Missy Eberle’s first grade students are just starting out, but their correspondence with kids in a developing country is giving them a world-class education.
Under the guidance of Eberle and some adult volunteers, the Wauseon Primary School students have initiated pen pal friendships with 25 first graders at the Colegio Evangelico Lucille Rupp, a preparatory school in San Juan de la Maguana in the Dominican Republic. The letters introduce the writers to their new friends, and make inquiries about such things as age and favorite color.
Eberle will mail them to Solid Rock International, an Indiana-based Christian non-profit organization that sponsors schools in the Dominican Republic. The letters will be delivered by Solid Rock volunteers who visit the country weekly to deliver supplies and medical needs.
The nationwide pen pal project, called the Dominican Republic Connection, is based in Ohio’s Common Core educational standards. Eberle added it to her classroom curriculum this year as a way to imbue her young students with a sense of the world outside of their own.
“A lot of it is the culture, understanding that cultures celebrate things in different ways, that there are different languages,” she said. “I love cultures myself, and so that’s something I want the students to understand. That’s a life skill, understanding that there are people outside of our country…and that they’re different from ours.”
It’s the first time the primary school has participated in the pen pal project. It was launched in Eberle’s classroom after her husband met the project’s Dominican Republic coordinator during a mission trip. Eberle prepared her students – many of whom didn’t know what a pen pal was – by showing them a video of Colegio Evangelico Lucille Rupp and its students, which is now on the school website, and locating the Dominican Republic on a map.
The first graders were shown how much smaller their counterparts’ classrooms are, and photos of the children themselves in their school uniforms.
“One of the more interesting questions the students asked was, ‘How do they get to school?’,” Eberle said. “Here, of course, we have the buses. The kids are going to be surprised by how many students probably walk to school in the Dominican.”
Each student letter offers two facts about the writer and asks two questions of the Dominican recipient. Among the topics covered were sports played and favorite activities and foods. The letters will include photos of the authors.
But before they leave American shores, the letters will be translated into Spanish courtesy of Kelsey Newman’s Spanish 4 students at Wauseon High School. And while her students are capable of providing accurate translations, Newman said letters describing a first grader’s interests prove a bit challenging.
“There are certain phrases that they had to look up. But overall, it was at a level of English they were able to meet with their Spanish,” she said of her students.
Because young children commonly misspell words and haven’t mastered neat penmanship, the advanced Spanish students may also struggle translating the returning Dominican letters into English. But Newman applauds Eberle’s efforts.
“I think it’s a great way for kids to connect with another culture and give them a more global perspective of the world,” she said.
When Eberle paired student Lane Schindler with a Dominican pen pal named Luis Mario Diaz Ortega, the young letter writer was amazed by the length of his new buddy’s name. He immediately set about asking Luis his age and favorite color.
Student Tyler Tester was surprised the video revealed Dominican classrooms without smartboards. His classmate Brynlee Knapp noticed the students there do without many standard items.
“They don’t have book bags. They didn’t have school supplies. I would want to give them supplies,” she said.
On a vacation trip to the Dominican Republic several years ago, Eberle toured a school whose library consisted entirely of one and a half shelves of books.
She said students at both ends of the project are given their pen pal’s original letter and the translation so they can compare the language differences. She believes that’s beneficial to her students, since the primary languages in northwest Ohio are English and Spanish.
“I think it’s neat to have a connection with students that speak Spanish, when we have a Spanish community here as well. These kids, having that connection, they also see that here in Wauseon,” she said.
Primary School Principal Blake Young said the project is a good way for students to communicate what they’re learning. He also likes the way it introduces them to diversity.
“I think it’s great they’re learning about outside cultures,” Young said.
Eberle’s said being pen pals has increased some of her students’ writing skills. They will also participate in a Christmas gift fundraiser for the Dominican Republic, then send a second pen pal letter in March.
“I would love to have other teachers join in,” Eberle said. “Teachers want to do it, but there are so many (other) things that we have to do, that teachers are overwhelmed.
“I think it’s definitely worth it. I think this is one of those things (the students are) going to remember. And who knows? After this year, will they stay in contact with those kids? It could happen.”
David J. Coehrs can be reached at 419-335-2010.