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Reaching out to peers, diocesan students get it write

Bosco Nativity penpals

Nativity of Our Savior seventh-graders Angie Radoe (left) and Ava Sykes read letters received from their St. John Bosco of Hammond peer penpals, at the Portage school on Nov. 11. The exchange helps the youths communicate through writing. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)


by Anthony D. Alonzo

Northwest Indiana Catholic


HAMMOND and PORTAGE – Local Catholic school students could send hundreds of texts in the time it takes to compose a letter, place it in the mail and wait for a response from their intra-diocesan penpals. Nonetheless, the youths appear won over by the uniqueness of hand-written correspondence.

       Students at St. John Bosco in Hammond and Nativity of Our Savior in Portage recently completed the first round of a letter writing exchange as part of a diocesan penpal program that has created a buzz among participating Catholic schools in recent years.

       Showing the colorful drawings on one side of large postcard-style letters they received, St. John Bosco second-graders Kaelyn Lee and Madeline Monroe said they could not wait to receive their second responses sometime before Christmas break.

       At this stage, the letters from this year’s grade-level penpal program contain mostly basic or “introductory” information.

       “I learned that she likes math and reading, and also recess, like I do,” said Monroe about her penpal, who is coincidentally named Madalynn.

       Monroe noted the spelling difference in the names and said she notices the smallest details as she double checks her writing before sending it.

       At both St. John Bosco and Nativity of Our Savior, students are required to take penmanship classes. In an era when many public schools have erased writing lessons, the diocesan schools still teach cursive writing.

       Despite youths’ ever-shortening attention spans, St. John Bosco second-grade teacher Molly Donner said the penpal project seems to be the spark the students needed to apply a focus on their writing.

       “It’s taking learning to a new level: the writing for class is one level, but when they know someone else is going to get it, they all of the sudden come up with something better,” Donner explained.

       Lee held up the letter she recently received. It read: “Dear penpal, my name is Lyla. I have a sister in 5th grade. I like to dance…”

       As Lee continued to read, she learned her friend from Nativity of Our Savior “is also quiet, like me.”

       Last year’s correspondence campaign ended with a grand meeting of the students at the Hammond school.

       “It was awesome and we had so much fun. We got to eat lunch with them, we got to go to church with them, we had recess with them for the best time ever,” Lee said.

       At Nativity of Our Savior, students in Jennifer Weeks’ seventh-grade language-arts class read the letters that recently arrived from St. John Bosco as a reply to their initial correspondence. Many were completed in cursive, and the students compared each other’s signatures.

       Weeks guided her students through English lessons, brainstorming, and later helped to ensure the letters contained appropriate content. She said the students have mastered the basics of written communications, and now their attention turns to making lasting friendships. 

        Wearing a Baltimore Orioles jersey on a Nativity of Our Savior dress-down day, student Scott Drescher said he has developed his writing, and communicates with St. John Bosco penpals Gerardo and Jose about things the boys share in common.

       Though he found most area baseball fans like either the Cubs or White Sox, he said he was able to get beyond differences of opinions and a span of hobbies to be able to share personal stories, as well as future educational plans.

       “You can focus on what you have in common, and not really talk about differences. You can get to know them better," Drescher said.

       Weeks said her students have done a good job sharing their faith, hobbies and goals in a very relatable way: “Students can visualize the other child reading their letter, as well as what might interest him or her.”

       Weeks, who described her school as being a family-like setting, said her students are reaching out to others at another Catholic school in a different neighborhood and thereby broadening their horizons with potential high school classmates.

       “The (St. John) Bosco students will be visiting us at Nativity (of Our Savior) in the spring, so my students are motivated to write letters that set the stage for establishing friendships with their pen pals,” Weeks explained.

       Mariana Bautista attended public schools until this year, when she transferred to St. John Bosco for eighth grade. She thought the penpal program would “be something interesting, something I haven’t done before.”

       Bautista said she is on the road to learning much about Abbey, her Nativity of Our Savior penpal. Growing up immersed in technology that facilitates instant communications – from smartphones to desktop apps – the letter-writing student found an interesting perk to “snail mail.”

        “You kind of feel more secure, because (the penpal) won’t judge you that quick and you can actually open up to them,” said Bautista. “You can feel comfort from the person.”


penpals 2

Nativity of Our Savior seventh-grader Nico Aldaba reads a letter received from his St. John Bosco of Hammond peer penpal, at the Portage school on Nov. 11. The diocesan schools continue a correspondence exchange started to help the youths communicate through writing.

(Anthony D. Alonzo photo)


penpals 4

Nativity of Our Savior pre-kindergarten teacher aide Jennifer Scheldberg shows students letters and decorations received from their St. John Bosco of Hammond peer penpals, at the Portage school on Nov. 11. The diocesan schools continue a correspondence exchange started to help the youths communicate through drawing and writing. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)

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