For the last school year, 3rdgraders at the Lyme School and the Sharon Elementary School have been writing to one another in a pen pal program organized by their teachers.
But this isn’t any old pen pal program. These students were journaling to one another about their place-based education experiences; from Forest Friday, to invasive plant management, to scratch cooking, and gardening.
And last month, 3rdgrade teachers Keenan Haley from Sharon Elementary and Trisha Gautreau from The Lyme School brought their students together to finally meet one another in person.
“It went beyond my expectations,” said Keenan. “I saw students comfortably having conversations together, playing and enjoying each other’s company. For my students, it was great to see the place that was described in their journals to them. Personally, I learned some neat activities from Trish and saw how she structured her days. It was a magical moment among Pals.”
“It was really special for us all to be together,” said Trish. “Keenan and I were shocked to see how many pen pal partnerships were just meant to be. Most partners were comfortable with one another immediately. We followed most of our usual Forest Routines. That day; we started with our forest walk, then students went to their sit spots and wrote together. We had four groups which allowed kids time for team building, knotweed cutting, lunch, and most prized free- play! By the end of the day kids were already talking about getting together again. We even discussed carrying the project forward into 4th grade and having continue writing next year.”
Trish explained that this Forest Pen Pal idea came to her in the winter of 2018 as she was struggling to get her students to write about their outdoor education experiences. They were just reporting in a weekly log, but essentially, she was the only audience.
“After a few conversations with Emily Shipman, tapping into her knowledge of who was running forest programs in the areas, we identified Keenan and his third graders as the perfect partners.”
Trish recounts, “Once our students had one another as an “audience”, their writing started to come alive. They knew someone was reading and would respond to what they were saying.”
Keenan explained that, “This year Sharon Elementary decided that preK-6th classes would have at least one day a week designated to place-based or Farm to School education. My class chose to have an every-other-week routine where one week we would go to the forest for a half day and the other week we would either cook, or do another activity centered around food, farming, and gardening. Sometimes the two were combined by cooking while in the forest!”
“After each experience, we would spend some time reflecting and then write to our pen pals,” Keenan said. “It was pretty easy to get the students excited to write as they were eager to share their stories with their pal. I will definitely do this program again and encourage other classrooms to do the same.”
And Trish is certain that she will continue this program next year as well. “This project fit into our learning outcomes so easily. It provided us with an authentic writing purpose and audience, plus it allowed my students to write in a variety of ways. The writing entries ranged from descriptive passages about the forest classroom with hand drawn maps, to poetry about invasive Japanese Knotweed. Students shared research reports about New Hampshire forest animals, and even taught one another about animal tracking, cooking at the fire, and how to play different forest games. This project tied together so many cross-curricular components.”