ArticlesJuly 2017

Penpals with Purpose

Leigh SappBy Leigh Sapp, Spanish teacher at Prospect High School, IL. 



In the Fall of 2015, Christie Sylvester, Head Librarian at Prospect High School (IL), approached me about my level of interest in inviting our upper level Spanish language students to read the book, Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea. She explained the Big Read program to me and I immediately saw the connection! This grant program, sponsored by National Endowment for the Arts, encourages developing community wide programs to promote reading and participation by diverse audiences (learn more about it here). I was hooked! Not only would my students be able to read a book related to the culture they study but they would have the opportunity to meet the author and hear personal anecdotes.

Our Spanish 4 curriculum at Prospect High School leads students to explore, among other cultural themes, immigration. I felt the need to help my students see the human side of immigration; to connect the faces, families and stories to the concept. Most of my students are surprised that fellow classmates are themselves immigrants or children of recent immigrants. Fortunately Urrea did not disappoint! Into the Beautiful North had just the right balance of authenticity and sass that I knew could engage my students. Sylvester, provided me with copies to distribute to interested students and all I had to do was convince my already academically over-taxed students to add another obligation to their list of to-dos. Of course I had no problem finding 10 students willing to read the novel especially with the promise of meeting the author!

So after another career first, white bus training, I gathered my eager students to make the trek to Forest View…little did I know…my journey had only just begun…

Classroom of students.
Figure 1 – My students meeting author Luis Alberto Urrea.

As I sat in the Boardroom that crisp fall morning listening to the quirky and endearing Urrea, my gaze drifted over the moderate crowd of teens and a great sense of pride and peace washed over me. It was then that I found myself focussed on the front of the room as Urrea asked for questions from the students. A brave, young man from the Newcomer Center, which prepares high school students who have recently arrived to the United States to enter a District #214 homeschool, nervously read a prepared question from a slip of paper and beamed with pride as the respected author entertained his inquiry as well as expressed interest in his country of origin.

This is what I like to refer to as the lightbulb moment for lack of a better expression. This student was overtly practicing the same skills in English as my students were practicing in Spanish! The entire bus ride home I was tickled with delight as I finally realized just what the purpose was of the Newcomer Center! How had I missed this wealth of possibility right under my nose! I had entertained telecollaboration for my students and focused so much on other states and countries but yet had nothing to show for it except wasted time and energy. I didn’t see the forest for the trees. I couldn’t believe that the students I was looking for were right here in District #214! I immediately investigated just who the teacher was behind these students that mirrored mine! After a little digging I discovered that Mario Perez was the man responsible for these gems!

I dashed off a quick email to test the waters, nervous and excited I waited for a reply…

Email to Mario Perez from Leigh Sapp.

To my delight I got a response the next day from an enthusiastic Perez and thus began our fantastic voyage!

As a World Languages staff, we work laboriously to align our curriculum, at all levels of instruction, to AP standards. The AP Spanish Language Exam has an interpersonal email component which is practiced at the lower levels as a structured email. For the upper levels, I was yearning and searching for a way to create an authentic communication exchange with native speakers to provide our students with comprehensible input that would also be meaningful. Furthermore we encourage our students to draw comparisons between their culture(s) and others on a variety of themes. One of these themes is immigration. We strive to educate them in regards to the humanity and reality- the faces and stories- of immigration regardless of legal status.

Group of student language learners.
Figure 2 – Bet it’s hard to tell which students are Knights and which ones are Newcomers?

In addition to connecting the newly arrived Newcomers to native-English speaking peers, Prospect students are able to make the big campuses appear more welcoming and less overwhelming. The dynamic of our pen pal exchange allows for the Newcomer students to feel empowered in that they can help tutor and be role models for their AP Spanish pen pals. All the students benefit from taking part in writing for a real purpose.

For students that are usually on the receiving end of tutoring, they felt very proud of their ability to help their new friends.

