Lesson One: "Analyzing the Letters"

This section contains a series of questions or tasks that ask students to analyze the letters found at this Web Site. Each task stands alone, so you can pick and choose what seems useful to you based on your specific curriculum needs.

Classroom Procedures:

  1. After choosing the parts of the lesson that suit your needs, reproduce copies of the 19 letters included in the Dear Mrs. Roosevelt feature. Divide students into four groups, and ask them to read four or five letters from the set, assigning them by their designated number so all letters are read by at least one group.

  2. Ask each group to identify the young people who wrote to Mrs. Roosevelt by gender, age, race, religion, geographic region, education, or the apparent socio-economic status of their parents.

    • Ask the groups to share their list with the class, and chart the results on the board. Ask students to draw conclusions from the information. For instance, what patterns emerged?
    • Did the letters represent a cross-section of Americans, or did a single group dominate?
    • What do their findings suggest about Mrs. Roosevelt's appeal?

  3. Ask students to discuss the characteristics of those who wrote the letters. They are likely to notice that most were girls. Ask them to consider why girls might be more likely to write to Mrs. Roosevelt than boys.

  4. Ask students if they believe writing to a powerful or influential person about a problem is an effective means of resolving that problem.

    • Ask students if any of them have ever written such a letter, and with what results.
    • Ask if they can think of any reason that a young person's request for help might be read more sympathetically than one made by an adult.

  5. Invite students to comment on the replies Mrs. Roosevelt sent to the children's letters. Ask students how they would feel had they received the "secretary's letter." (Study "canned" replies vs. personal replies.)

  6. Professor Robert Cohen stated that Mrs. Roosevelt "frequently used her newspaper column My Day, her weekly radio addresses, her speeches and books to discuss the Depression's impact on the young," and that "she lobbied for expanded aid to youth and education." [citation] After explaining this to the students, ask them whether they believe Mrs. Roosevelt's work to solve the problems of children and youth was inspired by their letters.

  7. Ask students which of Mrs. Roosevelt's efforts would have yielded the greatest overall benefit: her intense lobbying efforts on behalf of children, or a personal response to each of the written requests?

  8. Some writers such as Studs Terkel in Hard Times stressed the idea that during the Depression the emotional strain of poverty wasn't great because "everyone we knew was poor." [citation]

    • Do the letters featured here validate the idea that everyone was "in the same boat," so there was little embarrassment in having few material goods?
    • Ask students to find evidence in their assigned set of letters confirming or refuting this idea.
    • After each group shares information with the class, ask students to create generalizations from their collective findings.

  9. As groups study the letters sent to Mrs. Roosevelt, have them note to what extent the children stressed the willingness of their families to work hard.

    • Ask students to identify specific ways that children tried to convince Mrs. Roosevelt that they were uniquely worthy of her help.
    • Solicit the opinions of the class on what their rationales reveal about the children's values.
    • Invite students to comment on whether today's children hold similar values.

  10. Some students may be curious about certain phrases in the letters.

    • Ask them if they are familiar with the expression, "shoved from pillar to post," or as the child in the letter put it, "pillow to post."
    • Do they know what it means to be a "shut-in"?
    • What did the boy mean when he said, "We haven't had a Christmas in three years?"

  11. Since most students will not study the complete set of letters at the Web site, ask each group to select the most convincing one and read it aloud to the whole class.

    • Ask the class why these particular letters stood out.
    • Solicit the opinion of individual students as to why they strongly identified with one child's letter.

  12. Ask students to speculate about what happened to these children after the Depression. To strengthen their responses, review historic events of the 40's, 50's, and 60's that may have affected the lives of the young letter writers.

  13. As an extended assignment, ask students to imagine that they were one of these children, now grown. Keeping this role in mind, have each student write a follow-up letter to Mrs. Roosevelt, explaining how his or her life unfolded since the first letter. Have the students read their letters to the class. Ask students if the tone of each imaginary letter reveals a pessimistic or optimistic view of the opportunities available in the United States since the Depression.