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Episode 89: Students Use Creative Writing Skills to Reach for the Stars

They are reaching for the stars in Amy Geilman’s creative writing class at West Jordan Middle School. It is part of a lesson in letter writing where students choose a famous person to reach out to with a formal letter. Then, the students wait for a response.

On this episode of the Supercast, we talk to students who heard back from celebrities like Chris Pratt and former President Obama, even the Utah Jazz sent letters in return. Find out what they learned from writing and reaching for the stars.


Audio Transcription

Anthony Godfrey:
Hello, and welcome to the Supercast. I'm your host, Superintendent Anthony Godfrey. They're reaching for the stars in Amy Geilman's class at West Jordan Middle School. It's part of a lesson in letter writing where students choose a famous person to reach out to with a formal letter. Then students wait for a response. On this episode of the Supercast, we talk with students who heard back from celebrities like Chris Pratt and former President Obama, even the Utah Jazz sent letters in return. Find out what students learned from writing and reaching for the stars. We're here at West Jordan Middle School to speak with Amy Geilman and some of her students about the project that has been going on for quite a number of years, writing celebrities and famous people for their autograph. Thanks for spending time with us today. Tell me a little bit about this project.

Teacher:
Sure. So I think we started maybe 15-16 years ago, doing this in an effort to help kids learn to introduce themselves in writing to someone they might not know and be a little more formal as they do. We talk about what makes a good letter, how to communicate, what are appropriate questions to ask or what is appropriate to ask for. We don't let them ask, please send me seven pairs of shoes or something like that. They have to be able to recognize and think about what kinds of questions would be good to get information about. And it's been really fun. We've received responses from lots of people over there.

Anthony Godfrey:
Now, what gave you the idea initially to start this project in your classes, your language arts teacher?

Teacher:
Yeah. I wanted the kids to do a piece of writing that would go public, so to speak. Now it was easier to publish something. Because it was a little bit harder to publish things, you know, back when I started doing it. I wanted them to see that writing was a real world activity that could lead to real world things. And I realized that a lot of the kids had not really sent letters to people and that still continues with a lot of students. Sometimes when I give them an envelope, they address the wrong side of it. They just have not done a whole lot of mailing like that. And so I wanted them to see that writing was a real world activity that people did that could lead to results of something. And this was a fun way to do that. And now that we do so much public writing on the internet, this is a good chance for me to talk about what kind of impression you're making through your writing and how you can present yourself in the best light.

Anthony Godfrey:
Do you think a letter stands out more than it used to when a celebrity receives a letter from a middle school student?

Teacher:
Yes. I think that because a lot of my students have commented on a YouTube channel or put a comment on a gaming channel that they follow. But they haven't done something formal like this. And actually the longer we've done this, the more of a novelty. The letter part is where they actually get something physical. And I'm sure that the celebrities still receive a lot of physical fan mail, but probably not near as much as they used to. And so I do think it stands out.

Anthony Godfrey:
Now, where do you find the addresses? How do you discover where to send that? I'm sure that's a little bit of a task.

Teacher:
That is tricky. Yeah, no kidding. I was just commenting I think if the District checked my Google search history, they'd be thinking, what is her deal? There are a couple of websites that do put fan mail addresses out there, but if the student chooses to write to a particular singer or actor, sometimes I'll look up who their agent is. Or who their agency is if they play for a specific team, I'll send it to the team front office. You just kind of have to be a little creative and a bit of a detective. Occasionally they come back with the wrong address and then I'll try again. And if I can't find it, then I'll tell them student, I couldn't find this one. The letter came back. You can write to some else.

Anthony Godfrey:
No, I thought you were going to say that if you can't then you look up records in the county office in whatever state they live so that you know what their home residence is so that you can stake it out.

Teacher:
Well, I haven't gotten quite that far yet.

