Realizing the benefits that "hands-on" real-life lessons can have in helping students learn, I asked my cousin, a first-grade teacher in a bilingual program in Tucson, Arizona, if she would be interested in having our classes become pen pals throughout the school year. I felt this would prove beneficial for lessons in reading and writing for my inner-city second graders and would promote their knowledge about our city and state (Toledo, Ohio). I did not anticipate that the letters would expand into cross-curricular lessons involving all subjects and present new learning opportunities.
Our journey begins
It was a very hot and humid end to summer. When a student began to complain about how hot it was in our classroom, I asked my second graders if they thought Arizona would also be hot. I then explained that throughout the new school year we were going to be pen pals with a first-grade class in Arizona. My students were not quite sure what or where Arizona was, or even what "pen pals" were, but they were excited.
We enthusiastically embarked on our experience by listing what we knew about Arizona and what we wanted to learn. Our next step was to write our pen pal letters together. When we began, my students were just entering the second grade and unable to write an entire letter. Instead, we listed questions we wanted to ask our pen pals and wrote our letter together, as a class. I modeled the correct letter format, emphasizing grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
As an alternative to having my students copy word for word what we had written as a class, I created a form letter. I made an overhead and individual copies for the class with blanks where students could insert their own information. The address, date, greeting, and signature were also left blank in order to emphasize the different parts of the letter that the students would learn to write.
The cross-curricular experience
As we ventured through the second grade, the pen-pal letters offered many learning opportunities. Many of the lessons are cross-curricular and easily integrate with various subjects.
Reading. Pen-pal letters sparked a genuine curiosity in my students. Even my nonreaders wanted to find books about Arizona and, more specifically, Tucson. While their excitement grew, they sought out additional sources of knowledge beyond books. They watched TV, looked at pictures, brought in information from home, and began to make inferences about both Ohio and Arizona. The students compared Toledo's and Tucson's weather, location, and environment and began to speculate about what it would be like to live in Tucson rather than Toledo.
Language/spelling/writing. In addition to using textbooks, I was offering real-life hands-on experiences for my students to use language. They were writing complete sentences with the correct punctuation. They continually made comments about the type of sentence they were using--telling sentences or question sentences.
I was able to build on past classroom lessons on synonyms to introduce how different words can be used to mean the same thing. The students began to understand the concept of synonyms in context. Through the pen-pal letters, they began to realize that words such as hi, hello, and howdy could be used interchangeably in some sentences without changing the meaning. Another example that my students frequently used was when they were explaining how they felt about receiving letters. They used words such as excited, glad, and happy. I used these experiences to review our previous lessons on synonyms.
The students suddenly had an incentive to spell correctly. They wanted to "show off" their knowledge to their pen pals and became frustrated when they could not read what their pals wrote. One student commented on how important it was to write neatly. When asked why, the student replied, "I can't read the writing if they don't write neat." Capitalization, punctuation, and proper grammar were all important lessons learned through writing to our pen pals.
Having pen pals from Arizona also introduced my students to new vocabulary. When we received a letter from our pen pals and were in doubt of the meaning of a word, we used context clues to attempt to infer its meaning. We then would verify our answer with a dictionary or an encyclopedia. I was surprised when my students did not recognize the word cactus. We used context clues and then looked it up in the dictionary. We learned that the word cactus was singular and that the plural was cacti. I was able to incorporate a minilesson on plural nouns that change their spelling. Pen-pal letters were easily transformed into learning activities. Simply by reading a letter, we were able to use context clues and the dictionary to extend our knowledge of singular and plural nouns. The stages of letter writing, the parts of a letter, and addressing an envelope were also skills we developed. Toward the end of the year, my students were confidently describing and demonstrating the parts of a letter.
The students also enjoyed sending postcards to their pen pals. I encouraged this by guiding them with the proper postcard format, and the postcards we received highlighted many interesting facts about Tucson and Arizona. The students were exposed to pictures of the animals, landscape, and weather there. One student commented, "My favorite part about pen pals is the postcards. I like to look at the pictures and read the back of them."
Math. We began comparing temperatures and the times of sunrise and sunset when a student questioned why the sun was up when he came to school (when it had not been previously). We had a brief science lesson to explain the reasons, and from there we started graphing the times the sun rose and set in Toledo. I questioned what the students thought would happen in Tucson. We began charting and graphing the sunrise and sunset times in both places. We predicted, looked for patterns, made inferences, and discussed our findings. We also decided to compare temperatures, keeping in mind that Tucson was in a desert and Toledo wasn't.
