Former Jackson County School System administrator and teacher Ja’Juan Clark spent two years also serving as an adjunct professor at Chipola College and, this academic year, transitioned to become a full-time professor at the college. His experiences with students in the county school system inspired him to try a new idea with his students at Chipola, creating a program that would link the two.

This semester at Chipola, 15 of his students have been corresponding with 15 students at Graceville

Elementary School. The experiment culminated in a pizza party this week to celebrate those forged relationships, but Clark’s department head at Chipola, Dr. Gina McAllister, says the party was the least of its positive outcomes.

The students seeking bachelors’ degrees in elementary education now have real examples of student handwriting and other writing skill levels to analyze, rather than examples created by textbook authors. The youngsters from Graceville Elementary that wrote those letters have natural writing models to follow, as well, improving as they read and learn technique through the letters they get back from their young adult pen pals.

And a new generation of Chipola students will be able to use these kids’ letter in analysis exercise, as well. Clark also plans to have a pen pal program next semester and for some time to come, so a large archive will likely build over time to benefit many students.

Another big take-away is the relationship-building that has taken place through the letters, an additional opportunity for teachers-in-training to connect with students ahead of and apart from the internships that put them directly in classrooms with kids.

For the elementary school students there was yet one more benefit: At the pizza party, each received a small gift from their pen pal, with those items selected by the Chipola students based on what each learned in letters about the things their young pen pal enjoys.

“It has been the highlight of the semester,” McAllister said. “It was fun and it was very valuable for our students and for the students at Graceville. Teachers saw a huge improvement in their writing. They’re getting better at formulating ideas, using bigger words and better sentence structure, and improving in other writing tasks. It really gave our students a nice collection of examples where they could see and study how to approach things like backwards-letters, spelling by sound, all the challenges they’ll see in the classroom.”

Clark said he was gratified by the success of the experiment. “I was trying to figure out ways to partner our students with the student in our schools in the surrounding area,” he said. “I was researching and came across this material on pen pal letters. It hit me that, as we were teaching handwriting decoding, instead of trying to find examples, why not partner up with our schools and have real examples of our own and also help our local students in the process of our studies? The elementary students got a chance to practice writing in a real-world situation, and our students got a chance to truly decode the work and it put them in a chance to teach by example. This was not an instructional exercise, just letters being written between new friends. We’re proud of how it turned out for everybody and we’ll be doing this again. At the party, there was joy evident in the eyes of the students—ours and theirs—when these pen pals met for the first time in person. That was, in and of itself, a thing that showed the emotional power possible in written communications.”

The pen pal program was part of Clark’s “Methods in Teaching Language Arts in the Elementary School” course.

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