Leah Stewart, Angela Rich, Katie Hansen
Dear Pen Pal, will you be my friend?
"Can we open them now? Can we please open them?"
Stefanie Pechan hands out letters that have just arrived from pen pals in France to her fifth-graders. Some students are actually jumping up and down.
“My students have been salivating all day, waiting for this moment,” laughs Pechan, a member of the Pacific Grove Teachers Association (PGTA) in Monterey County. “It’s like a Christmas present.”
In an era of texts, e-mails and social networking, teachers are pleased that students love receiving old-fashioned letters from pen pals. Perhaps it’s the anticipation of waiting for letters to arrive via snail mail and the human connection that only personal letters can foster.
In the initial letters, American children ask their pen pals a very important question.
“Will you be my friend?”
“Yes, we will be your friend,” the French children reply.
Students write about pets, sports, families, video games, music and favorite subjects in school. They don’t realize they are working on assignments that correlate with state standards.
The youngsters take their time and write carefully. They are reminded that as Robert H. Down Elementary School students they represent American students, so they do their best work.
Letters foster skills, understanding
A fun way to improve writing, penmanship, spelling, and reading, pen pals help students practice or learn a new language. Pen pals can be linked to social studies and geography. For example, each class sent a “gift” to the other — books about their countries — with maps, history and cultural factoids.
Pechan connected with Nicolas Drzewiecki, a fifth-grade teacher near Paris via forums.atozteacherstuff.com, a website for teachers. They e-mailed about lesson plans and goals they wanted students to accomplish. He wanted students to practice their English while she wanted students to learn French.
Drzewiecki’s students write in English and always include a list of French words with English translations. Pechan’s students retype the letters into Google Translate (translate.google.com) and translate everything into French to learn the language.
“My main goal was honing students’ reading and writing skills,” says Pechan. “In this day and age where students are mostly texting and using e-mail, they don’t practice proper grammar or write in complete sentences. I wanted to put them in the role of an English teacher to reinforce their knowledge. And I wanted to foster an interest in social studies, including customs and traditions in other countries.”
Her students were amazed that France doesn’t celebrate Halloween, so they described the holiday and sent pictures of pumpkins and ghosts. French children shared their holiday traditions in return. For example, on Christmas, French children put their shoes in front of the fireplace in hopes they will be filled with gifts from Père Noël, or Father Christmas.
“It’s pretty exciting to talk to people that speak a whole different language,” says Logan Heywood. “My friend Marvin is teaching me French numbers.”
Angela Rich was pleased her pen pal enjoys cooking. “I want to become a pastry chef someday, and maybe I can go visit her.”
Students realize how similar they are despite living “worlds apart.”
“I hope they learn from each other and that some of the pen pals will evolve into lifelong friendships,” says Pechan.
Pen pals are role models
Sometimes pen pals aren’t across the ocean; they are right down the street.
Freshmen in Diane McEvoy’s English class at Calabasas High School write first-graders in Susan Levy’s first-grade class at Chaparral Elementary School. The two Las Virgenes Educators Association members decided to start a pen pal program after Levy lost her job as a high school librarian and transferred to the elementary school.
“Over a glass a wine, we decided a pen pal program would benefit our students — and it’d be a good way for us to stay in touch,” says Levy.
McEvoy’s students write letters to their young friends about what they’ve been doing, and often include funny drawings. Roman Williams, for example, drew a picture of himself looking stuffed after eating “yummy food” at a holiday meal.
“I love writing to Nick,” says Williams. “It’s a lot of fun and reminds me of myself when I was young. He says the same kinds of things I said at that age.”
The letters are put into folders with photos of both pen pals on the cover. McEvoy delivers them to Levy a few blocks away. Both teachers read the letters aloud to the 6-year-olds.
“In the beginning, first-graders had to sound some of the words phonetically. As the year progresses, they formulate entire sentences,” says McEvoy. “My high school students are so impressed and proud to see how far they’ve come.”
Her student Joe Wayne takes being a pen pal very seriously. “I am a role model,” he says. “My pen pal looks up to me, and I feel responsible for that. I want to him to grow up and enjoy life and not to be cynical.”
Vladimir Sergieiev, 6, always looks forward to getting letters. “I like everything about it,” he says. “I can hardly wait to meet my pen pal.”
Pen pals meet at the end of the year during a picnic.
“It’s usually a tearfest,” says McEvoy. “The older ones are usually crying. The little ones — well, they are just happy.”