In this One Thing You Might Try . . . blog post, Lakeya Omogun tells the story of a small mailbox that had a big impact on students’ willingness to share their ideas and their sense of belonging to the classroom community.
I was in the middle of packing my apartment, preparing to make another cross-country move from Harlem, NY to Austin, TX. I pulled my small grey storage bin from the corner of my bedroom closet, dusted it off, and opened the lid. On top was a small, weathered envelope with “student letters” written in the upper right-hand corner. Its white color had faded over the last six years, and it was now beige. I smiled when I picked it up because I’d remembered that all my students’—my 6th graders in Newark, NJ and my 3rd and 5th graders in Detroit, MI—handwritten notes were inside of the envelope. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, as the mere sight of their letters settled my sad feelings that had begun to plague me, due to the move.
Prior to being stuffed in that envelope, my students placed their handwritten letters inside of the small mailbox I had started using after my first year of teaching, when I noticed that my students’ communication and personality styles varied. Some of them were vocal. Others were silent.
My classroom was ethnically and linguistically diverse with Caribbean, Latinx, Middle Eastern, and West African students. One time, my Senegalese student, Fatima, wrote a memoir about how she wasn’t comfortable asking adults for anything. While reading my Bengali student’s morning journal response, I learned that he wasn’t comfortable speaking in class because his peers snickered at the sound of his accent. So, it wasn’t just my students’ identities, but also their concerns about feeling comfortable in our classroom that led me create diverse mediums through which they could communicate and participate in the learning environment.
It didn’t take long to make and integrate the mailbox into our classroom community. I’d purchased it from a local dollar store, plastered a white label on both sides of it, and wrote “mailbox” on each label. Then, on the first day of each school year while holding the mailbox in my right hand, I’d tell my students that it was “one of many ways that they could communicate with me,” before placing it on my desk.
The nature of their letters varied.
Some students made private requests when the weight of peer pressure became too heavy. Ta’Shon once wrote: Ms. Omogun, I know you sat me next to Brenton and he’s my best friend, but I really can’t focus next to him. Could you move my seat?
Similarly, Arturo, who played a star position on the basketball team and gained the love of his peers through loud jokes that interrupted my lessons wrote: Dear Ms. Omogun, I apologize for being so disrespectful to you in class. I’ma get my grades up, too. Do you accept my apology? Signed, Arturo. His letter showed me that he didn’t want to disrupt class; he felt pressured to be likable.
Other students expressed how I should restructure our class routines. For instance, John, whose letter was headed with “The Bookbags on the Back Wall” wrote, I do not like it because at the end of the class we have to rush to get to the next class, but the room is so small that people in the front of the room can’t get past the people in the back. Another reason I don’t like the book bags on the back wall is because the make me feel like a kindergartner. Thank you for your time.
Then, there were the letters in which my students simply expressed gratitude. I just wanna thank you for being the best teacher ever. You really listen to us. We can’t really talk to other teachers like that, wrote Faith. Zainab, who always sat at the front of classroom dressed in her different-colored hijabs wrote, I loved reading the article about the Malian women today. That was the FIRST time I ever even read something about myself. Can u give us more of those to read?
The mailbox was small, but the impact that it had on our classroom community was huge. It served as a judgement-free safe space. It also dismantled the common teacher-student power hierarchy, making my students decision makers alongside me. Of course, there were times when I feared opening their letters, because I wasn’t sure if they’d ask to get rid of the lovely new baskets that I placed in the center of their tables that housed their notebooks and folders for whatever reason. Still, their letters cultivated a sense of humility in me, reminding me that a classroom learning environment cannot and should not be built without student input. So, by implementing this tool, I created a strong classroom community of trust, confidentiality, and ongoing courageous communication.
In an educational system where “verbal talk” is a highly privileged form of communication and participation, including an object like a mailbox in a classroom can allow teachers to experience varied aspects of their students’ identities. Mailbox communication is a great strategy, particularly for diverse adolescent youth who often feel pressured to appeal to, not only their peers, but to larger harmful ideas in society that tell them who they should be based on their many cultural, linguistic, ethnic, and gender identities. I was taken aback but also in awe at how my students showed the most authentic parts of themselves inside of the mailbox. So, mailboxes can build genuine, strong, and trustworthy student-teacher communication and relationships.
I didn’t always write each student back. I didn’t always alter our classroom according to their requests either. Sometimes, they’d come to school the next morning and find that I changed their seat. I’d wink and give a subtle smile. Other times, I briefly met with them during transitional periods to address the topic that they wrote about in the letter. I’m glad I kept them tucked them away in the envelope. Not only are their letters a beautiful reflection of what differentiated communication can look like in classrooms, but they’re also tangible memories that I have the luxury of keeping forever.
About the author
Lakeya Omogun, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of Language, Literacy, and Culture at The University of Washington in the College of Education where she focuses on Black African immigrant youths’ languages, literacies, and identities. A former classroom teacher, she carries the love and memories from her students in all that she does. She is a creative at heart and uses writing and public speaking to shift ideas about identity, culture, and language. When she’s not engaged in research, teaching, and writing, Lakeya loves to visit her favorite people and new places as well as go on a long-distance run. You can find Lakeya on Twitter @LakeyaOmogun and on her website.
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