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Pandemic Pen Pals: Building Literacy + Socially Distanced Connections

This summer is tough on school-aged children. With the school closures during the spring, it’s likely the longest they have ever been out of the classroom. This certainly affects them academically, missing the direct instruction and structure that a school day provides. But it also has social implications. They miss seeing their friends at school every day, and with social distancing continuing into the summer most friends are off limits for play dates and in-person interactions. While it seems like almost everything in society has responded to restrictions by going digital - Zoom meetings, video lessons, Facetime hang-outs - I propose another option: a return to letter writing.

Many kids today don’t know the joy of checking the mailbox, rather than an inbox.

As convenient as smart phones and the Internet have made communication and staying connected, they have also taken away the suspense of awaiting a letter and the excitement of seeing an envelope in the mailbox, ripping it open and discovering a handwritten note. But with all the unexpected lifestyle changes that 2020 has brought, perhaps it should also bring the return of an old classic: the pen pal.

Having a summer pen pal can help your child stay connected with their peers that they can’t see in person. Or if you choose to use a third-party to get matched with a random pen pal, it provides the opportunity to learn about someone from a different part of the world.

Academically, it is a wonderful opportunity to improve literacy over the summer. Your student will practice drafting and editing a piece of writing, checking for spelling and grammatical errors (no autocorrect here!) with a dedication they may not show to other summer assignments - someone they care about is going to be reading it, after all! It’s also a great learning opportunity to practice the specific format (salutation, structured paragraphs, conclusion, signature) of a letter and addressing an envelope. Finally, they can improve their reading fluency and vocabulary by being on the receiving end of the letter exchange - it’s a true win-win-win!

How to start:

  • I recommend students start their exchange with an introduction letter: a greeting, a bit of information about themself if it’s a new friend (age, part of the country they live in, interests or what they like to do for fun) and then ask their pen pal a few specific questions (without “yes” or “no” answers!)

  • Especially for younger children, include the option for drawing to accompany the letter - this could be a “self portrait” or they could illustrate what they have written (for really new writers, ask them to draw what they want to say first - then help them label or write about the picture underneath).

  • The form the letters take depends on what you have access to/prefer…

    • A physical letter that gets mailed to the pen pal

    • A physical letter that you hand deliver to the pen pal (if it’s a friend or family member)

    • A digital letter - could be typed up in an email, or a picture of a handwritten letter could be sent digitally as well

Who the Pen Pal will be - the most important part!

  • Your child’s friend: it could be a classmate in the area that they want to reconnect with during social distancing, a friend that has moved away, or even an imaginary friend that you can have fun writing responses for

  • A family member, old teacher, or another adult they know and admire

  • Letter exchange programs are also a great way to meet new people and learn about a different way of life. See a list of resources below if this option interests you...

Programs that match you with someone new:

  • Peaceful Pen Pals

    • “We invite youth to make new friends through some good old fashioned letter writing! Parents or legal guardians may sign their child up to take part in our new Peaceful Pen Pal project. We will match each child with one other child of a similar age.”

    • Can be within the US or international at your request.

    • A way to learn about another child from a different place/culture and to make connections through asking questions and sharing information about themselves.

  • TRF Pen Pal Program

    • This organization collects drawings/letters from kids, to deliver to kids that are currently fighting cancer! An awesome way for your student to practice their letter  writing skills that will brighten up a patient’s day!

  • PenPal Schools

    • A Global project based collaborative learning community.

    • “Connects of half a million students from over 150 countries to practice writing, create original projects, and make friends from all over the world.”

Also consider: writing to those living in assisted living or nursing homes, who are especially isolated during this pandemic with no-visitor policies. If you don’t personally know anyone to write to, many Facebook pages like this one share residents’ names and mailing information.

Whichever mode you prefer, I hope you and your student see this summer project as an opportunity: to slow down and put more thought into your message, to reach out to someone in a way you normally might not, and to remember that no matter how young or old you may be, the excitement from getting a personal letter will never go away.


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