January 29, 2007

“Dear Sophina” — An amazing follow-up to “The Astoria Notes”

A couple weeks ago, I posted an entry I called The Astoria Notes. It included scans of several notes slipped under my door by my downstairs neighbor in my first apartment in Astoria, Queens, complaining about noise and leaks from my apartment. Her name was Sophina, and if you haven’t read her notes yet you should really check them out.

Among the responses I received was an e-mail from Ryan Meehan, an English teacher at Santa Fe High School in Gainesville, Florida. He wrote, “I teach High School English to kids who really struggle with reading. I am always trying to create reading assignments they might actually enjoy. I think your post, and the notes, would be a delightful assignment. Would you mind if I used it for two of my classes?”

I gladly gave him permission, and a week or so later I received this response:

So your blog went over great with my kids. They are all, for the most part, kids who really struggle academically (especially with reading), so to see them tear through your story with a sense of urgency was extremely rewarding.

In addition to the active reading exercises and comprehension questions I had them complete, their final assignment was to write a letter to Sophina. They were to imagine what they would have done were they in your shoes.

I brought in my microphone today, and we recorded the responses in Garageband and mixed in a music track as well…

Thanks again for granting me permission to use your story. This is my first year teaching high school, and though I’m 6 months in, I felt like this was the first week I really connected with the kids.

It’s equal parts touching and surreal. Somewhere out there, a group of high school kids I don’t know wrote letters to my old neighbor, sticking up for me. And they set it to music. Ryan set up a wiki for the class project where he posted the classes’ spoken word performances. Here they are:

Period 2 Period 5
Emotional Emotional

5 mins 33 secs

6 mins 37 secs

I was a bit taken aback by these, I must confess. The students were much angrier with Sophina than I ever was. But then Ryan followed up by having the students write more respectful letters to Sophina:

Period 2 Period 5
Respectful Respectful

6 mins 3 secs

4 mins 45 secs

I have to imagine that, in the entire history of neighborly feuds, I’m the first person to get letters to my neighbor recorded by two high school English classes and set to music. It’s too bizarre. I love it. Thanks, Santa Fe High School English periods two and five!


David that is amazing story, those kids are great! Much respect to the English teacher Ryan for coming up with idea! congratulations!

Dear digital-neighbor,
I love how the exchange between yourself and the English teacher, your blog and the English class assignment, seems to touch on the empowerment and bond that the Internet and personal computing can foster.

P.S., Your blog – with the inclusion of Sophina’s letters as scans, the classroom sound files, and even your blog’s design with references to serif-fonts and handwritten texture - is a beautiful convergence of traditional and digital mediums.
Thank you.

Wow, this teacher rocks for doing this. The student seem pretty cool, too. I wish I had teachers like this when I was a kid.

David, This is wonderful. Blogging at its best.

To David (for being the impetus for this amazing twenty-first century transaction.)

To Ryan Meehan for thinking up a creative, worthwhile, real-world assignment for a group of kids (in your first year of teaching none the less).

And…last but not least… the amazing students of English Period 2 and Period 5 at Santa Fe High School- I felt real proud listening to you delivering your letters. You guys did a great job and the music in the background…nice touch.

As a fifth grade teacher in Brooklyn, NY I am amazed at this entire chain of events….you all should be commended. Keep up the digital work!

Oh… and to Sophina for being kooky enough to spend so much time writing letters to her upstairs neighbor for any slight indiscretion. I guess in the end it turned out to be a worthwhile undertaking.

This is all pretty amazing.

How special! That’s awesome, I don’t even think when I was in Highschool my teachers knew what a blog was.

I agree with the others, this whole story has been great. Now, I wonder if Sophina reads this blog? I’ll bet she’d get a kick out of it.

My students biggest concern across the board:

“What if Sophina listens to these?!?!”

I told them that, in the case that she did, they could expect quite a lengthy letter.

Thanks for all the responses.

Loved the FLA teacher. Dude, you’re a gem. Keep up the good work. Blogger, you rock it too.

This is a wonderful project on so many levels. It is a powerful example of the importance of using many forms of communication (written, electronic and oral) to foster literacy and teach the skills necessary for life in the 21st century. The students at Sante Fe High School demonstrated perfectly their intelligence, empathy and keen insights in their responses to Sophina. I really enjoyed hearing the first responses and then the more constructive and thoughtful replies. The kids present themselves as intelligent and reasonable and I am sure Sophina would learn a thing or two if she had an opportunity to listen! Bravo to the teacher for teaching outside the box and using technology to engage the students in a meaningful lesson on civility and the importance of positive communication.

whats so amazing about these kids?

That’s really awesome. Great story.

