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home : education : schools October 17, 2018

10/3/2017 12:24:00 PM
Hand-written letters connect students
Fifth-grader Audrie Niemann of Sisters working on her new hand-written letter, along with other students at Black Butte School.  photo by Kathryn Godsiff
+ click to enlarge
Fifth-grader Audrie Niemann of Sisters working on her new hand-written letter, along with other students at Black Butte School. photo by Kathryn Godsiff

By Kathryn Godsiff

The delight of crafting and receiving hand-written letters is alive and well at the Black Butte School in Camp Sherman. Fourth- through eighth-graders in Delaney Sharp's class are involved in "Yo Ghana!," a letter-writing program linking Pacific Northwest students with their peers in Ghana.

Three times a year the students use class time to write letters from one to several pages long. The finished letters need to present nicely, which means several edits and re-writes are required. Art in the margin is encouraged, and each student's voice comes through in the way they choose to form their letter.

Recently, an excerpt from fifth-grader Audrie Niemann's letter to her last-year's pen pal was included in Yo Ghana!'s first-ever anthology, titled "Transformations." She read her letter to a gathering in Portland on September 23 to celebrate the publication of the book. Audrie was in fourth grade when she penned the letter that included the lines "...I'm so sorry you lost your dad. My heart would be shattered."

Empathy such as this is what Sharp is hoping to develop through participation in the program.

"A lot of these kids haven't been exposed to other cultures," he said. "It's important to get students to connect with the bigger world, to connect as humans and realize how much they have in common."

Makiha Vance had a pen pal named Ronnie for three years. When asked what he liked most about writing to Ronnie, Makiha said discovering how similar they were. They liked similar foods, did the same chores and found that their schools weren't all that different.

This year the students will all gain new pen pals. So each letter begins with "Dear Future Friend" or "Dear New Friend." The letters go on to share snippets of the students' lives and interests and ask questions about the things their new friends do.

Sharp met the co-founder of the program, David Peterson, before coming to Camp Sherman. He was inspired by the philosophy of Yo Ghana! and also found it an ideal project to adapt to the wide range of ages of Black Butte School students. There are currently 34 students enrolled in the two-classroom school.

Audrie said, "I really like to write letters," and found that reading her letter aloud at the launch of the book was much more intimidating than sharing her thoughts with a stranger. A stranger who will soon become a new friend.

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