Students make friends by way of pen

Jose Medel-Reyes reads a letter from his Kelloggsville High School pen pal. The letters shared about a time when the writer used courage or grit

Martellis Forest concentrated intently on the paper before him. The North Godwin Elementary third-grader had just received a handwritten letter from a friend to the south: a Kelloggsville High School 10th-grader named Roman.

Mike Hernandez and Marc Icizanye react to gifts from their pen pals before reading their letters

“He is an athlete and played lots of sports, but now he only plays basketball,” said Martellis of Roman. “We tell each other what we do and what kind of sports we play. I play basketball exactly like him!”

The two students are pen pals, thanks to a connection between their teachers, Amy Raczynski and Angela Winer. A few months ago, Raczynski, who teaches sophomore English at Kelloggsville High School, reached out to Winer, a former student of Raczynski’s, who now teaches at North Godwin. The two decided to put their students in touch and, so far, the letters have generated a lot of excitement — and a chance to practice the art of written communication.

“They really look forward to receiving those letters,” said Raczynski of her high school students.

Emy Orozco and Camila Vasquez Garcia craft responses to their most recent letter from 10th-grade pen pals

Special Delivery

Recently, Raczynski’s students sent special gifts for their younger friends: bags filled with stuffed animals, stickers and small toys. The delivery was met with squeals of delight throughout Winer’s classroom.

“The funny thing is, they were just as excited when they got their first letter,” said Winer. “They are so excited to have a friend who is older.”

Aleannah Rohrbough was all smiles as she pulled a plush toy from her bag.

“It’s amazing. I thank her so much! She did not have to do this,” said Aleannah of her pen pal, Holly, who is becoming somewhat of a mentor through her letters.

“I learned that her favorite color is green and I actually learned some good advice: ‘Do not let others put you down,’” said Aleannah. “That was actually really good advice for me, because that actually happens to me a lot in school. And I learned that she loves science and she loves hanging out with her friends.”

Allison Moore and Camilla Casado, 10th-graders in Raczynski’s class, both said they remember thinking it was pretty cool to talk to teenagers or have a pen pal in their younger years. They enjoy reading letters from their younger friends, and are glad to be that older connection for them.

“They may not remember who you were particularly, but they’ll remember they had that older friend as a pen pal,” said Allison.

Nataly Garcia-Jimenez concentrates on the letter she received from her 10th-grade pen pal

A Lesson in a Letter

Besides the fun aspect of making a friend, there have been some good lessons for both classrooms.

Winer’s students had been discussing the importance of “grit” and “courage”, so she asked the 10th-graders to share an example of a time when they used these traits in their letters.

“So when we respond back,” Winer told her class, “I want you to also share an example of when you used grit or courage. You’re also going to answer any questions that they asked you.”

They repeated after her as she instructed them in formatting their responses: Two paragraphs. Two paragraphs. Two chunks. Two chunks. Answer questions. Answer questions. Share a story. Share a story.

Raczynski said pen pal letters go hand-in-hand with teaching both English and empathy. “They’re writing and having to make sure they’re writing correctly and using proper spelling and grammar for the other kids,” she said. “I think it’s also important to try to be kind to other people.”

Composing letters to younger friends has been a welcome challenge, said 10th-grader Evren Hodge.

“It’s different when you talk to little kids,” said Evren. You have to think of new ways to explain things and use words on a level that they can grasp and relate to. It’s teaching you new ways to communicate with other people.”

Bridie Bereza
Bridie Bereza hails from Lansing and has worked in the Grand Rapids area as a reporter, freelance writer, and communicator since graduating from Aquinas College in 2003. She feels privileged to cover West Michigan's public schools and hopes to shed a little light on the amazing things happening there through her reporting. Read Bridie's full bio.

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