‘Normal like you and me’: how a cross-cultural pen pal program united two classrooms
A teacher in Boston and a teacher in Ozark, Arkansas, started a fun program to foster empathy and understanding.
Two years ago, my students and I embarked on a pen pal journey. A teacher in Boston sent out a social media post asking if any teachers would like to collaborate on a correspondence project. She wanted to connect her students with those in a politically different region, and she hoped that by doing so, both groups might learn how to communicate with each other at a particularly polarized moment in our country.
I responded immediately, and shortly thereafter I met that teacher, Catherine Epstein, when she flew down to Arkansas to spend a few days with me in Ozark, where I teach. I showed Catherine our school, took her to one of my favorite Arkansas museums, and ate with her at a favorite barbecue place in town. We talked about our families, our work, and our backgrounds, and we spent an afternoon at my dining room table laying out goals and intended outcomes for the project.
Early on, we realized that in order for the project to work, we needed to provide the students with structure and support. In their monthly letters, students would write about whatever was on their minds, but they’d also focus on a particular topic. These would begin with relatively neutral issues like family and neighborhood, and eventually move toward more challenging subjects like politics, religion, and gender. We also decided that no other communication between students would take place outside of the letters; we wanted students to express themselves honestly, but we also wanted to be able to give feedback on their communication as we entered more sensitive territory. In addition, we realized that if we wanted each of our classes to humanize the other, they’d need some form of communication outside of writing, so we scheduled two dates for students to Skype.
My students would never otherwise have this opportunity to get to know students of different religious backgrounds and ethnic makeups. This project has opened their eyes about how differences make humans who they are.
I would encourage any teacher who would like to increase their students’ writing–and empathy–to pursue work like this. Throughout these two years, I have learned more about my class and their beliefs than I could have expected otherwise. Through their writing, students have shared very private and special insights about their daily lives. They have investigated not only how they feel about certain topics but also the deeper question of why they feel that way. I’ve seen their understanding of cultural and economic differences blossom, and I know that because of their writing, my students are much more empathetic with others around them.
My students would never otherwise have this opportunity to get to know students of different religious backgrounds and ethnic makeups. This project has opened their eyes about how differences make humans who they are. As a teacher, I have also enjoyed watching their writing and questioning skills improve each month.
The students have enjoyed every minute of this project. As soon as the big manila envelope from Boston arrives in our classroom, my students are eager to read and answer their letters as quickly as possible.
I recently asked Joseph–who has now participated for two years—for his thoughts. He said, “my favorite part of having a pen pal is getting to see other people’s viewpoints.” He also has loved “getting to experience how people live in other areas of the country.” Joseph shared that he plans to continue communicating with his pen pal in the future. Another one of my students, Fawn, recently commented that she has “loved meeting her pen pal,” and she was particularly surprised to discover that her pen pal is Jewish. Fawn recently told me, “you know, my pen pal … seems normal like you and me!” Like Fawn, many of the student’s conversations during this project have been about discovery and acceptance as well as understanding and kindness.
This project has made a definite difference in my students’ lives. I would encourage any fellow teacher who would like to increase their students’ writing–and empathy–to pursue work like this. Doing it well requires planning, goal setting, and a bit of extra work, but the rewards speak for themselves. I printed special pen pal hoodies, and my students wear them nearly every day, proudly showing their community that they are part of a fun and singular learning project. Another student commented that they now see “city folks” in a different light, and that they can’t wait to visit Boston. With every written letter, my students and I have become more culturally aware individuals who truly value differences. We have discovered that we don’t have to always agree, and that we are ultimately more alike than different.