July 12, 2016

Friends Without Borders

When I started a pen pals project between my elementary school in The Gambia and various classes in the States, I honestly had no idea what I was getting myself into. I thought a letter exchange could be a simple first project for me to start. What I forgot, however, is that nothing is simple in West Africa.

Letter writing was already on the timetable for grades four to six at my school, so I decided to start there. All of the teachers wanted to participate, so I recruited my mom to help me find eight teachers in the U.S. to partner with us.

I decided my school would write and send their letters first since it was proving difficult to gather all the rosters to send to the American counterparts. Although school had started, it was weeks before the teachers had a register of all the students in their class.

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Young boy holds up letter and drawing of a house Letters from America

I decided my school would write and send their letters first since it was proving difficult to gather all the rosters to send to the American counterparts. Although school had started, it was weeks before the teachers had a register of all the students in their class.

As I started working with the teachers and students at my school to write letters to their pen pals, I realized that some of the fourth graders and even a few of the sixth graders did not know their alphabet. Writing complete sentences seemed impossible. For the teachers, teaching writing meant putting an example on the board and having the students copy it. Their sample letters, however, often contained errors and many of the teachers themselves did not understand what a proper paragraph was.

Despite the technical difficulties, I quickly saw the motivation that the pen pals project inspired in the students and teachers at my school. Students came to my home asking for help with their letters, saying they wanted it to be perfect for their new American friend. The teachers, too, turned to me for help in how to better teach their students reading and writing skills. In the second round of letters, I could already see an improvement.

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Bulletin board on a wall displaying several pictures and letters side by side A bulletin board from an American GATE class

The best part of the project is seeing the excitement the students have in learning about another culture. Many Gambians have little knowledge about the rest of the world and think Europe and America are all the same place: “Toubabadoo.” As I was helping students brainstorm facts about their own home, they said The Gambia is a “big country.” So, it’s been a great way for them to learn not only of my country, but of their own.

As soon as I collected the letters, students began asking me about whether their American friends had received them and when they would get their reply.

The American teachers tell me that their students are equally excited. One class sent their Gambian friends Christmas candy canes. Another made a bulletin board in their classroom to display the letters year-round.

The letters are far from perfect, but I’ve realized that’s not the point. It’s about the excitement to learn about reading, about writing, about the world. It’s about friendship — across cultures, without borders.