Students in Jeanne Moran’s third-grade classroom at United North Elementary are, as their teacher says, learning that they are “part of a big whole” by corresponding with students nearly 10,000 miles away.
Moran’s students write every month to Meagan Bult’s third/fourth-grade class at Healesville Primary School in Victoria, Australia. (Healesville is slightly more than 32 miles northeast of Melbourne).
The two classes hooked up last school year when Moran spotted Bult’s request for foreign pen pals for the latter’s classroom on the Facebook site “Not So Wimpy Third Grade Teachers.” The site enables teachers worldwide to communicate to discuss issues, problems, events, and ideas. Having introduced a pen pal program with Italian students to her sixth grade class 15 years ago, Moran was delighted to offer a similar opportunity to her third grade. Her only requirement was that she link up with English-speaking students from far away.
As she discusses the adventure, Moran repeatedly emphasizes that all students need to experience the world.
“You need to expand your world, and the world is a big, beautiful place,” she stressed. “You want to get out there and see what the worlds like.”
Unlike some foreign pen pal exchanges, which turn out to be a one-time exchange, Moran’s and Bult’s classrooms have maintained a steady exchange of letters each month. They also send videos via Facebook Messenger. And Moran plans to continue as long as Bult is willing.
“I was just lucky,” she explained. “I got a really good teacher. I have a teacher who writes back and sends us packages. And I do so to her.”
Student Drew Cairns calls it a “pretty awesome” experience, and Logan Stevens enjoys it as well.
“It’s good,” Logan said. “It’s fun. We get to write to them.”
Maggie Mackey calls the pen pal exchange “special.”
“Because you don’t always get to be with someone from a different country,” she said. “You get to learn what they do, and they get to learn what we do.”
Madi Edwards agrees.
“When you have a pen pal, you get to learn more about different people,” she said.
Lindley Burns noted that the Australian students send videos and photos of their classroom.
Aileen Taylor, Isabelle Keith, Khloe Bellinger, Arianna Willett, and Natalie Postin described some of the exchanges. The American students have sent key chains, sunglasses, chips, stamps, pencils, and other items, all with an American theme. The Australian students send crackers, flags, stuffed Koalas, pencils, pencil toppers, maps, books, and Australian footballs. And, of course, samples of Vegemite. Vegemite is a thick, black food spread made from leftover brewers’ yeast extract and a variety of vegetables and spices. Iconic in Australia, foreigners either love it or loathe it.
Although she likes the fact that the pen pals send the aforementioned items, Abigail Kendall would like one more item: “I wish they would send us a picture of them,” she said. “But it is still fun having pen pals.”
Because Bult’s class is larger than Moran’s, some students in Moran’s class have two pen pals. The teachers have become friends as well, keeping in contact with each other via Facebook.
And the teachers too learn about each other. Discovering that Bult loves horses, Moran found an American-themed T shirt for her with a horse emblazoned on it.
The pen pal project encompasses several aspects of the classroom curriculum: writing skills, world geography, social studies, and reading maps. Each school year, Moran’s students will make their own video to send to their Australian friends, conducting interviews of United North teachers themselves and using the school’s green screen to depict aspects of American life. (Green screens are backdrops in chroma key photography, a process that replaces a solid-color background with a new background.)
“The kids develop their writing skills,” Moran explained. “They’re motivated. They’re excited about it. We can go to Google Earth and we can see their school on Google Earth. They send us maps so we are able to label their regions. We learn about their culture and their animals.”
The students love hearing English spoken with a different accent as well.
“We’re more alike in this world than we are different,” Moran continued. “What’s the same about us?”
Those one-on-one personal connections with people around the world help students think outside of themselves and their own world. And it’s starting at a young age. Some people don’t get that opportunity anytime in their lives.
“I think it’s important to have that no matter what,” Moran said.
The American students have learned some interesting things about Australia. Logan Stevens noted that his Australian counterparts refer to math as “maths” and that Australia is [16 to] 18 hours ahead of the United States. Parker Davis found it interesting to learn about Australian products that differed from those in the United States.
Gabe Clark found in interesting to learn that the Tasmanian Devil’s reputation is mostly undeserved, because it is not as aggressive as some fear. Also, Koala Bears are not really bears, he noted.
The Australian students wear school uniforms. Their academic year varies among the states and institutions in Australia, but generally extends from late January/early February until early/mid-December for primary and secondary schools.
In December, which is Australia’s summer, the Australian students and their teachers will attend an outdoor sleep-away camp called “ADANAC.” Moran’s class will attempt to link up with them via videos on private Facebook Messenger.
In three years, Moran and her husband hope to make the 24-hour journey to visit Australia and the Great Barrier Reef. Moran said she would like to visit Bult’s class in person at that time. She returns to the theme of how important it is to meet new people from different cultures and to learn how people do things differently, or similarly. It’s also important to step outside one’s own world.
“Sometimes, the things that we fear – when you face those fears, it’s good,” Moran said. “To travel and experience new things is what life is all about. It really is.”