Letters to remember: WHS teacher Stock has students write letters to themselves to read upon graduation

WORTHINGTON -- It's not often that a class assignment takes four years to be returned to a student, but that's exactly what happened this past week for Worthington High School seniors.

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Worthington Middle School eighth-grade teacher Paula Stock holds letters written by her students to themselves, to be mailed when they graduate from high school. Tim Middagh/Daily Globe

WORTHINGTON - It’s not often that a class assignment takes four years to be returned to a student, but that’s exactly what happened this past week for Worthington High School seniors. 

Oh, they received their grade four years ago - a few points in their teacher’s grade book - but they didn’t actually receive their work back until a few days before their high school graduation.
To top it off, their teacher never even read it.
Paula Stock, an eighth-grade Language Arts teacher at Worthington Middle School, first implemented this assignment with her students five years ago.
“I have them write a letter to themselves, as eighth-graders, to be delivered right before they graduate from high school,” Stock explained. “I tell them to reflect on their eighth-grade year, reflect on their whole middle school experience, and look forward to ninth grade.”
To ward off any blank stares as she gives the assignment, Stock offers her students ideas for inspiration.
“I tell them they can set goals for ninth grade or for high school in general,” she said. “Even life goals. They can write whatever they want, really, I just promise them two things - one, for sure I will provide an envelope and stamp, and two, I will never read it.”
Students sometimes share their letters with each other, but in all the years she’s been setting the assignment, Stock has not read any herself - even if the students offer.
Reaction to the assignment varies.
“I can tell by the looks on their faces that some students are excited about it and some aren’t,” Stock admitted. “Some write maybe one paragraph, and some write five to six pages and require an extra stamp. Some even add extra things, like a picture of themselves or a dollar. It’s all their ideas.”

Given the four-year duration of the assignment, along with the fact that this is just the fifth year she’s required her students to do it, last year was the first time Stock was actually able to mail the letters out. Of the 150 or so letters between 2015 and 2016, she has only had two letters she has been unable to send.
“I have them address their own envelope and I tell them to inform me if they move,” Stock said. “I had a student get in touch with me recently with her new address. I’ve had a few tell me, when I see them around town, that they’re looking forward to receiving them when the times comes.”
Stock heard back last year from a couple of students and one mom about how much they enjoyed receiving their letters. She hasn’t heard back from this year’s group of seniors in person, but they were willing to talk when approached.
“I think Mrs. Stock’s idea was a great one, and I’m happy to see it continuing,” said Quinn Bents, who received her letter just a few days ago. “Receiving the letter I wrote to myself in eighth grade was really neat; I had completely forgotten I had written it, so I was surprised when it came.
“So many memories that had faded from my mind were brought back, and it also helped me to realize how much I’d grown as a person in just four short years,” Bents continued. “Reading that letter made me reminisce about old times, but receiving it in the midst of graduation makes me excited for the times to come.”
Fellow classmate Paige Stewart also received her eighth-grade letter recently. It was hard for her to believe that the four years had passed so quickly.
“It’s so crazy that it was actually my turn to receive my letter,” Stewart said. “It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long since eighth grade. It was funny to look back on the advice I gave myself and the best part is, it sounds exactly like something I’d say to an incoming freshman today.
“Reading my letter brought back a lot of memories of my past educational career. It made me realize how lucky I am to have had the opportunities and experiences that I did.”
Stock’s fellow eighth-grade English teacher, Alyssa Hietbrink, does a similar assignment with her students, though the time until delivery is much shorter.
“I have students write letters to themselves three times a year,” Hietbrink explained. “One is on one of the first days of school to tell themselves what their academic goals are for the year. When they return to school after winter break in January, I give them their letter as a reminder.
“They then write another letter stating their goals for the second half of the school year. I return both of these letters at the end of the school year and have them write one more letter to themselves with their goals for ninth grade/high school.”
Hietbrink mails those third letters to her students before the start of ninth grade in the fall.
These two different philosophies - Hietbrink’s more short-term, Stock’s more long - give their students opportunities to dream, reflect and analyze their lives, all of which are valuable lessons to implement.
“This is for them,” said Stock. “Their own reflections. It is something to look forward to, and then something to help them look back at themselves when they receive it. They could put it on their grad party table if they want.”
It is possible that, if her students did choose to set out their letters alongside their awards and certificates of achievement at their graduation parties, Mrs. Stock would finally be able to read her student’s assignments.

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