Skip to main content

Sugar House Journal

Highland Park fifth-grade class makes friends through the written word

Jul 27, 2017 12h34 ● By Natalie Mollinet

Amber Pulley’s class combined with their pen pals’ classes at their meet and greet. (Collette Mitchell/Parent) 

With technology taking over the art of writing, letters have become a novelty. It’s almost as fun to get a handwritten letter as it is to get a thoughtful gift from someone. In Amber Pulley’s fifth-grade class this past year, her students, along with another fifth-grade class at Escalante Elementary, brought the art back to life and became pen pals, mailing letters through almost the entire year of school. 

Before coming to Highland Park, Pulley started at Escalante which is a Title 1 school. When she transferred, she noticed a great divide in the eastside schools and westside school and wanted to bridge that gap. So, she and a former colleague decided to create pen pals between two fifth-grade classes, so that the students could better understand each other. 

“If you focus on what you have in common it allows you to be more tolerant and compassionate,” Pulley said. “I’m hoping to teach tolerance, compassion and teach writing in an authentic way.”

The students encouraged each other to correct their spelling and grammar in their letters and some even had to learn cursive because their pen pal only knew how to write that way. Pulley said that the letter exchange was beneficial for all students. 

Many Escalante students are refugees who are trying to learn how to live in the United States, and some only knew how to write their name. Highland Park students saw first hand how challenging learning a new language can be and their interest grew on what their pen pals were doing. Pulley said that the Highland Park students’ compassion grew to their pen pals and their interest in the world around them peaked. 

“We got pen pals near the beginning of the school year,” Zeke Mitchell, one of Pulley’s fifth-graders, said. “I got a pen pal named Senyat. We wrote to each other about things we did during the year. A lot of time we would go on the same field trips, so we wrote about what we thought of those or things we liked to do.” 

“It was powerful as a teacher to watch my students grow their interpersonal skills in a way which you can’t teach from a textbook,” Pulley said. “I just gave them a resource and this avenue allowed them to experience it in an authentic way.” 

After writing back and forth for a year, the classes decided to meet for the first time. A field trip was set up at a park between the two schools on the second to last day of school. Pulley said a lot of the kids were nervous. 

“I wondered what they would look like and what we would do at the park,” Zeke said about meeting his pen pals. “It was good meeting them. We gave our pen pals notebooks with pens. Inside we’d written a letter back to them on the first page.”

When they arrived, there were twice as many students from Escalante than Highland Park since Escalante had two classes that were involved in the project.

“There were some kids there who could barely speak English and hadn’t been in the US all that long,” Collette Mitchell, Zeke’s mother and parent helper, said. “There was a language barrier, cultural differences and gender differences, too. I was really impressed to see how the kids handled it.” 

Mitchell said the kids mixed well together even though some were shy at first, but eventually they were playing on the playground together, playing tennis and shooting hoops. When the time came to leave their new friends and pen pals, hugs were exchanged and friendships were formed through a simple school project.