create a 10-minute version drawn from the plays, mostly readings of passages of the letters with a bit of voice-over narration to set the context and move the listener through time. Students could then perform these parts as readers theater. This would require no costume work and no staging.

At a different time, a couple actors and a carefully chosen site or two could be used to tape images. The actors would not speak, but the sound would be provided by the student voices from the readers theater, so the taping would be relatively simple, focusing only on getting the “look” right without worrying about talking or sound (Abigail sitting at desk, or feeding chickens with pensive look, etc). This recreation could either be done by students or not, though it would be more fun if they were involved. The two actors (John and Abigail) would probably be older people from the community.

3.  Letters to editor project. Teacher would select a topic from the past that generated letters to the editor over a period of time, possibly a dam or school construction project, though there may be other topics. Teachers would use fellowship money to locate the resources and plan a unit, possibly having students compare a past controversy with a current one, asking questions about what groups are in favor and which oppose, how groups form, the role of leadership, etc.

Film crew would make 3 visits to document the project, following an outline similar to project 1 above.

4. Letter writing project, research based. Students pick a topic which has an associated public comment period or Environmental Impact Statement--something that has generated some research that can be studied. Students read the research, interview locals who may be affected, then write research-based letters to the appropriate agency, demonstrating their knowledge of the issues and offering their opinions.

Video crew makes 3 trips to site, folllowing a schedule similar to project 1 above, with each visit planned in consultation with the teacher.

5. Letter writing project, sense of place. Teacher constructs a letter writing occasion that invites students to do “essay of place” style letters, based on sensory impressions from site visit(s), interviews with people to get traditional or expert insight, and research into the place’s history. The goal is to write detailed letters that convey a strong sense of a place that is personally important or important to a community or to Montana.

This could be introduced by reading letters full of detail sent back home from Montana pioneers (or from the first non-natives in New England).

The letters may be written to people in a different school (across Montana or in another nation), or to the student’s imagined grandchildren who may not be able to experience the place as it now exists, or to any other audience that might “work.”

Film crew would make three visits, accompanying students on site visits, to interviews, and filming their statements at the end of the project.


These are only suggestions. The possiblities are more or less limitless.

We may hire a researcher to locate materials in the Montana Historical Society, and the best materials would be those you are looking for. Any topics or time periods or locations you would like us to look for?

In our meeting later this summer (so far to be attended by Mike, Mary S., Nancy W., and our researcher) at MHS, we can talk about these and any other ideas you have, and plan to provide whatever help you might like.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 05/30 at 09:21 PM






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