Learning Through Letters

Less than 3 miles separate Walnut Hill Elementary School and The Lamplighter School, but it’s far enough to keep students from knowing each other if not for an old-fashioned exercise in communication.

Since last fall, dozens of second-grade students from both schools have been communicating with one another via handwritten letters that they exchange monthly to learn more about their daily lives and interests.

The pen pal exercise is one facet of ongoing literacy-building efforts happening at the campuses, courtesy of United 2 Learn, an action network of the Commit! 2 Dallas Partnership, which works to create educational and leadership opportunities for local students.

Walnut Hill, a century-old Dallas ISD public school, and Lamplighter, a private school, have both participated in the Commit! partnership for several years, through which Lamplighter has donated books and money to Walnut Hill, explained Vicki Raney, assistant head of academics at Lamplighter.

“We had been giving them things, but it was sort of a one-way relationship,” she said. Second-graders last year had also exchanged pen pal letters, but on an infrequent basis.

Letter writing is a good way to teach youngsters how to write “for purpose,” Raney said. “Second grade is really the time to learn the format [of a personal letter] — the date and ‘Dear So and So,’ and the closing.”

While it may be more convenient these days to send a quick email or text, she said having students craft missives in longhand “really increases their literacy skills” by encouraging them to “design what they want to say.”

Walnut Hill Elementary Principal R. Chase McLaurin called letter writing a lost art. “It’s something that’s unique for the kids to actually experience that.”

Last fall, school administrators at both campuses decided to ramp up the students’ interactions.

In October, Lamplighter invited Walnut Hill’s second-graders to its campus to attend an assembly featuring Matt de la Peña, author of the Newbery Medal-winning children’s book Last Stop on Market Street.

The students “sat and read the book, and they talked, and we had some literacy activities,” Raney recalled. It was the first opportunity they’d had to meet their pen pals, with whom they’d been randomly matched.

“You couldn’t tell the difference between the kids. Private school [or] public school — they all looked alike,” she said. “They all had fun. They were all reading.”

Since students have been able to put faces to their pen pals’ names, their letters have lengthened and developed in content in recent months.

“We want them to kind of think outside the box,” explained Lamplighter teacher Lakeshia Peters, “not just to ask, `What did you do this weekend?’ but to get to know this person — how many children are in their family, what does a family vacation look like for them. … We know that’s different for everybody.”

McLaurin said, “The writing that they’re sending back and forth to one another has remarkably improved because they … have a real relationship to talk about.”

In January, Lamplighter’s second-graders boarded DART buses and rode to Walnut Hill, where they participated in additional literacy activities and received a campus tour.

“Even though we’re just another school, to them this was exciting,” McLaurin said. “This is a place they had never been before.”

That same month, the second-grade teachers from both schools met at Lamplighter to kick off a partnership of their own that includes an ongoing exchange of curriculum ideas and learning strategies for the students.

After learning that cursive writing is taught at Lamplighter, longtime Walnut Hill teacher Diane James said she and her colleagues may soon add it to their own lesson plans.

“I think it’s good to share ideas and hear what other [educators] are doing,” she said.

Abigail Williams, executive director of United 2 Learn, said the partnership between Lamplighter and Walnut Hill is a shining example of why the organization was founded.

“We all have something to learn from each other, to gain from each other,” she said, “and we all need to be invested in public education in our city, in our community.”

Raney said she and McLaurin are “just thrilled” about what has transpired between their schools, students, and teachers, and plan to further expand their interaction with additional field trips and, of course, more letter writing.

“These kids know each other,” she said, “and we want to continue the relationship these kids have.”

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