Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Pen Pals--From Texas to France and Back Again

One of the unexpected gifts I receive from this blog is friendship. 

We're pen pals in a modern world, each telling our stories, dreams, failures and fears. Reading, commenting and supporting one another across distances. I've made many of these friends, some close enough to actually meet in person and others who remain virtual but are no less important. 

One of these is Ashley, who not only writes a beautiful blog with a soft spot for all things French, Ts Ashley, but is also a mother, wife and 2nd grade teacher.

She has made a difference in the school life of my Middlest in a very unexpected way. 

At the beginning of the year she asked if the Middlest's class would like to correspond with her Texas class. They're all the same age; 2nd graders, likers of pizza and curious about other children even if they seem far away or different at first glance.

I got the enthusiastic agreement of the Middlest's teacher, you'll remember how kind she was to us at Thanksgiving, as long as I promised to translate the English letters for her. And I do this happily and in both directions.

It has been a fun French lesson for me. And an incredible life lesson for my American son living far away from his culture.

Ashley wrote this beautiful post about the letters and what they mean to the children and to us. I asked her if I could share it with you and she kindly agreed.
I hope you enjoy it.

Pen Pals: Writing Letters That Capture Innocent Whispers, Ashley of Très Ashley

Did you ever have a pen pal when you were younger? I had several and I’m sad to say that I’ve lost touch with most of them. I remember skipping back to the house after checking the mailbox when I was younger and I couldn’t wait to open my letter from my pen pal Susanna from Finland, Eritnatish from Iceland! Robin from Georgia, Melissa from Paris (Texas)! Holding the letter as if it were an acceptance to my favorite college; I would take in the stationary, the stamp, and especially the handwriting.
Do you ever notice how our true thoughts come out when writing a letter to a friend? It's easy to get a feel of someone’s personality by seeing their handwriting that you can’t see from the computer. I adore technology! There is instant gratification and it’s always getting better but technology is cold. Letters are warm.  Emails, tweets and texts are like short stories but a letter is more like a novel…it’s a bigger piece of the puzzle and a small clue to discovery of a mosaic of a person.
Since I was a child, I’ve loved going to the post office. I love the smell of it…musty, old, mildew, and magical! I have always loved the giddy feeling I get of dropping a letter down the blue shoot to go on an adventure. Then after impatiently waiting for the day I receive a letter back, opening up my mailbox to see if I recognize my friend’s handwriting.
I have shoeboxes full of old letters from my pen pals. I was an excellent pen pal up until college. I tried to keep up but that’s about the time “real” life starts happening and I’m sad to say, writing letters became less of a priority. Of course I still send Christmas cards and thank you notes, but those don’t tell about the random parts of your day that really let you inside to someone’s heart and help widen the world.
Last year when I read As Always, Julia I was inspired to write more letters again. I find that my thoughts flow more freely when I’m not trying to puzzle my words together on the computer…they just flow naturally like a list. There are windows throughout my day that I can find to jot down a note to a friend…whatever is happening in that moment, it’s a piece of the day that I want to share. Unlike a text or an email, a letter shows the spice of life.
Whenever I have sent a letter, I crossed my fingers that the recipient will write me back. At thirty-five, I still skip back from the mailbox, I even squeal with delight when I hold a little treasure we call a letter.
Last week I did my skip and squeal as I held a handful of precious treasures! Twenty-six beautiful letters (written in French) from seven and eight year olds and personally addressed to each of my second grade students. Oui, we have pen pals!!
Another reason I love technology is that you can meet and learn about interesting people all around the world. Aidan is a fellow Texan, she is my friend, but we have never met. I feel as though I know her from her writing on her blog conjugatingirregularverbs and I hope that one day our families really will meet. Aidan’s oldest son is a second grader in France and it is with her son’s classroom that we have found our pen pals.
My class was really happy and fascinated to learn more about a child their age that speaks a different language and lives a whole big blue ocean away. In my thirteen years teaching, this was one of my most happy teaching moments EVER!
I was hearing my class gasp with excitement and question everything. “Oh, Mrs. Cooley, my pen pal writes in cursive so well! Can you teach us how to write like this? Mrs. Cooley, my pen pal wants me to teach him American football but I’m not going to France anytime soon! What do I say? Mrs. Cooley, my pen pal does flamenco dancing…what is that?”  This is a perfect example of how children can teach each other. It was a lesson in handwriting, language, social studies, and reading all in one setting!
When I compare my class’ letters to the letters of their French pen pals, I see all kinds of possibilities…They will improve their writing skills and be motivated to improve their handwriting. They could continue to write to each other and one day possibly meet. But most importantly, it opens the door for culture. Pen pals can enjoy seeing postcards, stamps, practice learning a foreign language, and have a friend in a different part of the world.  
I saw firsthand the light turn on in my second graders eyes, they want to know more about life in France from a personal view of children their age. My thrill is in the pride I see in their eyes as they realize they are breathing life into an envelope and likewise as they anticipate inhaling the mysteries of replies.
The letters they wrote back to their French pen pals were sweet and charming. “Have you seen the Eiffel Tower? One day could you teach me how to play rugby? Do you have pizza in France? Do you have any pets? When I explained to one of my students what flamenco dancing was, she said, “Ooh…we have a lot in common, I cheer!”
Mark Twain said, “Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man- the biography of the man himself cannot be written.” I think it can be written through a letter; the clothes and buttons are but the paper and pencil. 


  1. Aww Aiden, you and your family are changing so many little Texans lives right now! I can just imagine all the future Francophiles coming out of that class and their pen pals experience.

  2. What a wonderful experience for all the kids...and you and Ashley!

  3. Wonderful initiative! I had two pen pals as teenager growing up in France: one in England, and one in the United States. I visited both and am still in touch with one of them, so many years later. Well done, Aidan. Ashley is a wonderful teacher, and a wise woman ;-) Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

  4. What a beautiful post, Aidan and Ashley! Very touched by this, especially today. We need to reach out and make our friends across the world. It brings us together in a way that is so important.

  5. What a wonderful project and your friend Ashley writes as beautifully as you do. I had several French pen friends growing up. I found one of the letters in a pile of stuff when we moved here last year and her cursive handwriting was indeed beautiful!

  6. A lovely idea, and so good for all involved! The world has shrunk - we all need to understand so much more about one another - and how wonderful for children to begin to consider that while they're still small.

  7. What a terrific and inspirational idea. How great to have your friendship extend to the lives of those around you. I remember my daughter doing Flat Stanley in Provence and sending it to the US but that was as close to an "across borders" friendship we got. I am sad to say that I had many pen pals growing up and have lost touch will all of them. I loved writing and receive letters to and from all my friends and hearing about their lives in other countries. The internet has changed all that. People really don't know how to write letters any more.

    Ashley (backyardprovence)


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