During the 2015-16 school year, handwritten letters only were exchanged between 15 AP Spanish students and Newcomer students from Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia & Costa Rica. We celebrated inaugural success with a pizza party and QR Code scavenger hunt/school tour at Prospect High School in May. The Daily Herald joined us for the event and published this wonderful article . Students left the exchange with a new found connectedness and realized that, in the words of Prospect High School 2016 graduate Veronica Boratyn, “ we are all impossibly and improbably more connected than we realize.” Her classmate, Krzysztof Chwala felt the program gave him “a sense of purpose for studying the Spanish language.

This academic year, 2016-17, Mario again graciously agreed to work with me again despite my schedule change, meaning that we would have to try the program with fourth year Spanish students instead of seniors at the AP level. I initially wondered about their maturity for the project but, of course, they rose to the occasion communicating with 27 Newcomer Students from El Salvador, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Guatemala and even Puerto Rico (so we were able to review “unincorporated territory”)!

In addition to hand-written letters, we incorporated Schoology to host discussions with introductory video posts and links to resources students shared with each other such as favorite music videos. We were hoping this would add an additional level of engagement and interaction among the students as well as a structure for the management of the exchange. I surveyed the Prospect students at the conclusion of this optional, outside of class experience to judge the amount of additional work I had given and make sure that moving forward that I was not asking too much of them in their already overextended schedules junior year. I was amazed at their responses and suggestion on how to improve the program moving forward. They wanted to write even MORE letters and correspond MORE via Schoology! They even suggested an idea Perez and I had entertained but not implemented, that the Spanish students could write in Spanish and Newcomer students could write in English. Jackpot! When do kids ask for more work outside of class in the target language? Never say never…


Quotes from Survey of 2016-17 Spanish 4 students:

Perhaps the newcomers could write their letters in English so they can benefit from the experience too instead of us being the only ones who get to learn and practice the other language.” -Fiona, PHS Junior

I think it would be cool if we visited the Newcomer center.” Aleksandra, PHS Junior

I would have loved to have spent more time with my pen pal and it would have been fun to play games as a group.” -Danielle, PHS Junior

Quotes from Graduates:

The Pen Pal program gave me a sense of purpose for studying the Spanish language. Oftentimes it would be easy to work through class exercises and not think much about them, but this program brought real-world value to the learning experience. I got to practice my Spanish, learn more vernacular language, try to learn — and for a great while fail — to dance bachata with our partners at their school dance and hear and compare immigrant stories in a native tongue. The program brought me closer to a Hispanic culture that at first I didn’t fully understand but came to greatly appreciate after comparing childhood favorite candies (looks like we both liked our lollipops), cultural holidays like Day of the Dead, familial values and family immigration stories. Being a first generation Polish student, I not only appreciated hearing another different story about coming to the U.S. and the adversities my partner faced, but I also was inspired to learn even more about my parents’ and siblings’ journey and experiences before and after immigrating for comparison, something I have continued to investigate ever since.” -Krzysztof, PHS Graduate Class of 2016 and currently attends Yale University

The pen pal program I participated in with Mrs. Sapp’s class was by far one of the most meaningful things I did in high school. Like most high school students, I often felt as though what I was learning in class had no tangible application. However, the pen pal program reminded me that I am not learning Spanish to learn Spanish, I am learning Spanish to better connect with other people. The pen pal program facilitated that connection, in ways I didn’t expect. As I was at the end of the year dance with Pedro, I realized that one of his role models is on a robotics team exactly like my own. In a surreal small-world moment, I then brought him to my robotics team meeting and realized that we are all impossibly and improbably more connected than we realize.” -Veronica, PHS Graduate Class of 2016, currently attends Yale University

When District 214 received the Big Read grant in 2015, I never expected the amazing connection that was made between Prospect HS and the Newcomer Center, which continues to this day. Señora Sapp and I partnered to bring Spanish 4 and AP Spanish students FVEC to listen to Luis Urrea discuss Into the Beautiful North. Little did we expect that Señora Sapp would connect with several Newcomer teachers to form a lifelong learning experience for students at both 214 locations. Partnering students together and communicating throughout the year allows students to share the joys of their culture and the strife of teen life, no matter where they were born. I have no doubtthat the Prospect/Newcomer Pen Pal Exchange program will continue for many successful years in the future.” –Christie Sylvester, Prospect High School Head Librarian.


Note: This article was originally published in

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