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'You've Got Mail:' Correspondence at Its Finest

by Kathleen A. Hunter
 | Aug 26, 2014
'You've Got Mail:' Correspondence at Its Finest
photo credit: sleepyneko via photopin cc

A few years ago while on vacation in Scotland, I had a serendipitous meeting with a fellow educator. We were all waiting with our families at the train station, he was heading further north to Perthshire and we were heading back to London. We struck up a conversation about what else—teaching—and compared notes about the similarities and differences between our teaching cultures. As our respective trains arrived, we exchanged contact information with hopes of continuing a dialogue. Our future conversations evolved into something we never expected. Our students developed wonderful friendships via old fashioned pen and paper letters. Thus began the Pen Pal Project.

With the new school year comes the anticipation of all the new lessons that goes with it. We always like to start off with something new, exciting, and a little bit different but still meet all the requirements of the Common Core. The Pen Pal Project my Scotland friend and I collaborated on will help you cover many facets of literacy and you’ll have a piece of work or two for your students’ portfolios. As an extra bonus, if you start now, your students will have the continuity of writing to their pen pals over the entire year. The letters are a beautiful way to develop both friendships and literacy that can last a lifetime.

The Art of Letter Writing

If you have not already touched on the mechanics and format of writing a friendly letter, now is the perfect time. I used a poster-sized sheet of lined notebook paper and tacked it on the wall. With my students’ help, we wrote a letter to our principal asking about her recent holiday. That served as our model example for their future letter writing.

The key ingredients to a friendly letter are:

  • Heading: September 1, 2014. I like to stress writing out the month. It’s more formal, but a good habit to get into as your students progress through school and enter the business world.
  • Salutation: Dear (pen pal’s name):
  • Body: I suggest starting by asking about the person to whom you are writing. Then go into talking about yourself. Keep in mind how we generally greet people—we ask how they are doing. A written letter works the same way.
  • Closing: “Your new pen pal” is one suggestion. Ask your students to brainstorm other suggestions they might use.
  • Signature: Aahhhh! An especially perfect time to use cursive. However, if your students do not yet know how to form the cursive letters, legibly printed letters are perfectly fine.

As your students engage in the art of writing letters, it is a wonderful opportunity for them to learn and practice penmanship. Occasionally, I overhear conversations between adults commiserating about how their adult children do not know how to sign their names in cursive. Or, worse yet, they don’t know how to read cursive. Yes, so much communication today is done via technology, but there are still important situations where “going old school” with handwritten correspondence is necessary or desired.

Getting Started

My friend in Scotland and I exchanged student lists. Since I was the primary in the exchange, I assigned my students to his students. We didn’t have an equal number, so we doubled-up one or two students.

Finally, the day arrived when my students had the names of their new friends-to-be. Immediately, they started their first letters. There are not many occasions when students look forward to writing. It’s always a daunting task to fill a blank page with witty prose and retellings of exciting events, but not so with the Pen Pal Project! Using what they learned in our mini-lesson on writing friendly letters, my students were happy to actually put pencil to paper. They had a purpose with meaning.

As an adult I’ve mastered being able to write a letter in one draft. But I can remember a time when I would write and rewrite a letter to my grandma. Either I hadn’t organized my thoughts so they jumped all over the page, or my pencil erasers had caused too many unsightly smudges. Not that letters need to be perfect, but they should at least make the reader feel like some thought and care was put into the act of writing. As a child, this helps instill pride in one’s work.

Once all my students had written their letters and they were presentable, I gave each student a letter-sized envelope to address to their pen pal. Then I gathered all the letters into one large envelope to mail to their teacher.

The Art of Patience

The letters were in the mail and the waiting began. Each day, starting nearly from the day I mailed the letters, my students asked if they had mail. It took about a month before I could finally wave the big envelope from Scotland! The cost of the paper: nominal. The cost of the envelopes: $2.99. The cost of postage: $4.87. The cost of my students’ expressions when they opened their individual letters: PRICELESS! They were each engaged in reading like never before. And they wanted to write letters back to their new friends that day. Who was I to say “No” to writing?! And so the process began and continued throughout the school year and into the summer.

These days, we all have email addresses and we hear little pings to tell us “you’ve got mail.” That’s all fine and dandy, but there is something more authentic, grounded, almost comforting about receiving a letter in the mail box from the postman. To sit in a comfy chair, carefully unseal the envelope, and read a note from a friend—it’s the next best thing to having that friend in the room with you. And when that friend is thousands of miles away, well, that letter is priceless, too.

I asked my friend if he knows other schools in Scotland that would be interested in a Pen Pal Project of their own. Here are a couple of schools he passed along to me:

  • Oakbank – a large school in Perth, Scotland. Emails can be sent to the deputy Headteacher 
  • Also St. Pious in Dundee, Scotland. Emails can be sent to Michelle at

Happy Writing!

Kathleen A. Hunter, MS is a literacy tutor and aspiring children's book author. You can visit her online at


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