International friendships create authentic learning opportunities

Published 7:01 am Saturday, April 11, 2020

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By Angela Thoen and Marianne Davidson

IJ Holton Multilingual Learner Teachers

In a world with the instant gratification of technology, the concept of handwriting letters to a pen pal in another country may seem foreign, but not to students in our English Language Arts classes.

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In December, Austin community members with connections to Prehsoeleh Luemoeklwee Boardinghouse in Myanmar (Burma) asked us if we would like to write to students at this school. We gladly accepted their invitation knowing it would give our Holton students on-going opportunities to authentically practice their English language skills, but more importantly create friendships. When students were presented with the opportunity to write these letters, the reactions were heart-warming. Students who are usually hesitant to engage in speaking or writing activities took right to the challenge. Our classrooms were filled with the sounds of on task peer collaboration in multiple languages. Smiles illuminated the room as pencils took to paper at top speed.  Off went the first batch of letters to Myanmar. Waiting for our return snail mail would prove to be a hot topic of conversation each day as we awaited a response.

Holton students have now made a few letter exchanges since then, and Mrs. Thoen’s class made a video to show students at the Boardinghouse what school is like in Austin. Throughout the exchanges, Holton students have noted differences between the two schools, but more importantly have discovered and embraced similarities. Many enjoy the same sports and eat the same foods. Some students also speak the same languages as the students in Myanmar. For other students it has sparked an interest in social studies and learning more about Myanmar because of these personal connections. It brings culture and geography to life by asking questions and receiving firsthand experience from the students who live there.

While this collaborative pen-pal project has been exceptionally positive, it also came with a few moments of worry and tears. There are students in our classrooms who still have family and friends in Burma. Others, while not all from Burma, have had experiences of being separated from their own friends and family. The trauma of missing these very important people from their lives invoked some important but difficult conversations. It taught us a plethora of important lessons. For some students it was very exciting to receive letters back. For other students, it simply reminded them of who they are missing each and every day. This experience allowed for real and raw emotions, and in the end have made our relationships to students, and among students even stronger.

Community members with ties to the Boardinghouse will deliver the students’ letters as they travel to and from Myanmar, continuing their work on building more facilities there. We eagerly await a video from Boardinghouse students once they are finished taking their final exams. Currently, Holton students are making handmade bookmarks and friendship bracelets to send along with their next letter exchange.