Fax, e-mail and phone have all but killed the letter. but after placing an advert in an education magazine, Rebecca Taylor finally found a class of penpals
I tried to teach my Year 1 class the skill of letter-writing by encouraging them to write to fictional characters such as Postman Pat. It worked for a while, but then they became dissatisfied when Pat never got round to writing back. So I decided to find them a real audience, penpals of their own age.
Our school, Altmore infants in East Ham, is in the heart of east London, with a busy high street and surrounded by streets of houses. In contrast, Spennithorne Church of England primary, just outside the Dales national park in North Yorkshire, is surrounded by woods, fields, a church and moorland. Deer wander into their wildlife field and allow the children to stand and watch them, while we struggle with vandalism and theft.
Many of the Spennithorne children's parents are farmers or gamekeepers. As many of our children have parents who are refugees and have not yet found work.
Their area has become popular as a result of the television series All Creatures Great and Small, and Asgarth Falls, which is about seven miles from the school, was the location for Robin Hood and Little John's first meeting and fight in the film Robin Hood Prince of Thieves. In comparison, our area has become well known due to EastEnders. It was an excellent contrast.
We started our monthly correspondence by exchanging class lists and I then randomly paired off each child. The children wrote their introduction letters and I gave them key words such as "dear" and "love from" to help them.
Many of them chose to write, for example, "Dear John love from Joseph", and it took me a long time to persuade them that a letter must say something to the reader and possibly ask the person a question.
Once they had mastered this, many of them began to write a page-length letter. In contrast, we received beautiful long letters from our penpals. Having children who have English as a second language makes writing difficult but not impossible - they usually convey meaning through beautiful drawings on which they spend a great deal of time. Our penpals' teacher was very impressed by this and felt my class's drawing skills were more mature than hers.
We never really set a theme for the children to write about but as our topic was "school", many of my children chose to write about school and ask questions about their school. As festivals came and went we were able to send Diwali cards, an event celebrated by most of my class. Our penpals sent us Christmas cards, a festival celebrated by a minority in my class.
As well as letter-writing, we were able to include information technology in our project. My pupils took photographs of each other, whereas our penpals made a video about themselves.
It was wonderful for the children to see who they had been writing to. Our penpals had never come into contact with other children from different ethnic backgrounds. The only way they could do so would be by travelling 50 miles to cities such as Newcastle, Leeds and York.
In contrast, my class could not get over the fact they were "all white". In the video, our penpals showed us their school and idyllic surroundings. Many of the children also showed us their homes and stables. We were shown features my children had never seen and didn't have the vocabulary for, such as "stream" "waterfall" and "moor".
The video showed the village of Askrigg, where most of All Creatures Great and Small was filmed. Our penpals' teacher even included a clip from the series showing a scene with the actors outside their school. Many of my children had not heard of the programme - they are more into EastEnders - but it was a real eye opener.
As well as letter-writing and information technology, we were able to learn about geography. We looked at the differences in weather between north and south: they had snow at the beginning of December but we had none.
to us, our penpals' life looked idyllic. But their teacher assured us it had its own problems. They have no public transport so the children have to walk or go everywhere by car. By comparison, there are lots of buses in East Ham and the tube station is nearby. Their nearest toy and book shop is 13 miles away at Richmond, whereas Argos and Woolworths are five minutes away from our school.
Our lives are very different so the project has been rewarding and worthwhile for all. It also shows that the art of letter-writing is not dead.
Rebecca Taylor now teaches at Courthill first school, Poole, Dorset