Creating Cultural Connections: Language Department Introduces Spanish Pen Pal Program
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The language department has begun a pen pal program between Advanced Placement (AP) Spanish students and high school students in Sabadell, Spain, a city near Barcelona.
The program was initiated last school year by then freshman Claire De La Roche. “I always thought that Stuyvesant is unique and encompasses all of these different areas, whether that be math or science, but I felt that there was one thing really lacking, and it was with the language department and perhaps not having an international conversation going on between students all over the globe. If you are actually learning a language like Spanish, you can feel removed from it if you don’t have someone who is experiencing it every single day. The purpose of this program was to give students that first-hand exposure to create cultural connections,” De La Roche said.
At the time, De La Roche was a member of the Communications department for her Freshman Caucus. She brought her idea to the president of her Freshman Caucus: current Sophomore Caucus President Katerina Corr. “I thought it was a wonderful idea, so we worked with then Assistant Principal of World Language Dr. [Ernest] Oliveri, and we spoke to both Principal [Eric] Contreras and Assistant Principal of Security, Health, and Physical Education [Brian] Moran about actually organizing it,” Corr said.
De La Roche and Corr also reached out to Spanish teacher Anna Montserrat, whose brother is an assistant principal at a high school in Sabadell. “We contacted Señora Montserrat first, and [...] Señora Montserrat’s brother is in Barcelona, Spain, and we thought that it was the perfect opportunity to establish a connection. I was able to e-mail him, and he put me in contact with the woman [who] is in charge of the language department at that school. From there, we were able to send out the letters from the students here at Stuyvesant,” De La Roche said.
Initially, De La Roche envisioned an electronic pen pal program. “In the beginning, we thought about sending it via e-mail to make it simpler. We also thought about scanning, which proved pretty difficult. [...] We decided instead that it would be better to actually send letters in a package overseas,” she said.
Handwritten letters also have an allure for those involved in the program. “I think it is really nice to have it be an authentic pen pal. I just feel that handwritten letters are a dying art, and it is really beautiful to see someone’s penmanship. A lot of the students [who] first sent the letters added photos and drew pictures, and it was really charming to see,” Assistant Principal of World Language Francesca McAuliffe said.
The pen pal program has been successful so far. “There have already been three interactions. Ms. Montserrat’s class sent letters, those students received responses, and the responses to those responses have just been sent out,” McAuliffe said.
The letters are written in both Spanish and English so that both student groups can improve their language skills. “My students wrote their letters in Spanish, and then when the students in Spain received the letters, they said that they wanted the letters half in Spanish and half in English. This way, they can practice their English skills and here, they can practice their Spanish skills,” Montserrat said.
The letters concern everyday topics like music, movies, what life is like in New York, politics, and current events. “I saw the letters from Spain. The English is really very good actually. They want to know a lot of things like, ‘How is New York?’ and ‘What type of music do you listen to?’ and ‘What movies do you like?’ They’ve also asked about current events, and ‘What do you think about the government, about Trump?’” Montserrat said.
Writing letters not only allows AP Spanish students to interact with native-speaking Spanish high school students and further develop an interest in their foreign language, but it also helps them prepare for the AP exam. “One of the tasks of the AP Spanish exam is responding to an e-mail. This is the perfect practice, even though letters are more formal,” Montserrat said.
The language department hopes to expand the program to other AP language classes for the next school year. “We are still working on figuring how well the program is going this year, and once we have the concrete idea of how it’s gone and how well the students have liked it and how the teachers leading it have enjoyed working on it, we can decide whether or not we actually want to expand it. As of right now, we hope to expand to AP French and AP Mandarin,” Corr said.
They also hope to create a similar program for all levels of Spanish. “With the level one classes, I am piloting Boomalang this spring semester with my students. They will actually be setting up one Skype-like conversation with a native speaker that is 15 minutes long, totally in the target language, and it is okay if they make errors. [...] Hopefully, we will have some type of cultural connection in every level that is appropriate for the level,” McAuliffe said.
While the program is still being evaluated and feedback is being collected from students and teachers, the results so far have been encouraging. “Everyone is very excited. They can’t wait for the letters. Every single day, they ask, ‘When are the letters going to come?’ I have to say, ‘They are coming! They are coming!’” Montserrat said.