×

In Lyme, Writing Letters Connects School and Community

  • Letter journals from Heather Stadheim's sixth-grade class at the Lyme School in Lyme, N.H., on Thursday, May 10, 2018. (Rob Strong photograph)

  • Lyme School teacher Heather Stadheim works with Justin Dickson, right, and Aidan Brown during the sixth-grade Language Arts class at the school in Lyme, N.H., on Thursday, May 10, 2018. (Rob Strong photograph)

  • Eva Simpson, left, and Allison Hatch work on letter journals during Heather Stadheim's sixth-grade Language Arts class at the Lyme School in Lyme, N.H., on Thursday, May 10, 2018. (Rob Strong photograph)

  • Allison Hatch works on a letter journal alongside teacher Heather Stadheim during sixth-grade Language Arts class at the Lyme School in Lyme, N.H., on Thursday, May 10, 2018. (Rob Strong photograph)

  • Heather Stadheim's sixth-grade class works on letter journals at the Lyme School in Lyme, N.H., on Thursday, May 10, 2018. (Rob Strong photograph)



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, May 14, 2018

What with email, FaceTime, Facebook, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Hangouts and phones, it’s easier than ever to keep in touch with the people we rarely see.

But as these communication tools become inescapable facts of life, the slower but arguably more rewarding art of letter-writing has taken on positive associations, even as it has fallen by the wayside: It’s old-school, vintage, a throwback. Especially among young people.

But Heather Stadheim, a language arts teacher at Lyme School, wants to keep the magic of exchanging letters alive. She and her sixth-graders are a little more than halfway through an 11-week program that pairs up students with pen pals in Lyme. Instead of mailing the letters, the pen pals record their correspondence in a shared “letter journal,” a simple black-and-white composition notebook whose cover image depicts a pair of Converse-wearing feet.

“It gets students really engaged,” said Stadheim on Thursday morning, after her students trickled out of a spirited letter-writing session. “They’re learning about their community … as their own voices are coming through.”

The groundwork for the project began earlier this year, when Elise Foxall, the academic director at Lyme School, brought the idea to Stadheim. Foxall took on much of the organizational work behind the project, and Principal Jeff Valence put out a call for pen pals through the town email listserv.

To Stadheim’s surprise, there were more replies than there were students, and they came from many walks of life: There were former educators and other retirees, scientists and web consultants, Lyme School parents and the chief of police, to name a handful. The pairs were assigned randomly, with some students volunteering to exchange letters with more than one person.

But how does one write a letter to a perfect stranger?

“It was a bit awkward for some of them, at first,” Stadheim acknowledged over the phone. “They had to get over the hump.”

It’s true that many of the early entries read more or less the same: name, age, siblings, pets, hobbies, years lived in Lyme, isn’t the weather nice. But flipping through the pages, it’s easy to see the writers becoming genuinely interested in, and fond of, each other. The letters become longer and more individualized, sometimes incorporating drawings or photos, sometimes touching upon personal challenges, sometimes expressing a desire to meet in person.

Those conveying this latter sentiment will get their wish: On June 12, the class will invite their pen pals to a tea party, where the writers will get to put faces to names.

For Lyme resident Dani Ligett, a retired school counselor at Marion Cross School in Norwich, that day can’t come soon enough.

“It’s been so lovely. I get so excited when the pickup day comes, I don’t even wait to get home,” Ligett said. “I sit in the car and read it right away. … I keep thinking about what it will be like to meet them in person.”

For this past letter-cycle, Stadheim decided to try something new: What if she posed a question for the writers, so that they shared not only facts about their lives, but also nuanced opinions? And so, folded into each notebook was an adapted Washington Post article about the value of teaching cursive in school, and why some schools do or do not require it.

“I thought it would be a good way to get the conversation flowing,” and to illustrate how life experiences can shape one’s point of view, Stadheim said. She added that many of the older writers use cursive to write their letters, which some students have found challenging to decipher. Others type out their letters, and attach them to the notebook pages.

The intergenerational aspect of the project is an opportunity for students to learn important life lessons from their elders, said Laurie Wadsworth, a retired reading teacher. She, personally, has been alluding to big-picture topics in her letters, such as the lack of team sports for girls in the 1950s and ’60s, and some of the difficulties of getting older.