Anthony Godfrey:
Yeah. Not quite that far. That's probably best.  I do have to say I'm a huge fan of making a connection with celebrities. I have, since I was a kid. I've stood outside many concerts afterward and stood outside the Vampire Weekend Concert when it was opened or when it was over and the guard said, "Oh, they've all left." And then I said, "No, they haven't." And he said, "Yes, they have." And so then an hour later they finally thought, this guy's not leaving. So they walked out and I got their autograph. It would be a lot easier if I'd just done it through the mail. That would have been a lot smarter, but a I'm fascinated by this because I have always wanted to get the picture with the celebrity or get that autograph.

Teacher:
You talked about how it's nice to be able to connect with someone you admire and to tell them what you admire about them and be able to let them know that they're inspiring you in some way. So then that's cool.

Anthony Godfrey:
And you're right. I've taken the same kind of approach that you're describing. I'm always polite "Excuse me, Mr. Bono, could I get your autograph please?" You know, and it helps to be very polite and know the right way to approach them. And it sounds like you've really been able to do that over the years. The front office is a way to reach them. The agent is a good way to reach them, that sort of thing, or be creative. Do you mostly have find success with getting the right address at least, where it's not returned?

Teacher:
Yeah. Most of them don't get returned. Occasionally they come back, but most of them don't get returned. This year, we got fewer responses than I think than we have in the past. But this year's been strange for everybody. But we do get a random sampling of responses and it's really fun for the kids to see when it comes. We address it back to the school so the student's home address has never given out. And then it's fun for the kids to get it in class, in front of all their students and their classmates and say, "Here, you got mail. Let's see what they sent you." And it's really fun. And we get some really good responses. Authors are really good at responding, which is not surprising because they are writers. Actors respond quite often. I was telling the students that Adam Sandler is always really good about sending a postcard back. We've gotten responses from Jim Carrey and other famous people. And then athletes are really good at responding as well. Not so much with the singers. They don't respond quite as often. Sometimes students will write to the governor's office. They're always really good to respond back. And then we've sent some to the White House over the years.

Anthony Godfrey:
So the singers are the tough group.

Teacher:
I don't know. They must just get inundated. I don't know. I've sent a lot of letters to various singers over the years and occasionally we get a response, but not as much as you'd think.

Anthony Godfrey:
What are some of the surprising responses over the years?

Teacher:
Let's see......Well, the new England Patriots send us a big packet of stuff one year. We get lots of photos with autographs on the bottom, but then lots of times they'll throw in other things: bookmarks or stickers, decals that kids can put on things. It's just fun for the kids to be able to get something in response to what they've sent out. The year that the NBA did their lockout, Jimmer Fredette was just finishing his BYU career and was just starting. He sent a handwritten letter, which was really cool. It was a full page to that student. And then we did get a good response. I'm not sure which coach sent it back, but the year after, or two years after Jordan Leveridge was a player at the West Jordan High School basketball team. Then, a little bit after that this student who knew him and was a fan of his, sent a letter to the Utah Basketball Program, men's basketball, and they sent back a really nice handwritten letter commenting on how great Jordan Leveridge was and how great West Jordan is. And that was really fun too.

Anthony Godfrey:
That's an exciting project. I'm starting to think of all the people that I need to write now, using your tips and tricks. Let's talk to a few students who have written some athletes and politicians, actors, authors. Here we have Carter, also known as Beast here. And you wrote Chris Pratt. Tell me about that.

Student:
I didn't really have a choice to write to him. My sister really likes him, so she said I had better write to him because I never got a write to a famous person. So in the letter, if Mrs. Geilman, didn't see, I wrote my sister really likes you too at the end with the wink. I was so embarrassed to put that in there, but she forced me to and then...

Anthony Godfrey:
Now wait. You talked t
wice about your sister forcing you to do things. How big is your sister?

Student:
Lily knows her, but she's probably the scariest person I've ever met.

Anthony Godfrey:
Okay. So your sister has complete control over you. We've established that you add at the bottom that my sister likes you too, with a wink. How does Chris Pratt respond?

