September 7, 2018
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A pen pal program creates cross-cultural connections between urban and rural students

‘Mrs. Smith, what’s a subway?’ Eight graders in Boston and Ozark, Arkansas, are learning how to talk about what makes them different while forging new friendships

Photo by Ben Mullins via Unsplash

Last summer, Catherine Epstein, a Facing History middle school teacher in Boston, posted a request on Facebook. She was looking for teachers who might be interested in starting a pen pal project with her students. She wanted to give young people the chance to interact with other peers from an entirely different background, with the goal of building empathy. As a teacher in Ozark, Arkansas, a rural, conservative town, I thought my class would offer the right contrast to Catherine’s urban, liberal environment. It was a refreshing idea and the start of a wonderful friendship for the two of us—and our students.

Political tensions surged during the 2016 presidential election, trickling down from adults, the media, and our communities. This left students like ours to absorb the often terse commentary like little sponges. I was looking forward to seeing how Catherine’s project, made possible by the Margot Stern Strom Innovation Grants, could challenge both of our classrooms to think beyond the individual corners of the world they live in to see the humanity we all have.

Each week, we’d offer our students a different topic (religion, politics, race) where they could share their identity, where they were from, and what their lives were like. Catherine and I were aware of the differences, slightly concerned that such sensitive topics might bring the conversation to a complete halt. My students, the majority of them white, had little interaction with people from other cultures. Now they were being thrust into conversations with peers who were from diverse backgrounds—some were different races, some were immigrants.

They started off hesitant, thinking they wouldn’t have opinions to share about these topics. But I pushed them. I told them to investigate why they don’t have an opinion on a certain issue. “Explore that and write it in your letter,” I’d tell them. They quickly discovered they had much to say. Soon, they were enamored with the idea of Boston and their pen pal’s project-based private school and its flexibility.

A steady flow of questions came each month: “Mrs. Smith what’s a subway?” “Mrs. Smith, what’s a bat mitzvah?” My rural students were amazed at the amount of extra curricular activities available to their urban pen pals: private instrument lessons, touring museums, different team sports, and various city events. Meanwhile, our activities are limited by what can be offered during the school day. My students were also excited about the public transit options, food choices, and types of political activities that the Boston students mentioned. Even preferred pronouns—a concept my students weren’t used to—crept its way into the conversation, providing an opening for dialogue and understanding.

Despite these differences, our students gravitated toward their similarities, focusing more on what brought them together as individuals. Hard conversations that many adults would have stressed over were discussed with ease. Were they just being polite, fearful of alienating their new friend? Or did these differences go unmentioned due to outright acceptance? I’m not entirely sure.

Many of them expressed gratitude for the letters, since they create a separate, private space for them to talk about their lives. Letter after letter, each student poured out their personal situations and life updates, fostering a bond between them and their Boston counterparts. Each month, when the new crop of letters would come in the mail, my students would excitedly tear them open like Christmas morning. Now, they consider them close and trusted friends.

Catherine and I were pleasantly surprised by how their differences were just differences, nothing more, nothing less. Maybe that’s the secret we as adults need to be brought in on: if we open up that space to share our lives and welcome others in, we’ll see the similarities outweigh the differences. It’s such a simple concept, but it’s a lesson our students were able to teach us. We never stop learning from each other—even from students.

Want to use this pen pal project with your students? Learn how with Catherine’s lesson, “Challenging Assumptions with Curiosity,” one of the two winning lessons from the Margot Stern Strom Innovation Grants.

This article was originally posted on the Facing History and Ourselves website.

Cherese Smith

Ozark Junior High School

Cherese Smith teaches eighth and ninth grade history at Ozark Junior High School in Ozark, Arkansas. She has a Bachelor's Degree and Masters in Teaching from the University of Arkansas.