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Pen pals build bonds during remote learning

Connecting with classmates beyond screens

Forest Hills — How does a teacher create opportunities for her new class of third-grade distance learners to get to know one another? If you’re Knapp Forest Elementary teacher Sarah Bruha, you start a pen pal exchange.

Ximena Martinez at home, reading a letter from a classmate-pen pal (courtesy)

Bruha’s class of 37 (yes, thirty-seven!) third-graders — whose usual schools are Knapp Forest and Orchard View — are getting practice writing names, spelling, punctuation and grammar while they learn about peers they may have only met on-screen.

“I’m excited to get it in the mail, and to read it and to write back,” said Sri Aluri, who drew a picture on her first letter to classmate Ximena Martinez of the two girls holding hands.

Easha Venkatesh agreed about the letter-writing. “I actually never did that, except to Santa,” she confided.

Scott Cahill read his first letter aloud: “Dear Miles, I’ve been waiting a long time for this. … My favorite classes are gym and math. What are your favorite classes?”

Killian Evenochek asked his pen pal, “Do you have a chocolate calendar or a regular one?”

And Nithya Karumudi told her pen pal that two of her favorite things are pizza and books, and that her favorite subject is reading “because there’s a lot of words.”

Third-grader Nithya Karumudi puts the pen pal letters she wrote in her family’s mailbox (courtesy)

Building Relationships

“I really wanted them to have the opportunity to connect with their classmates in a unique way,” Bruha said. “These students are not getting to eat lunch together, to play at recess together. I wanted to give them another way to build relationships.

She pulled parents together, too, inviting them to reach out to local businesses for project supplies that could be distributed to students. Frederik Meijer Gardens, local sports teams Grand Rapids Griffins and Drive, and Grand Valley State University were among donors of writing supplies. 

Each student is assigned to write a letter to two others in the class. Bruha said the hope is to have them exchange at least two letters. She plans to introduce elements of social studies such as the study of a county map, addresses and ZIP codes, “but truly my driving force behind this was the social-emotional learning piece,” she said. “I really wanted the kids to see there are other ways to communicate that don’t involve a screen.”

Another attribute she hopes to nurture: anticipation and patience, as third-graders learn that having something to look forward to — an actual letter in the mail with their name on it — can be its own source of happiness.

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering East Grand Rapids, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

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