At the beginning of October, my Fulbright inquiry project was definitely nebulous. I had lots of questions and only a handful of semi-answers. If I wasn’t going to do interviews, what should I do? How was I going to incorporate “lo negro” into the lessons? How was I going to let students tell me how they identified without imposing an identity based on academic research upon them?
While I wrestled with those questions, I knew one activity that seemed like an obvious choice: a letter exchange between students in Coyolillo and Portland, Oregon.
First, I emailed my colleagues in Portland Public Schools. Several teachers expressed interest, in fact so many PPS teachers wanted to participate that we had over 800 Portland students, and only 180 Coyolillo students. Here was my first lesson: start small. Even after I turned away a few PPS teachers, we still had about 250 PPS students and only 180 Coyolillo students. In an effort to include everyone, I decided to match 2 PPS students with 1 Coyolillo student, which in theory could have worked, but here, folks, came my next lesson.
Lesson #2: Organization is key. My first days teaching in Coyolillo were all about getting to know the kids, the adults and the way things worked in my new school. After the first day, I stuffed the kids’ letters in my bag and raced to catch up with maestra Katia who gave me rides back to Xalapa. When I opened my bag at home, I instantly realized my fatal mistake- I had a stack of middle school letters, 6th, 7th and 8th grades all smashed together and no class lists to help me separate them. I wouldn’t be back to Coyolillo until the following week, and I had to scan the letters to send to the teachers in Portland. I did the best I could, but it ended up being a mess, with one Portland teacher getting half a class’s letters, and another getting the other half.
Teaching is all about making mistakes and learning from them, right? To solve the organization problem, I got my hands on some class lists. I also created this letter template for all students to use to write their letters. The letter template served many purposes, in addition to organizational ones. I gave each student a code, based on their class and where they fell in the alphabetical class list. I asked the PPS teachers to make sure that each letter had its specific Coyolillo letter code so that I could easily organize each batch of letters, regardless of the order they were sent. I also created a space for a PPS letter code so my colleagues could create their own organization system. I put very clearly To and From boxes at the top of the letter because students often forgot to sign their names to the letters.
The letter template also helped solve another problem: for some reason many students liked to start each line really close to the margin, and as much as I asked them to leave space they would inevitably forget. I used the Genius Scan app to scan and send all the letters, so having a margin was important.
Lesson #3- Use a scanning app to send letters via email. In Portland, we have photocopiers that can scan bunches of papers at the same time. When that is not available, a scanning app like Genius Scan works just fine.
Lesson 4: While matching language ability is ideal, it’s not necessary. My students in Coyolillo knew very little English, while my students in Portland knew more Spanish. My colleague Nick Verbon suggested that the letters be like a spoken language exchange, one part in Spanish, one part in English. For the Coyolillo kids, that meant using sentence frames to write about Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) or other similar topics in English, and then letting the kids write freely in Spanish. It also meant using lots of tools to read what their peers wrote them in English, but that’s how we learn!
There are still many questions I haven’t answers yet, like what to do when a student is consistently absent and their pen pal doesn’t get a letter. Or how to negotiate holidays, teacher planning days, unplanned interruptions, etc. so that the letter exchange maintains a degree of consistency. Lots of students asked if they could share WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram information- I said yes as long as they promised to let me know if anyone was posting anything inappropriate, but I’m curious what other teachers would have done with this. My thinking was that this type of cross-cultural dialogue was kinda the point, however, I am not naive to the dangers it poses.
I’ll admit it- there were times throughout this process (like when I had a stack of 500 letters to match and organize) that I wanted to tear my hair out. I know what stopped me from self-inflicted baldness was the kids’ reactions and enthusiasm for this project. The look on Jorge’s face when he realized he had not one, not two but three female pen pals was priceless. Jazmin greeted me every week saying first hello, and second,¿maestra y las cartas? (What about the letters?) . And Jesús, 14 year old Jesús, who looked at me, eyes round and said, ¿Maestra, y si estoy enamorado de esa niña? (Teacher, what if I’m in love with this girl?)
“Well,” I replied, “that’s obvious- you have to invite me to the wedding!”
Letter Exchange Lessons Recap
#1- Start small. Match one class at home with another class abroad, get your system going with that group and add more as you wish.
#2- Use a letter template and an organization system. Here is a link to a letter template I created.
#3- If you don’t have access to a photocopier that scans in bulk, Genius Scan works fine.
#4- Don’t worry so much about matching students with similar language abilities. While perhaps ideal, there’s a lot of learning that can happen when one group has a higher proficiency than another.
#5- Anticipate problems like no school days, absenteeism and questions about connecting on social media. If you come up with great solution, please email me!
#6 Notice what’s going well, the kids who are enthusiastic, the ones who are maybe even falling in love, and know that what you’re doing is worth it.