Student:
He sent me an autograph with no letter back, but it's still really cool. It says, "All your best wishes. Chris Pratt"

Anthony Godfrey:
That's a really cool picture.

Student:
Yeah.

Anthony Godfrey:
Again, I mentioned this before that would be very expensive if you tried to buy that someplace else. And that's really cool. That's a picture it looks like from Guardians of the Galaxy, if I'm not mistaken.

Student:
Yeah.

Anthony Godfrey:
And so, did your sister treat you well for at least a day or two after that came in response?

Student:
Yeah. Every once in a while I have to go track it down because she likes to steal it from me.

Anthony Godfrey:
She steals it from you. I think you may need to put that in an undisclosed location somewhere or else it could disappear forever.

Student:
So like a week later, I woke up to find myself on KSL.

Anthony Godfrey:
Oh yes. I remember seeing that article that you were covered by KSL. What was that like? Did you feel like a little bit of a celebrity yourself being interviewed like that?

Student:
Yeah, it was amazing I guess. I'm also wearing the same shirt.

Anthony Godfrey:
So I wasn't going to point that out. But when you go by Beast wearing the shirt that says "Beast" it just makes sense. You know, how did it feel getting a response?

Student:
Crazy. My sister went crazy of course. More than I did actually, but yeah.

Anthony Godfrey:
Yeah.

Student:
It's pretty fun. Then it seemed we just binge watch everything Chris Pratt has ever been in. But she's never seen a movie, actually. She just likes him.

Anthony Godfrey:
Wow. So she just likes the look of him? Your sister is quite a character. It sounds like she's going to love this.

Anthony Godfrey:
Yeah, be sure she gets a chance to listen to this.

Stay with us. When we come back, hear more about the celebrity responses students receive as part of their letter writing projects.

Break:
One of the most prestigious academic achievement program available for high school students, and we're proud to say it's coming back to Jordan School District. We're talking about the International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, which will be located at West Jordan High School. The IB programs support personal and academic achievement for students at the very highest level. IB diploma courses take place during a student's junior and senior year in high school. Sophomores are invited to consider the IB program for next year. There are no prerequisites for IB and interested middle school students can start preparing now. Students with the IB diploma have a better chance at getting into some of the most prestigious universities in the world. For more information or to find out if your teen is a good candidate for IB, visit http://ib.jordandistrict.org or call West Jordan High School.

Anthony Godfrey:
Benjamin. Tell us about writing. You wrote Richard Paul.

Student:
I decided to write Richard Paul Evans, the author.

Anthony Godfrey:

And what made you want to write to him?

Student:
I was reading a lot of books in his series at the time. That's The Lightning Boy series?

Anthony Godfrey:
What is it again now?

Student:
No, that's Michael Vey.

Anthony Godfrey:
Yeah. Yes. Okay. So how did that go?

Student:
I got a letter back answering all the questions that I asked.

Anthony Godfrey:
Didn't just ask for an autograph, you asked him some questions. Was it about the Michael Vey character?

Student
More like the series in general?

Anthony Godfrey:
I just called him lightening boy, because I haven't read the book. Was I anywhere close?

Student:
Yeah.

Anthony Godfrey:
Okay. Tell me some of the questions that you asked him. How did he answer?

Student:
I asked about the covers. They were really interesting to me and so I wanted to know who made them and how.

Anthony Godfrey:
How did you become a bigger fan after you heard back from him?

Student:
Yeah.

Anthony Godfrey:
And did he sign something for you as well?

Student:
He didn't specifically say anything, but he wrote.

Anthony Godfrey:
Was it a typed letter?

Student:
It was a semi-automatic thing.

Anthony Godfrey:
Yeah. That's pretty cool though. That's great that you heard back from him. Delilah and Evelyn, you wrote the same person. Who did you write?

Student:
Barack Obama.

