Prospect UKnights with Newcomer Center: Pen Pals with Purpose

In this post, guest writer Leigh Sapp (Prospect High School Spanish Teacher) writes about a unique collaboration with Mario Perez (Newcomer Center Coordinator). They developed a unique year-long experience with their students that fosters cross-cultural understanding and lasting friendships.

Bet it’s hard to tell which students are Knights and which ones are Newcomers?

The year-long learning experience with our students all began in the Fall of 2015. Christie Sylvester, Head Librarian at Prospect High School, approached me about my interest in having my upper-level Spanish students read Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea as part of the Big Read Program. This grant program, sponsored by National Endowment for the Arts, sponsors community-wide programs to promote reading and participation by diverse audiences. It would fit in perfectly with our Spanish 4 curriculum at Prospect High School as students explore, among other cultural themes, immigration. I have long felt the need to help my students see the human side of immigration; to connect the faces, families and stories to the concept.  Most of my students are surprised that fellow classmates are themselves immigrants or children of recent immigrants. By participating in the program, not only would my students be able to read a book related to the culture they study but they would have the opportunity to meet the author and hear personal anecdotes. So, I was hooked!

Fortunately Urrea did not disappoint! Into the Beautiful North had just the right balance of authenticity and sass that I knew could engage my students. Sylvester provided me with copies of the book to distribute to interested students; all I had to do was convince my already academically over-taxed students to add another obligation to their list of to-dos. Of course, I had no problem finding 10 students willing to read the novel especially with the promise of meeting the author!  

So after another career first, white bus training, I gathered my eager students to make the trek to Forest View Educational Center to meet the author. Little did I journey had only just begun…

As I sat in the Boardroom that crisp fall morning listening to the quirky and endearing Urrea, my gaze drifted over the moderate crowd of teens from across District 214, and a great sense of pride and peace washed over me. It was then that I found myself focused on the front of the room as Urrea asked for questions from the students. A brave, young man, nervously read a prepared question from a slip of paper and beamed with pride as the respected author entertained his inquiry as well as expressed interest in his country of origin.  


This is what I like to refer to as "the lightbulb moment," for lack of a better expression. This Newcomer student, recently arrived to this country, was overtly practicing the same skills in English as my students were practicing in Spanish!  The entire bus ride home I was tickled with delight as I finally realized just what the purpose was of the Newcomer Center! How had I missed this wealth of possibility right under my nose! Previously I had entertained tele-collaboration for my students and focused so much on other states and countries but yet had nothing to show for it except wasted time and energy. I didn’t see the forest for the trees. I couldn’t believe that the students I was looking for were right here in District 214!  I immediately investigated just who the teacher was behind these students that mirrored mine! After a little digging I discovered that Mario Perez, the Coordinator of the District 214 Newcomer Center, was the man responsible for these gems!

I dashed off a quick email to test the waters. Nervous and excited, I waited for a reply…

To my delight I got a response the next day from an enthusiastic Perez and thus began our fantastic voyage!  

We discussed how meaningful it would be to connect our students in a pen pal exchange. As a World Languages staff, we work laboriously to create an authentic communication exchanges with native speakers. Furthermore we encourage our students to draw comparisons between other cultures and their own on a variety of themes.  One of these themes is immigration.  We strive to educate them in regards to the humanity and reality -- the faces and stories -- of immigration regardless of legal status.  The Newcomer Center prepares immigrant students who have recently arrived to the United States to enter a District 214 homeschool.  In addition to connecting the newly arrived Newcomers to native-English speaking peers, Prospect students are able to make the big campuses appear more welcoming and less overwhelming. The dynamic of our pen pal exchange allows for the Newcomer students to feel empowered in that they can help tutor and be role models for their AP Spanish pen pals.  All the students benefit from taking part in writing for a real purpose. For students that are usually on the receiving end of tutoring, they felt very proud of their ability to help their new friends.

