Thursday, 21 March 2013

Pen Pal Letters :p

Earlier in October I had an idea to set up a pen pal partnership with my 2nd graders and a primary school from America. I wrote of this idea in a previous blog. The more I thought it through, the more enticed I was to get the ball rolling; however, mountains stood in my way. Pitching the idea to my school was intimidating to say the least. Keep in mind that only two of my coworkers fluently understand me and only one of them speaks Chinese (to report to the principal) and the one who knows Chinese rarely catches a break. The second mountain was (quickly) finding a school that wished to participate. Had this idea come about a few months prior, the idea of finding a school would have seemed much easier. For those of you unfamiliar, in America you need teacher approval, principal approval, board approval, and adequate funding. There's also this hope that your number of students matches with theirs and that there is a gender balance. Also, it makes a difference when you can walk into a school versus hoping e-mails would suffice. Let’s not forget that by this time most teachers had already laid out their lesson plans. With the pressures of Standardized Testing these days, many might not welcome a cultural exchange at this time;
for NJ's ASK do not offer international questions! Last I checked, Standardized Testing begins in 3rd grade, so maybe I stood a chance.

My first attempt with this pitch was a fail (?). I’m not sure what it was---this happens often. I cannot interpret what people are trying to tell me around here. I ran the idea over with the Vice Principal during lunch. We were not on the same page. He liked the “idea” of it and in a vaguely disapproving manner, rolled his eyes towards the ceiling and nodded his head as if pen pals were a commonality or fatal attempt to execute. He went on to say in his quickish-British accent,
“Yew knoyw how these thins gew.  Everythin stots uff wayll, but then they fugget you see and it becoomes quite boaring if ya know what I mane….”
He pressed on with his “sage” ideas of E-MAILING versus written letters. We were NOT on the same page. He did not offer any help, unless you consider dumbing-down my well thought out “program” was helpful.
Pssh, "e-mail."

My collaborating teacher-I’ll just say it- was impressed with the idea. Good girl!  Now, I did reassure her that I would be willing to handle half-to-all of the work involved if I had to because I did not want to load her up with anymore work. I also made it sound easier than it would be in actuality. I also reassured her I would find a partnering school and take care of the matching of students, etc. She ran the idea by the principal and the principal apparently was immediately attracted to the idea. I suppose something like this looks excellent at an International School... The principal had to confirm with our accountant that the funds were there and within 3 days, it was a done deal! I felt silly for worrying over it and was relieved that they were not interested in "e-mailing".

That night, I sent my first e-mail out to my nephew’s primary school. It warmed my heart that there was a possibility my little nephew would have a pen pal from China AND a pen pal who was one of my students! I can hear him bragging to his classmates now. Really trying to perfect this e-mail, it took me a good hour (or longer) to write. Afterwards, I was in search of alternative schools.

Side note: A huge THANK YOU to those of you who assisted me by inquiring with primary schools and to teachers who pitched the idea to schools they worked in and got it APPROVED. Also, those of you who simply “shared” my idea through social networking; it was all helpful. Seriously, you’re so awesome and somehow I would like to return the favor!

For reasons I will not dive into, my nephews school did not work out (as much as I REALLYYY wanted it to). I sent e-mails to six schools in one night and heard back from three within a week’s time. Thank you: Captain James Lawrence School, Hamilton Primary School, and Delran Primary School. After endless e-mails, I am pleased to announce that Delran Primary School is now united with You Fu Xie Jie’s Pen Pal Partnership Program (PPPP). That’s a mouthful.

It was more difficult than I imagined-mainly because the school I work at does not run the way you might imagine. A lot of it had to do with the CONSTANT language barrier, and the other had to do with the fact that things were always changing and I was not aware. Students English names were permanently changing, lesson plans were never definite, students were taken out of my classroom for various reasons, I did not have the same resources I would at home, and there is no such thing as a "deadline" in China. I’ve learned if I need to implement a deadline, to do so two weeks prior to the “real” deadline date.

