We began the exchange through snail mail. It was an opportunity for students to practice their writing skills and for the German students to practice their English writing skills with their English teacher who led the charge. Once again, I found the teacher through ePals, and we quickly established a routine of how these letters would go. The excitement on the students’ faces when they received their first letters in the mail from Germany was contagious! As they read and looked at the pictures that were included, they became curious about what others wrote as well. It was clear that soon enough, these kids across the ocean became real for them.
The German students beckoned from a town just an hour outside of Bremen, which may sound familiar if you’ve ever read the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, “The Bremen Town Musicians.” It also happens to be a classic Russian cartoon that was a favorite of mine growing up in a Russian household. I showed my students a segment of this cartoon, and I’ll never forget their laughter when the donkey sings, “yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah” at the end. This fun little tidbit even made it into some of their letters back to the German students.
On a more serious note, there was a moment of growth that my students and I experienced in the process of this pen pal exchange. At one point, my students felt that they were not getting the same thoroughness of responses they felt they were putting into their letters. While I hadn’t taken the time to read all the German students’ letters, I did have a fairly good idea of what my own students had written. I glanced over a few German letters and at first reminded them that English was not their first language. They felt there was something more to it, so I inquired with the teacher about what it could be. In her response, the German teacher was shocked and upset by my remarks. She then went into full detail about the effort that some of her students put forth in writing their letters. She explained how she sat with some students for hours at a time deciphering the meaning of my students’ letters before crafting their own response. Others needed to request help from their parents in order to compose their letter. She pointed out how some of my students sent letters that were quite short for native English speakers and without photos to add that personal touch. I shared the contents of this email with my students and there was a moment of pause felt when they realized how difficult it can be to learn a new language and write lengthy responses in that language. Some of my students are already bilingual and many have been learning Spanish from a young age, but some truly took what I said to heart. On my end, I encouraged students to write more detailed responses in which they shared more stories about themselves rather than just recounting individual, unrelated facts.
The art of letter writing is not a frequently applied one, and while it came naturally to some, others needed idea upon idea for how to expand what they had written. In the age of Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, I wonder how unacquainted some of these kids are or will be with personal or even casual writing that spans longer than 140 characters or a caption on an image. Furthermore, in the spirit of building that personal touch, to end the year, I filmed students saying a few parting words to their pen pal and sent it to the German teacher to share with her students. They reciprocated and even went so far as to film themselves showing off their school campus!
While some students felt they had not gained a great deal from the experience because of the infrequent letters and occassional moments of miscommunication, others wanted to continue the exchange past the end of the school year. Some have shared their social media handles and names they use when playing interactive or online video games. Through the imperfections of the system, I learned about the importance of setting clearer expectations around letter writing and what sorts of things are worth sharing. My students learned about how things can be lost in translation, but also how much they can have in common with kids their age from a foreign country. As many of them enter high school, they know that they have a contact in Germany if they ever need it, and they have just a bit more knowledge of how different Germany is now from the one portrayed in their studies of World War II.