About Whitney Kaulbach

I teach High school and middle school students World History, AP World History, Reading Instruction, and Literacy Specialist.

I remember the excitement I felt when my Hungarian pen pal’s letter arrived. The Cold War had ended and I was curious to know more than textbooks could share about life under communist rule. I savored each letter as if it were a dessert and took great care in sending back a response.  My pen pal’s knowledge of politics and poetry was the impetus  for a sudden interest in my own state’s history, its traditions and the landscape.  Seven years of exchanges culminated in visits and my career choice of teaching world history.

The Common Core does not specify a need for letter writing but keeping pen pals is an authentic task that sparks an interest in writing with meaning.  Being 2,000 mile away from our home in Vermont, and my husband has made me consider the many ways in which people stay connected. Daily Facetime chats keep my daughter close to her Flatdaddy, and inspired us to combine this with a pen pal project. Teachers in the New Mexico and the Vermont classrooms agreed to the exchange and to pilot video chats.  Communicating in diverse media formats  is a goal of the Common Core but more importantly it increases students’ desires to view school as a source of adventure.  Organizing the exchange reminds me that integrating age old teaching practices with new technologies has many positive outcomes.

First-Two schools in two different regions of the country are on now on par with use of technology. Our Vermont school had more liberty with use of tech tools and applications than New Mexico. Flatdaddy’s role as a tech integrationist, a presenter at the NMTIE conference and as an involved parent helped persuade the school system to converse about its reluctance to provide student access to Skype.  Assurances on our behalf to help with the set- up led to cautious approval.  I believe that allowing time for input,  voicing of concerns and team support resulted in change that is now the model for other classrooms to follow. A quick review of Common Core standards reminded me of the need for establishing  agreed-upon rules for discussions for all involved (CCSS.ELA- Literacy SLc.1a).

Second– Letter writing is publishing. The author’s awareness of the intended audience is the incentive to write with meaning. These 40 students began the exchange with short, one paragraph letters. When students in New Mexico progressed to double sided letters, questions and cartoon drawings, the Vermonters responded with equal length and enthusiasm.  Sincerity and emotional curiosity raised the bar indirectly.  Unintentionally both classes of second graders were writing narratives with details describing actions thoughts and feelings, and care enough to want to learn how to finish a writing piece with a sense of closure.  (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.2.3)

Third–   Technology is a perfect medium for connecting students  to regional similarities and differences that they can not extrapolate from reading alone.  As a high school teacher, I unfortunately have observed high school students who made common errors in thinking that New Mexico or Vermont did not matter.  Bound by positive dialogue, these students will not likely make this mistake.  Flatdaddy started the first Skype chat with a series of questions, requesting that all involved schools show their knowledge by raising their hands.  How many students went skiing last weekend? How many students have cacti in their back yard? How many students have pets?  Who can tell me what temperature it is outside?  Other “who can tell me” questions  stimulated requests for individuals to raise questions.  A New Mexican student used his speaking opportunity to inquire why his pen pal had missed the last letter exchange? His admonition and his apparent disappointment  brought a sincere promise to write about snow and other winter activities. Overall, this made me realize that these continuous conversations will:

    •  Build on others dialogue in conversations by linking their comments to the remarks of others (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.2.1b).
    •  Ask for clarification and further explanation as needed about the topics and texts under discussion (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.2.1c).
    • Ask and answer questions about what a speaker says, clarifying comprehension, gathering additional information, or deepening understanding (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.2.3).

Fourth– Parents and teacher collaborations were successful.  Acting as a parent I learned to respect both teacher’s methodologies and management of the classrooms.   Flatdaddy and I suggested the pen pal program but offered to volunteer in a role that they structured, following the rules that teachers stipulated. We expressed the utmost respect for our teachers before initiating this exchange despite success or failure and shouldered the responsibilities for acquiring school permissions, setting up equipment and downloading Skype to computers . These are time consuming tasks that deter a busy teacher.

Fifth– I wish I could include pictures of our Skype interaction.  Students from both classrooms were fully attentive, straining to see their pen pal for the first time, waving hands to show similar responses and jumping up to ask questions.  The session was short (25 minutes) ending with Simon Says and a promise to video chat  in smaller groups. Knowing that they could write about an idea that wasn’t shared in conversation was empowering.   With the desire to  want to communicate well, students appreciate writing prompts.  Each teacher emailed images of their perspective playgrounds  with the prompt being a student’s description of their enjoyment on their  playground equipment. This activity was met with much enthusiasm from everyone involved.  Basically writing prompts could address:

Letter writing is life changing.  My daughter’s best friend frowned at writing until our move to New Mexico prompted her mother to organize a visit.  She came and experienced  the smell of roasting chiles, canyon hikes and backyard cacti for the first time.  She visited the elementary school and made new friends.  We stay in touch by phone calls and video chats but it is she who has taken to sending cards, short stories, and drawings reminiscent of her time in the southwest. She yearns to return and I have no doubt that she will.

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