After FINALLY receiving an updated attendance list, I had to match students, which sounds simple right? It's not.  Honestly, with the name changes, I didn’t even know who some of them were (I teach A LOT of students, okay, and at different schools) and trying to explain to some of them why they had two pen pals (more work) in a different language was not an easy task. Still, I was grateful it was moving along.


                                                  First Letters Sent

We sent the first round. My collaborating teacher explained to them what a pen pal was, etc. She told me they understood. I still question that, but at least they understood a letter was expected of them to be sent to America. I gave Delran a date our letters would be sent by, but they were actually sent out 3 weeks later.

When "The Great Wall" of parents caught wind that their kids were making an “American” friend, they took it very seriously. Under a dome of persistent parents, our lesson plans suddenly changed and our delivery date would be pushed back. First off, (according to parents) something this “serious” should not be assigned during the Standardized Testing week in their other subjects. Here I thought it would be a refreshing BREAK for them. Due to opinions of the parents, the letters were automatically pushed back one week until testing was over. Then, parents demanded to read these letters before they were sent out. On a more positive note, even with these demands, at least it aroused interest.

Some of the issues I faced were as follows:

1. In every class, you have a handful of students who need assistance. It was difficult to assist these students between the communication barrier and the fact that now they were writing their letters at home. Who knew what they would turn in?

2. There are always a handful of students who do not return what they take home. It would take days before we received every letter.

3. Some parents were such perfectionists that they would 100% write their child’s pen pal letter for them.

4. Random expressions they used would ignite some confusion to a second grader from America.  Examples from letters we sent included:
I love you very much, I can’t wait to play with you, what is your phone number…my phone number is….,I come to school on foot, my favorite food is meat, I miss you very much.

Obviously the culture here is very different, so when a boy named Jacky or Sandy (heck, even John) wrote a letter on neatly folded pink paper with dancing pigs all over it, there was bound to be some gender confusion (which was expressed in some of their replies). 

6. The second semester (February) would bring in three new female students and1 new male.

To alleviate some of these problems, we devised a framework for some students to follow. It was completely optional and could be copied word-for-word, or used to activate some prior knowledge. In this framework, we used vocabulary and phrases they learned throughout the semester.


“Hello, how are you? I am super! I am 10 years old. How old are you? I am from China (some from Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, Canada). I live in Nanjing. I come to school by bike. My mother is a nurse. My favorite subject is Maths…. “   (Maths=British English)

I tried to alleviate further problems by alerting Delran of a few of our disadvantages and by spending quite a bit of extra time with certain students and making much-needed adjustments. After some time, I was ready to hand over a batch of letters to my very appreciate collaborating teacher.

We gave them an entire weekend to work on these letters with their parents. I have to say, I was a little afraid to see what we would get back! Would they remember to turn them in? Would they be covered in milk tea? Would they make any sense? I kept my expectations low and hoped for the best.

The outcome was a joyous one. Most importantly, for me, they were SO EXCITED to turn their letters in. That was EXACTLY what I wanted. It was turning into such a heavy assignment and all I really wanted was for them to look forward to writing and sending these letters, just as I was when I had a pen pal, years ago.

90% of them were turned in and maybe 80% were ready to be sent out. Some of them needed work and some students really needed assistance. Also, it took time for the students who were absent or not feeling well to get their letters in. I took them home, and in one night, read through each one (not an easy task) and made notes to what needed adjusting. I also sent Delran an e-mail explaining what they would find in these letters PRIOR to receiving them just so that they were not overwhelmed with bewilderment.

Here are some of the letters my students sent out:

Sent from one boy to another boy. This was FINE, but there was confusion later.

I would like to add that Delran Primary School has been very patient and helpful through this process. It would be a first for the both of us and I am pleased to be working with them. We received their letters upon returning back to school from Spring Festival and my students are currently turning in their second round of letters at this time. Next, we will send pictures and possibly even video! My students could not be any happier! If only I could reveal to you their faces when telling them Delran, or “America”, wrote back. It was unlike anything I’ve ever felt.

This experience was (still is) certainly a learning process for me in the aspect of planning/organization and in dealing with the challenges that cultural diversity can bring.


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