Anthony Godfrey:
And what made you want to write Barack Obama?

Student:
Well when he was our president, I felt like he was a really good one. I felt like he really helped change the world for the better. So I just wanted to write him and show him how thankful I was to him when he was our president.

Anthony Godfrey:
That what you told him in the letter?

Student:
Yeah.

Anthony Godfrey:
And what did you receive? Any response?

Speaker 5:
A picture of him and a signed autograph on it.

Anthony Godfrey:
And Evelyn, what made you want to write former president?

Student:
Well really, I didn't really know who to write to and the same thing. Delilah said that she thought he was a really good president and that he changed the world.

Anthony Godfrey:
And what did you receive in reply? The same picture?

Student:
No. It was a different picture of the whole family in the office and the signed autograph and the envelope with the email address was handwritten.

Anthony Godfrey:
So what have you done with those photos? You have an autograph that's worth a fair amount I would say. What have you done with that?

Student:
Hung up in my room by my calendar, right when you walk in my room. Just with some duct tape on each corner, up on the wall.

Anthony Godfrey:
How about you, Evelyn?

Student:
I am currently in a process of moving, so I bought a picture frame and put it in there and it's on my desk.

Anthony Godfrey:
That's great. What a nice the memento of your language arts class. Lily, you wrote the Jazz?

Student:
I did.

Anthony Godfrey:
How many Jazz players or did you write the team? Who did you write exactly?

Student:
I just wrote to the entire team.

Anthony:
And what did you write? some advice going into the playoffs?

Student:
I just wrote about how I still watch them, how me and my dad and my family would just stay and watch them a bunch and how we just like loved watching them.

Anthony Godfrey:
And what did you get in response?

Student:
I got some stickers. I got some bookmarks. I got a few pencils and some erasers.

Anthony Godfrey:
That's pretty awesome. And how long ago was that?

Student:
Maybe November-ish?

Anthony Godfrey:
In the fall before they knew what a great year they had ahead of them. That's pretty awesome. And what a great year you had ahead of you? Right? How does this compare to other writing projects that you've done in classes over the years writing?

Student:
I don't like writing in general, but with this, at least I had something to look forward to. I guess you could say with other ones, I think, oh my goodness, am I going to fail this essay? But this one, it was fine.

Teacher:
She never does.

Anthony Godfrey:
All right.

Teacher:
So you may not like writing, but you're better at it than you think. The nice thing about this is that there was something to look forward to. This was an exchange and I think it's an exciting project. In the real world, writing is something that's really important for students to experience.

Anthony Godfrey:
I assume that a 50 year old man is a little bit less successful in writing celebrities than a middle school student, possibly the lack of charm after about age 18 that sets in that makes it more difficult to get a response, I would say. Who are some of the other celebrities that students have heard back from them?

Teacher:
We got a response from The Rock. We got a response from RSL. They're always really good to respond so quickly because they're local and they always send a nice bunch of things. Lin Manuel Miranda responded this year.

Anthony Godfrey:
Yeah?

Teacher:
He just he sent back an autographed picture. It was really nice. One of the girls wrote to a YouTuber that she really likes and I was randomly able to find an address, which is hard to do for YouTubers, but she got a response and it's been good.

Anthony Godfrey:
YouTuber wrote in the physical world. On a piece of paper, shocking.

Teacher:
I always warn them. If you pick a YouTuber, I might tell you to pick somebody else if I can't find an address. But more and more of them are having PO boxes that I can send them to them.

Anthony Godfrey:
That's awesome. Well, what a great project. Thanks for spending time talking about it. I think it's authentic writing in its best form, where you may even have an exchange with someone you admire. So thank you very much. And over 15 years, celebrities around the world have gotten to know West Jordan Middle School. I suspect.

Teacher:
They have.

Anthony Godfrey:
All right. Thank you very much.

Thanks for joining us on the Supercast. Remember, education is the most important thing you will do today. We'll see out there.

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