Yosemite at sunrise

How to Teach Dear America Without Writing Prompts

Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy

For composition teachers at the high school and college level: teaching Dear America without writing prompts.


  1. Teach students how to write for an audience
  2. Encourage students to take charge of their own learning
  3. Get students to analyze what makes writing powerful
  4. Give students positive feedback on their writing so they will gain confidence as writers
  5. Encourage students to experiment as writers and be ambitious
  6. Get students to write twice each week
  7. Get students to think carefully about what they read
  8. Get students working toward writing a more formal essay which will include some research

I prefer to teach without prompts for each assignment. I want my students to come up with their own ideas because it prepares them for real life. They usually get lots of prompts and formulas in high school, but—as I tell them—that’s not how it works in real life. An English teacher won’t appear in the sky and tell them what to write.

Instead, for every class I assign a reading (several of the letters or a whole section, depending on how much reading you think your students can handle) and a short paper. The short papers, which are responses to the readings, will be shared with other members of the class. I tell them to think of the short papers as a way to add to class discussion.

We begin every class by passing the papers around, each of us reading as many of them as we have time for. The rule is that you sign your name at the bottom after you’ve read it. The other rule is that you can write on the papers. I tell the students to respond as readers rather than copy editors: ask questions and engage in the content. We underline parts that we especially like and draw a little tree in the margin. The tree means, “You should share this with the class.”

Our discussions begin with me saying, “Who has a tree on their paper?”

At the end of each class, I collect the short papers. I read them, but don’t comment much since the papers are already filled with comments from members of the class. I do keep an eye out for students who are struggling and need help from me or our writing center. If the students touch on a topic that will work well for the formal paper we write at the end of the unit, I do note that in the margin. Then I give the papers back to the students so that they can put them in their folder. At the end of each unit, when the students hand in their portfolios, they hand in 7-10 short papers plus the formal paper they wrote.

Students quickly grasp that they are writing for the other students in the class rather than the teacher, and that improves their writing. When they write for their peers, they are motivated to say something smart and perceptive. They get the idea of writing for an audience. We usually have several discussions about how to write for an audience of college students who will be reading their papers at 8 am.

Here’s what I give my students to explain to them what the short papers look like:

Here are some cautions I give aloud:

  • If you are striving for a high grade in the class, you will want to move beyond mere summary. Your audience has all read the piece. They want more than summary.
  • No one cares whether you “liked” or “didn’t like” the piece unless you back it up with substantial reasons.
  • Your audience are college students who will be reading your writing at 8 am. You will need to keep their attention with specific details and facts. You will need to say something interesting or perceptive to get their attention.
  • The short paper is due at the beginning of class. Your classmates will be reading the papers. That’s the point. But I do understand that sometimes you might miss class for reasons beyond your control, and it’s better to hand a paper in late than not at all, so I will accept late papers for half-credit.

After 6-10 short papers, you will want students to write a more formal paper that includes research. It’s best if students brainstorm topics and choose one that they are invested in, but it’s also helpful to be able to give some examples. Here’s a list of possible topics for formal papers.

Special thanks to Janine DeBaise, Terrain.org education editor, for assembling these resources.

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