By Kathy Brown.
Pen pals. Just the words evoke an image of times past. Writing letters with pencil and paper and sending it through the US Postal Service. Pen pals have long been used by teachers to practice literacy, and learn about other cultures.
This year, Kaitlyn Sunderland, a Special Education teacher at Haddam Killingworth Middle School, created the Pen Pal Project at HKMS to spark an interest in writing in some of her students in her Academic Support classes. “Many students have associated words like ‘hate’, ‘don’t want,’ and ‘can’t’ with writing, so I thought that having a pen pal would be a way to get them interested in the art of writing.”
Kaitlyn went on to explain that in this age of email and texting, many of her students had never written a real letter, “so we went through the process of how to structure a letter, compose a letter, and address an envelope.” Through this process, the students are developing their “writer’s voice” and “learning how to transfer ideas and thoughts from their minds onto paper.” They start with a graphic organizer to organize their thoughts, and then create a final draft.
The letters are being sent to and from students from a class at the Kevin G. Langan School in Albany, NY, where Kaitlyn worked before relocating to Connecticut. The school is for students who cannot go to their home school district “due to a variety of serious medical reasons,” Kaitlyn explained. There are 12 students participating from HKMS, and an equal number from Langan School.
“Students really latched onto this project and became tremendously excited,” said Kaitlyn. “It has become a way for students to learn without actually realizing they are working on their reading and writing skills. The students are making connections with others through written language.” Getting students excited to write is more difficult than it seems, especially at the middle school level.
The students are not only improving their reading and writing skills, but also “reaching out to another student in order to make a connection by sharing stories and reading about another person’s life.”
Throughout this school year, the students will continue to communicate through written letters, and write about occurrences in the classroom, as well as holidays, current events, sports, pets, and personal hobbies. “The process has proven to be really fun so far, but also extremely educational for the students,” said Kaitlyn. “In fact, they keep asking me when we will be writing our next letters, and of course, they love getting mail!”
If all goes according to plan, the students will Facetime their pen pals at the end of the school year, and there will be an option for students to extend their writing exchange with their pen pals.
Sometimes old methods can bring new energy into the classroom at our schools.