CRYSTAL LAKE – For Sandy Bigos, reading “OMG i luv u” on a phone screen just does not have the same sentimental value as an old-fashioned, handwritten letter.
That is why the South Elementary School third-grade teacher revived a program of the past to teach her students a fading skill of the past. Bigos implemented a pen pal program for the first time this year, teaching her students proper letter formatting, handwriting and social interaction skills.
The 25 students, who exchanged letters with Crystal Lake Central honor students, quickly embraced the activity, with some deciding to keep the letter exchange going with their pen pal even at the end of the school year.
“Because of all the technology, just being able to know how to write a letter is completely declining,” Bigos said. “I tell my students being able to write a letter can be more valuable than anything money can buy.”
Bigos said the benefits of a pen pal program go beyond educational purposes of spelling and grammar. She said by interacting with area high school students, her third-graders were able to learn more about the community and establish important relationships that those without an older brother or sister might not have.
Pen pal writing is a process many students no longer experience, including Brooke Larsen, the 15-year-old Crystal Lake Central junior who coordinated with Bigos.
Larsen said she never had a pen pal in elementary or middle school and was excited for the opportunity.
She said the high school students likely learned as much as the third-graders in the process.
“I’m always texting, so it was cool to be able to write a letter to a pen pal buddy and interact with younger kids,” she said. “Everyone should have an opportunity to do something like this.”
While pen pal programs have declined in classrooms, they have evolved outside of them.
Jessie Shattuck, a Prairie Ridge High School graduate, sought out a pen pal program after going through school without ever experiencing the letter exchange. She was inspired to find an international pen pal so she could learn languages that would help her in the pursuit of her history degree from Northern Illinois University.
The 24-year-old Crystal Lake resident found www.interpals.net and has since made friends with people from Germany, France and the Tuscany region of Italy. She said the site gives users options to exchange emails or traditional letters, but either option will open new worlds and serve as a valuable language learning tool.
“When you actually talk to people who are fluent, you get an idea of how the language is actually used,” she said. “It’s really fun to learn about these other cultures ... and see how much we have in common even though we’re continents apart.”
For pen pal programs to make a comeback, students will have to start early, which is why first-grade teacher Krystal Winsor also started pen pals for the first time this year in her class.
The West Elementary School teacher had her students exchange letters with another first-grade class from St. Catherine of Siena Catholic School in West Dundee and witnessed exponential growth in spelling and handwriting skills.
She said when students know what they are writing will be read by a peer, they take their time to think about what they are saying and write with crispness.
“Hopefully we can find more teachers who want to do this,” Winsor said. “It would be great to see it grow.”