On Tuesday, I held a meeting in the library of all 29 children who currently participate in the Pen Pal Programme I run with Scola Nduta, my committed, reliable, capable, not-to-mention gorgeous partner in Cura. The purpose of the meeting was to explain fully to the children how the pen pal letters are sent and received, since sometimes it seems like a mystery…
They draft their letters on ancient PCs, and Scola saves the files to send via email when she can sit down with her portable modem (which we keep supplied with internet “minutes” using the donations of the pen pals on the US/west side). The children receive their letters in print form, after Scola downloads them from the emails I send her – when pen pals send photos, she has to simply show the children the screen view, though, since the printer warps the images beyond recognition.
I assured the children that the eventual goal was that they could one day communicate directly with their pen pals and others, once Cura has internet access more reliable than Scola’s trusty Safaricom USB plug-in. They were thrilled with the prospect of one day having email accounts of their own, and they were inspired to become more proficient with word-processing so they’d be ready when that day comes.
This is the kind of authentic learning we hoped to create with this program: the children learn multiple skills (keyboarding, English language, conversation, inter-cultural awareness, geography…) that are organic to the activity that engages them. What an incredible success this has been so far!
As our meeting went on, I invited the children to ask questions of me… anything they wanted. Nearly all of them wanted to know the ages of their pen pals, down to the day. This prompted my reminder that that’s a question they might ask of their pen pals in their next letters (though I answered truthfully when I could!). Some wanted to know why their pen pals asked so many questions themselves! This led to a lengthy conversation about how it’s a cultural practice in the US and in the west to use questions as an invitation to further conversation. We role-played possible responses, comparing:
Q: What is your favorite animal?
A: A giraffe.
Q: What is your favorite animal?
A: My favorite animal is a giraffe because its hide is a beautiful color and I once saw one nibbling from a tree. I read in a book that they have very long tongues. What is YOUR favorite animal?
This was a fun exercise, and Scola confirmed, in Kikuyu, that everyone got the gist. A room full of happily responsive “ehhhhh” affirmatives made my day!
All of this is to say that the pen pal program is not only going well, it’s growing! Many of the 29 current participants expressed interest in having a 2nd pen pal, and the teachers at the primary school expressed interest in having more of their students participate.
If you are not yet participating in the program but would like to, please let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org) -- I’ll reply with details. The boys, especially, would love boys their own age to write to, so let me know if there are boys in your life who would like to sign on.
If you are already participating, please tell your friends… and please know that your letters are EAGERLY anticipated. Some children receive incredibly regular letters, which is thrilling… but which provides a comparison point for others whose pen pals are less prolific. The children think of you as FRIENDS – they know your names, they ask after you, they give me messages of love to pass along to you, and they want photos of you to have for themselves. You are a connection to a world beyond Cura that they can’t really even imagine right now – a way to make the rest of the world real. No pressure! ;)
At the end of the meeting, I met with each child to find out what they liked and didn’t like about how the pen pal process is going. My favorite moment was when Simon, a born performer and as optimistic a human being I’ve ever met, said: “McKenna is my pen pal and I don’t want anyone else. She writes VERY often, and she knows me. We will meet some day.”
Full disclosure: McKenna is my niece. But she IS an excellent pen pal, and she makes a kid’s day on a regular basis. You can, too!