During the 2015-16 school year, handwritten letters only were exchanged between 15 AP Spanish students and Newcomer students from: Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia & Costa Rica.  We celebrated the success of our inaugural year, highlighted in the Daily Herald, with a pizza party and QR Code scavenger hunt/school tour at Prospect High School in May. Students left the exchange with a new-found connectedness and realized that, in the words of Prospect High School 2016 graduate Veronica Boratyn, “we are all impossibly and improbably more connected than we realize.” Her classmate, Krzysztof Chwala felt the program gave him “a sense of purpose for studying the Spanish language."  

The experience proved to be so impactful that Mario graciously agreed to collaborate on the project again during the 2016-17 school year. This time we connected my Spanish 4 students with 27 Newcomer Students from El Salvador, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and even Puerto Rico (so we were able to review “unincorporated territory”)!  

In addition to hand-written letters our students exchanged across the year, we incorporated Schoology to host online discussions with introductory video posts and links to resources such as favorite music videos. We were hoping this would add an additional level of engagement and interaction among the students as well as a structure for the management of the exchange.  I surveyed the Prospect students at the conclusion of this optional, outside-of-class experience to judge the amount of additional work I had given and make sure that moving forward that I was not asking too much of them in their already overextended schedules junior year. I was amazed at their responses and suggestion on how to improve the program moving forward. They wanted to write even MORE letters and correspond MORE via Schoology! They even suggested an idea Perez and I had entertained but not implemented, that the Spanish students could write in Spanish and Newcomer students could write in English. Jackpot! When do kids ask for more work outside of class in the target language? Never say never...

Reflections from Graduates:

“The Pen Pal program gave me a sense of purpose for studying the Spanish language. Oftentimes it would be easy to work through class exercises and not think much about them, but this program brought real-world value to the learning experience. I got to practice my Spanish, learn more vernacular language, try to learn — and for a great while fail — to dance bachata with our partners at their school dance and hear and compare immigrant stories in a native tongue. The program brought me closer to a Hispanic culture that at first I didn't fully understand but came to greatly appreciate after comparing childhood favorite candies (looks like we both liked our lollipops), cultural holidays like Day of the Dead, familial values and family immigration stories. Being a first generation Polish student, I not only appreciated hearing another different story about coming to the U.S. and the adversities my partner faced, but I also was inspired to learn even more about my parents' and siblings' journey and experiences before and after immigrating for comparison, something I have continued to investigate ever since.” -Krzysztof Chwala, PHS Graduate Class of  2016, currently attends Yale University

 "The pen pal program I participated in with Mrs. Sapp's class was by far one of the most meaningful things I did in high school. Like most high school students, I often felt as though what I was learning in class had no tangible application. However, the pen pal program reminded me that I am not learning Spanish to learn Spanish, I am learning Spanish to better connect with other people. The pen pal program facilitated that connection, in ways I didn't expect. As I was at the end of the year dance with Pedro, I realized that one of his role models is on a robotics team exactly like my own. In a surreal small-world moment, I then brought him to my robotics team meeting and realized that we are all impossibly and improbably more connected than we realize." -Veronica Boratyn, PHS Graduate Class of 2016, currently attends Yale University

Reflection from staff:

 “When District 214 received the Big Read grant in 2015, I never expected the amazing connection that was made between Prospect HS and the Newcomer Center, which continues to this day.  Señora Sapp and I partnered to bring Spanish 4 and AP Spanish students FVEC to listen to Luis Urrea discuss Into the Beautiful North.  Little did we expect that Señora Sapp would connect with several Newcomer teachers to form a lifelong learning experience for students at both 214 locations.  Partnering students together and communicating throughout the year allows students to share the joys of their culture and the strife of teen life, no matter where they were born.  I have no doubt that the Prospect/Newcomer Pen Pal Exchange program will continue for many successful years in the future.” –Christie Sylvester, Prospect High School Head Librarian