This June marked middle school graduation for my first class of 6th graders. For those of you that have been with our program from the start, this means your first pen pal is now headed off to high school! We met these children when they were fresh out of elementary school; they were overwhelmed at being the youngest bunch on campus, and they were just entering that impressionable stage of life where people begin to formulate their own beliefs.
Today, they are a more confident bunch. Many of my former students gave speeches in front of the 500+ crowd at graduation and beautifully belted out solos in the choir, duties that would have seemed impossible to them as elementary school graduates in 2010. As we were catching up, it was interesting to hear the common theme of their fond memories from our time in 6th grade science. Without fail, the two events that consistently stood out to these children were our science labs and the pen pal program: programs that were successful largely due to you, the science pen pals.
Successes of the past three years
As a teacher in a low-income district, it is extremely difficult to provide students with the opportunities they deserve. Funding is extremely tight in rural public schools, so science labs are paid for entirely from the teacher’s personal money. Though this allowed me to make great use of my skills for resourcefulness and creativity when it came to finding lab materials, we also had several science pen pals who stepped in to help out. Many scientists sent me lab kits, science books, funding and encouragement. It was inspiring to have a network of people from all over the US asking me about my students and what they could do to help.
And that was just the labs. In your letters, many of you included at home lab experiments they could do or informed them of science career paths they had never previously been exposed to. You provided them reading and writing practice, as I would often find them checking out books in our library concerning scientific references in your letters. I cannot even begin to explain the excitement that surrounded the days we passed out pen pal letters. The students would rush around the room spitting out facts about their pen pals and darting off to our world map to see where you lived or where you were going to be traveling. The same students who had just weeks before not been able to name the county they lived in were now begging to know more about states and cities where each other’s pen pals were working. I was mesmerized that a simple letter brought in so many aspects of learning, excitement and inspiration to the vast majority of students and faculty in our school.
Recently, one of my former students posted a photo on Facebook, proudly exclaiming “found my old pen pal letters from 6th grade, still got them!” I am sure several of our scientist pen pals are unaware of their valuable presence in the life of our students, but as I can personally attest by the shoebox full of letters I myself keep from friends over the years, handwritten letter of encouragement can be carried with someone fondly for years to come.
Challenges and opportunities
A pen pal program may seem simple to run, but when you have hundreds of students who need approval from their parents to participate, and hundreds of stamps and envelopes that need to be bought, while you also attempt to provide a proper learning environment around writing and reading letters for students with reading levels ranging from kindergarten to tenth grade, and deliver the motivation and encouragement to students so they will be excited to learn ON TOP of every other objective you are expected to cover as a teacher, in between nights of grading hundreds of essays and tests—well, you get the idea.
This past year was our first year of branching out to a new school and new classrooms, while I provided assistance from outside of the classroom. It was a great learning year, as we were made aware of many barriers that come with transitioning our program. We realized that the teachers in this program need and deserve a lot more support than they received this past year. We’ve been reflecting these past few months on ways to ensure the success of this program by polling teachers and other participants in Letters to a Pre-scientist. From these conversations, we have begun to create document libraries and how-to guides for new teachers.
We hope that with increased support and a few fundraising ideas, we will come back stronger than ever this year! We welcome any input or suggestions you have. If you are a pen pal, we truly hope that you will continue to write, as this program would not be possible without you. Thanks for your commitment to our students these past three years and we are excited for you to be a part of the 2013-2014 school year.