Time zones were also incorporated into the lessons. Trying to discover what our pen pals were doing at an exact time helped my students begin to understand the concept. For instance, when it was 12:00 noon in Ohio and we were getting ready for lunch, it was 9:00 a.m. in Tucson and the students were just beginning their school day. We would discuss the time differences and try to infer what our pen pals were doing at different times of the day.
Social studies. Pen-pal letters offered many learning opportunities in social studies. My students became aware of different cultures, religions, and languages, as well as similarities between Ohio and Arizona.
Map skills were often covered, and the children's interest in maps overwhelmed me. My students instantly had an interest in the location of Ohio. When the map of the United States was first introduced, they were unable to point to Ohio. As the lessons progressed, my students could point to where we lived in Ohio, name and find Lake Erie, say what and where the capital of Ohio is (Columbus), and explain where Ohio is in relation to Arizona. As one student firmly pointed out, "Arizona is southwest of Ohio, not just south. Look, first you go south and then you go west." My students also became familiar with the key and compass of a map and gained confidence that was exhibited during other lessons throughout the school year. They also learned different Ohio facts in order to share them with their pen pals. Examples of these include the state tree (buckeye) and history behind it, the state bird (cardinal), and the state flag and what it looks like.
Science. Letters with our pen pals also opened the doors of curiosity about weather differences between Ohio and Arizona. My students were amazed to find out that it snowed in the desert. They learned about the wide range of temperatures in Tucson and how the differing climates affected the landscape.
Several students in my class loved learning about animals. Using a Venn diagram, we compared and discussed what animals were found in Tucson but not in Toledo and vice versa. We discussed the similarities between the animals found in Tucson and Toledo and what, if any, adaptations the animals made to live in either environment. Our science lessons depended greatly upon gathering information from the Internet.
Technology. Use of technology was a beneficial and uncomplicated way for my students to find out interesting facts about Arizona. The Internet and other computer resources presented many learning opportunities. My students used the Internet to find information about Arizona, such as the sunrise and sunset times, daily temperatures, and pictures. The students looked up the information, wrote, it down, and then shared it with the class (they also wrote it on a chart). In doing so, they had to ensure their observations were sensible. Following several weeks of trial and error, they began making inferences. They recognized that if our average temperature was 23 [degrees] F, it would not likely jump to 70 [degrees] F the following day. The students began to see their mistakes, figure out what was incorrect, and amend their information if necessary.
Toward the end of the year, several of my students were able to use the computer to write their letters. Although e-mail was not available in my classroom, this would be another pen-pal option.
Our journey and the standards
Many of the activities associated with the pen-pal letters can be directly correlated with a school's curriculum as well as national standards. For example, see http://www.reading.org/advocacy/ elastandards for the English Language Arts Standards copublished by the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English, and see http://www.ode.state. oh.us/proficiency/4thoutcomes.asp for the Ohio Fourth-Grade Learning Outcomes for various content areas.
Other people, other places
The letters sparked a sincere interest in learning. Reading was no longer just a second-grade requirement but a way to learn about deserts, animals, people, and places. Writing became enjoyable, and my students understood the importance of good penmanship. They learned more about weather, temperature, and the effect that people have on the environment than they would have by reading a book. They gained practical knowledge they could apply to their daily lives and began to recognize that learning comes in different forms.
The next chapter
The pen-pal writing experience was a yearlong endeavor that I will adapt in the future. The examples I have presented here reflect only a partial view of the many lessons we developed. Each letter presented new learning opportunities for my students and went beyond my original expectations. The potential is endless if we, as teachers, allow ourselves to be flexible and are willing to use "teachable moments" in our classrooms. I look forward to continuing to write pen-pal letters and to extending the lessons to correlate closely with the curriculum.
Lemkuhl teaches second grade at Wolbridge Elementary School (1245 Wolbridge Avenue, Toledo, OH 43609, USA).
Source Citation:Lemkuhl, Michelle. "Pen-pal letters: the cross-curricular experience. (Teaching Ideas)." The Reading Teacher 55.8 (May 2002): 720(3). Academic OneFile. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 13 Aug. 2009
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