MANCHESTER, N.H. — If one purpose of education is to broaden a child's understanding of oneself in the world, then having a pen pal can help accomplish that goal.
Melissa Bedard and Jeff Record, both graduates of Brattleboro Union High School and long-time friends, have paired up students in their respective second-grade classrooms as cross-continental pen pals. Bedard teaches at View Ridge Elementary School in Seattle, Wash., and Record teaches at Highland-Goffe's Falls Elementary School in Manchester, N.H.
Both teachers say their own experiences in high school have caused them to realize the power of having pen pals.
In her ninth grade English class at BUHS, Bedard was assigned a pen pal from England.
"Her name was Chris Jolley," Bedard said, "and we've been writing ever since. My senior year, I went to France, and her parents brought her to Paris so I could meet her. That was 36 years ago. She's Chris Kay now, a nurse, and married with two grown children. She lives in the south of London. We both turned 50 this year. We still write frequently, epic letters. I have a shoebox full."
For Record, the letter writing evolved from his participation as a student of French in the BUHS Swiss Exchange.
"I really connected with my Swiss exchange family," he said in an email interview. "My exchange partner's name was Alec, and he had two brothers, Jerome and Frederick. They all treated me like family. Alec came to Brattleboro in the summer of 1985 to live with my family, who adored him.
"We kept in touch for many years," Record continued, "but eventually our correspondence waned. About 12 years ago, I reconnected with my Swiss brother Jerome on Facebook, where we continue to connect weekly. I discovered, sadly, that my Swiss brother Alec had passed away when he was in his 30s from a car accident. His parents had also passed away by that time. Jerome is now married, lives in Paris with his wife and children, and is a professional actor."
Looking back, Record sees how important his travel and writing were.
"I was transformed from a small-town boy to a boy that wanted to discover the world firsthand," he said. "I connected with Alec, and we would write to each other frequently. I learned the importance of being open to different opinions and customs, and this has had a big effect on who I am today. My letters to Alec also transformed my writing skills. I realized the importance of words and the artistry of composition. This has opened many doors in my life."
Teaching is a second career for both Bedard and Record.
"I was bartending and acting in Seattle," Bedard said, "and Jeff was in insurance in Florida, and we both had a mini mid-life crisis at the same time. I was not quite 40, and I knew I wanted something different. I knew I loved kids, so I said, 'I'll be a teacher.' We went back to UVM (University of Vermont) together, and we both got our teacher certification in 2002."
Bedard initiated the first attempt at a pen pal project during her first teaching assignment, which was in a third grade at a private Christian Academy in Seattle.
"I was missing my ties to home," she said, "and my student had no idea of the world outside of their world. Pen pals had been such a positive experience for me, I thought it would be good for them."
With the exception of a few years where the age gaps between the two classes were too great, the two have had their classes writing to each other since 2004, Record said.
The two teachers were able to align the project with the English Language Arts Standards of both states.
"The students learn how to write a friendly letter," Bedard said. "They learn how to ask questions and how to answer them. I have a template that we use. The first paragraph of the letter is how to introduce yourself. Then they write two paragraphs about their school and city. They may include a postcard or take photos to send along.
"I'm amazed at the passion with which my writers write (these letters)," she continued. "This is writing that is meaningful and relevant. It's about what is happening in their world. They don't write the same way about anything else."
Record concurred, noting, "Sometimes it can be difficult to engage students in the writing process. Second grade writing curriculum includes narrative, poetry, and expository writing. It is a chore for many students. Since Melissa and I have enjoyed writing to our pen pals in the past, we thought that this might be a good way to get our students to want to write."
Bedard makes a hall display with a map so students see their home state of Washington on the west side of the country and their pen pals' state of New Hampshire on the east side. This year, because of their student counts, "the numbers are perfect," she said. "In pairing, I explain that a boy might get a girl pen pal or a girl might get a boy pen pal, and that it doesn't matter because all second graders are interesting. It teaches them emotional maturity, which is hugely important to me. The students say, 'Pick a good one for me,' and 'I want to be friends forever.'"
The day the letters arrive is the most exciting day, Bedard said.
"They don't want it to end, " she said. "They read and re-read their letters. I overhear students say, 'Let me read my letter to you.' Or some want to read their letters to the class. This project encompasses all kinds of literacy. We also do activities with the information, for example, comparison/contrast: what's alike about our two schools, and what's different?"
"We have continued with this project because, as we predicted, our students now enjoy writing," Record said. "They've enjoyed the friendships that have developed, and they also appreciate receiving and sending their mail. Additionally, it's been a fantastic way to teach the mechanics of writing and paragraph structure. Every year I get notes from parents thanking me and telling me that this is such a good idea."
Six of Record's students receive ELL (English Language Learners) services, he said. The students are all citizens of the United States, but their families are from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Serbia, and Vietnam.
"Having pen pals has helped the students with their English syntax," he said.
"Writing to other people requires them to use (correct) English syntax if they want their letter to be understood."
To those who question the value of writing actual paper letters in the era of electronic communication, Record responds that writing serves various needs.
"Humans need to feel liked and loved," he said. "There is something very special about someone caring enough about you to take the time to sit, reflect, and write something that is hand-delivered to you.
"I always save students' correspondence," he continued. "At the end of the year, I make a book of each student's work and give it to them to save and share with their family. I am always surprised and amazed by the progression of their writing skills and handwriting. The growth is right there is front of you, and it's very satisfying to see."