Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

November 15, 2012

Old-fashioned pen pals give modern kids thrill

By Neil Fater Editor
The Andover Townsman

---- — More than 1,000 children this week have the opportunity to meet a new friend by putting pencil to paper.

The Greater Lawrence Educational Collaborative has launched the 27th year of its pen pal program for students in kindergarten through grade 8. The program links Andover students with students in Methuen or Lawrence.

This will be the first year that fourth-grade teacher Shannon Siviski of High Plain Elementary School participates in the program. She said the idea sounds like “exactly what we need to keep students motivated. The program gives each and every student a purpose for writing, something that many students struggle with finding. It also offers them an authentic opportunity to write. Writing letters to friends, family, and pen pals occurs through every stage of life, not just in elementary school.”

Many teachers say having a pen pal allows a rare opportunity for kids to write for fun, rather than to answer a specific question, such as on an essay test, according to Kristen Hollenbeck, GLEC enrichment partnership director. It also allows Andover kids to meet youth from other communities.

“There’s so much scripted writing with the MCAS that they don’t have time to do unscripted writing,” said Hollenbeck. “At the older level [middle school] it’s a chance to investigate other towns. The more we reach across town borders, the stronger as a community we’re going to be. We share a common history and we share a common future and I think it’s important the students recognize that and help to bridge that.”

The old-fashioned process of hand-writing a note still seems to hold appeal, even in the age of tweets and Skype.

“In today’s society, children are surrounded by technology and social media and that is how they see communication between people. The GLEC pen pal program shows them a different way, a tried and true way, to communicate with people -- and the anticipation of the return letter is also something that doesn’t happen in our world today. It is a wonderful opening into a world some students may never get to enter [otherwise],” said Siviski. “This program allows students to share themselves, with their pen pal, on paper and gives them the ability to express their thoughts, emotions, stories, and anything else they wish to share freely, without judgment. I think that is truly a large part of why my students were so excited to participate. Not to mention getting to receive the ultimate reward of meeting their pen pal at the end of the school year. What’s better than that?”

While there are 1,087 students signed up for the pen pal program, not all classes have a matching class in another community. Classes interested in participating can contact GLEC. Matches are needed for one kindergarten class, one first-grade class, two second-grade classes, two fourth-grade classes, one fifth-grade and one eighth grade class. Teachers interested in participating can reach GLEC at 978-685-3000.

Siviski’s class has been paired with teacher Diana Blanchette’s class at the Tenney School in Methuen. The two teachers have been best friends nearly their entire lives.

“So not only does my class write to Ms. Blanchette’s fourth-grade students, but I write to her as well. I think it is important for students to see that in action and know that letter writing is a valuable lesson to learn and keep throughout their lives,” said Siviski. “Now if they can only handle the suspense and wait time, we will have a successful experience.”