“I’ve been dropping little hints to her about what it’s like to be my age,” Wadsworth said, such as the fact that she takes care of her 95-year-old mother, and how it’s become harder to get her kayak up and down from her car.

“It’s also an opportunity for me to learn about her, and her life,” she added. “She’s very athletic. I never played any sports, so I don’t have that in common with her, but I’m very impressed by it.”

In some cases, the pen pals have been exposing each other to new cultural experiences. Lyme resident Mark Tecca has been traveling in Japan for the past several weeks, so Stadheim has been scanning and emailing his pen pal’s letters to him. In return, Tecca has been sending multi-page letters with photographs of his travels, with some fun facts woven in about Japan’s history, food and geography.

And Ligett, after learning that her pen pal was interested in country-western music, told them about the steel drum band she plays in. (She uses the singular “they” when referring to her pen pal, because she doesn’t know their gender and doesn’t wish to find out until the tea party in June.)

“Steelpan is very unusual music for kids of that age,” Ligett acknowledged, adding that she had never listened to much country-western herself, but thought it was interesting that her pen pal liked it so much. The feeling seems to have been mutual: “They actually went online and listened to steelpan music and responded to it, and said they liked it a lot. So we’re broadening each other’s horizons in music.”

Though some writing pairs might have more than a half-century of years between them, Stadheim said many of them have bonded over a surprising breadth of common ground. Wadsworth and her pen pal, Rosie Keith, both vacation near Nauset Beach on Cape Cod. And Rosie has the same blue Sunfish sailboat that Wadsworth had when she was a teen. They exchanged photos of themselves with their boats, one from last summer, one taken in 1964.

“Wow, it is so cool that you had the same boat that I have!” Rosie replied when she learned of the coincidence. “They are even the same color!”

“That was fun for her and for me,” Wadsworth said.

But in her eyes, the project isn’t just about fun. It’s also a potent educational tool. After decades of teaching, Wadsworth appreciates the importance of a program that gives kids the opportunity to write about whatever they’d like, in a way that transcends classroom walls.

“In teacher-talk we used to call it ‘authentic writing,’ writing for a real purpose and a real audience with real feedback,” she said. Authentic writing is also thought to engage reluctant writers more deeply than do traditional school assignments, and encourage children to develop and express their own voices.

On Thursday morning, Stadheim’s students opened their journals to find their pen pals’ responses to the article about cursive writing.

“This is really interesting,” called out Kiran Park, upon seeing what her pen pal, Nora Gould, a former school principal, had written. Kiran read aloud one passage — like all of Gould’s letters, it was typed — that especially struck her. Gould had written that because of a year-long typing course she’d been required to take in high school, she could type even faster and more accurately than her secretaries. Perhaps a desire to keep cursive-writing in school curriculums reflects a “wish to maintain the past,” she wrote, adding that she personally prefers cursive, but doesn’t feel strongly one way or the other about teaching it in school.

This got Kiran’s wheels turning. In a matter of minutes, she had already filled up most of a page. “I think typing is a good idea, especially now that technology is such a fixture in our lives,” she wrote back. Later, she said this latest letter was the longest she’d written yet, and noted that each week it was a little easier to come up with questions and comments.

“I like her. She’s a really interesting person,” Kiran said. “She travels all over. I really like the play Hamilton, and she likes it too. And she knits, and I knit … a little.”

Ligett — who signed up for the program in part because she missed having that connection with “the kids” — also sees classroom-meets-community activities as a proactive way to help students navigate the minefield that is adolescence.

“I think it’s so important for children of that age, early puberty age, to feel a part of not just their school community, not just their family community but also a larger community,” she said. “A sense of community is one of the simplest but most profound things to lower risk-taking behavior in kids, and it’s such an easy thing to do.”

It may not be as easy as shooting off an email or a text. But for sixth-grader Grace Munroe, one of the students who volunteered to take on two pen pals, the extra time and effort is worth it.

“It takes longer, but it’s really fun. Both of my pen pals are so different,” she said, “but I’m also so similar to both of them.”

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.

Correction

Sixth-grader Allison Hatch is working on a letter journal as part of a class project at Lyme School. She was misidentified in two photo captions in an earlier version of this story.