Friends without Borders

“Tell me, I'll forget. Show me, I'll remember. Involve me, I'll understand,” is one of the most widely known quotes in the world of education. Still, in my years as a teacher I don’t think I’ve ever gone a month without saying or hearing a coworker say something along the lines of “I keep telling them to (insert expectation about behavior or academics), but my students just aren’t listening.” This response is only natural. The stuff that makes up inspirational quotes is always easier said than done.

Fortunately, in the midst of all of our middle school reading and writing this year, one long-term project has stood out as a class favorite this year: Pen-Pals.

By this time last February I knew I was going to teach with BECA for the 2017-18 school term. I had already applied for an extended leave of absence from the school I had spent my last four years at teaching in Maryland, and I was constantly thinking about the year to come. My head was spinning with hopes and anticipation, and in the middle of all of those swirling thoughts, a co-worker of mine planted an idea. She knew of my plans, and she thought it would be exciting if we could collaborate. Her Spanish 1 students would write in Spanish to my 8th and 9th graders, and my kiddos would construct replies in English. I loved the plan, but by the time I arrived at San Jeronimo Bilingual School that summer, it was tucked away with the 3,897 other ideas floating through my mind.

Fast forward to this past November, we finally got to bring the idea to life: I passed out a stack of letters to my students. Right away, their excitement radiated. The room was abuzz with everyone passing their letters around, crafting full-page replies (though I only asked for a paragraph or two), and asking how to spell challenging words they would usually just avoid. Then something bizarre happened. I dismissed my 8th graders to go to recess, but 8 students remained at their desks, intently writing. Now, I have some dedicated students, but never had anyone chosen to continue working during their break. Needless to say, I couldn’t stop smiling.

Between November and December we sent our first set of letters to Maryland and received replies back a few weeks later. Then over winter vacation, I found myself back at my old school in Maryland. The Spanish teacher invited me into her classroom, and before I knew it we were filming a quick video to bring back to San Jeronimo in January.
On our first day back to San Jeronimo this new year, I couldn’t wait to show the video. I figured it would be a light-hearted, exciting end-of-class activity. Then, when it was finally time, my students’ reactions did not disappoint. There were shrieks, whoops, claps, laughter, and pleas for me to replay it for days. There were also requests to send a reply video. How could I say no? Immediately, we got to work brainstorming ideas for what to include.

When it came time to film, small groups of students were dismissed from class to film while the others worked on other assignments. Some students even borrowed the camera to interview teachers during recess and lunch. After only two days of filming and one night of editing, we had a final product: a 14-minute video that introduced every 8th and 9th grader, showed a short interview with the majority of SJBS’s teachers, toured the school, and shared some unique Honduran lingo. The finished masterpiece showcases the culmination of almost 50 students’ visions inspired by the countless teachers they have had both at school and home.

Being on camera and knowing other people will be watching--it makes a person feel vulnerable; it can be downright terrifying. Despite any fears they may have had, each and every one of my kiddos now has something to be proud of: planning, filming, and starring in a video that has been happily viewed thousands of times by people excited to learn more about them and their school.

This pen-pal project has become more than just a few letters and some extra language practice. This is a cultural and language exchange project fueled by the curiosity and excitement of 100-some middle schoolers--half at school in Cofradia, Cortes, Honduras, and the others in Stevensville, Maryland, USA. This is real-life human connection--social learning at its best. This is authentic motivation for all of the students to exercise their second (or third) language reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills. I didn’t invent the idea of pen-pals, nor did my students, but I am so proud of them for making this experience their own.

Looking forward, I am excited to say that the SJBS 6th and 7th graders just sent their first reply letter to their own pen-pals, and I think it’s fair to say we are all excited to hear back again soon.

Oh, and if you missed our abbreviated video, you can check it out here! https://www.facebook.com/becaschools/videos/10155347494896461/