I am a special education teachers aide who has sat with my students while the teacher read one line at a time from a “classic” novel. I’ve felt like banging my head on the desk many a day. The use of your Astoria story was brilliant, and more teachers need to inspire their students, special needs or mainstream, such as this teacher has.

Some days, I really love the Internets. This was amazing.

Ryan’s use of this site and the letters as a teaching tool is brilliant. Not only did he get them excited about reading something, but they learned to respond professionally to a situation in which it would have been easy to be out of control angry - a real-life skill that is never taught in school, but should be.

I sense a new font idea coming on: Sophina Script?

I enjoyed your story about Sophina thoroughly as I’m going through a similar situation with my downstairs neighbor. I feel so much better after reading your blog. Love the letters, your commentary, and the awesome teacher who made your situation into a fun and inspiring assignment for those kids. Thanks for posting it.

Dear David, Ryan and Ryan’s students at Santa Fe High School,
I teach teachers so that they can get their teacher certification in New York. My students had been very worried that they cannot do any innovative teaching when they go to the classroom because of all the testing pressures. I came across your blog and shared this story with them, getting them to listen to the voices of the students from Santa Fe High and to see an example of imaginative teaching. My students were very inspired and last night, we had a good session brainstorming all the different ways that students’ interaction with the net and the media could be engaged rather than denied. Thank you all soooo much!

David, thanks for a neat story. I had tears in my eyes listening to the kids get so involved in their responses.
To Anonymous:
What’s so amazing is that they allowed themselves (maybe for the first time) to become excited and passionate about a project and that they used creative and modern means to execute it. What’s amazing is that there are people out there that are stretching perceptions of what classroom “lessons” should and could be. A better question is what’s wrong with you, that has manifested in such a cynical take on a feel-good story? Kudos to Mr. Meehan and his students.

Amazing story! I live in New York City as well and recently has a note slipped under my door. The odd part was that the person who sent it went through my trash and wrote the note on a food delivery recipt. It was complaining about the placement of a trash bad of mine in the garbage chute/bulk trash room on our floor. I imagined it was from the same person who taped up directions for that room, detailing how newspaper should be tied, etc… Anyway, I took the route of outting the nutter who left no apt # or name. I taped their note next to the garbage room directions with a note of mine own explaining to everyone that there’s a wacko on our floor who is going through all of your garbage!!!! Next day, dropped some stuff off and not note or directions in there and no notes since.

What a neat story! Wow….I wonder what she does with all her free time now that you’ve moved out?

I’m on the opposite end of Mr. Meehan’s teaching spectrum … I am a student in his AP English Literature & Composition class. I must say, I’ve never had an instructor that has used such innovative means to teach.

I remember during one of our first classes in August, Mr. Meehan played a song entitled “Modern World” to introduce our unit on cultural criticism. From that moment, I knew our class was going to be intellectually rewarding.

Mr. Meehan provides a wonderful example of how technology can be used to teach in a manner which is effective and enthralling. Congratulations to Mr. Meehan and his second and fifth period classes for a job well done!

This makes me smile and gives me hope. I am still close to my high school english teacher, thirteen years after graduating. These kids will never forget this teacher and the spark he ignited in their minds. Hopefully, they will continue to grow and learn and maybe one day teach classes of their own! Aces to all involved!

Hey, would you keep it down?! All that click-click-clicking of your keyboard is keeping me awake!

This was the best thing I’ve read in a blog I think ever and I was happy to see I stumbled upon it right as it was happening, but I just realized - today is 1/29/08, not ‘07. Still great, nonetheless!

Dear David, Ryan and students

Today is the 7th November 2008. I am immensely overjoyed to have stumbled across your blog, ironically I was searching for examples of letters to neighbors regarding slamming of the doors and came across yours. Sophina should spend her time writing a book and obtaining a good style of writing as some of the letters where total illegible, however Ryan too is a wonderful teacher for turning a real life situation into a project that children could learn from and utilize all the learned communication skills written and verbal. I enjoyed every moment of it. Wonderful idea, thank you for such an exceedingly brilliant blog and well done kids I loved listening to all your responses.

I greatly enjoyed The Astoria Notes. I’m still laughing.

I was impressed by Sophina’s letters. They were, as you said, painstakingly crafted to achieve an exact tone. One seldom sees that caliber of writing, in the “angry note to neighbor” format.

The Astoria Notes has inspired me to dig back through my old email, and compile the messages from the 7 year feud between myself and a narcissistic coworker whom I shared duties with.

For 7 long years he made my life a living hell, as he tried to take all the glory, shift all the blame, and get me fired. I take pleasure in making others laugh. If those exchanges brighten someone else’s day, it will take a lot of the sting out of them.

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