2018-02-08 / Front Page

A TALE OF TWO LANGUAGES

Middle-schoolers connect with students in Ecuador
BY RYAN GIBBS


Nina Kent, from left, Natalie Conover, Jesse Long and Ani Tamboe with letters they received from their Ecuadorian pen pals. The project was spearheaded in teacher Michaela Onosko’s Spanish class at Lawn School. Nina Kent, from left, Natalie Conover, Jesse Long and Ani Tamboe with letters they received from their Ecuadorian pen pals. The project was spearheaded in teacher Michaela Onosko’s Spanish class at Lawn School. Middle-schoolers in town are communicating with fellow students 3,000 miles away the old-fashioned way: pen on paper.

Eighth-graders in Spanish teacher Michaela Onosko’s class at Lawn School have been corresponding with their pen pals at the Henry Davis Foundation in Conocoto, Ecuador.

The teens at both schools trade letters through Jill Harrison, a Jamestown resident and Rhode Island College sociology professor who visits the Ecuadorian school annually with her college students. Harrison pitched the idea two years ago when her son, Cameron, was a student in Onosko’s class. She believed the cross-continental correspondence would be a fun way for two sets of schoolchildren to learn each other’s native language.


Michael McGrady with his letter from Tonia, a South American student whose favorite food is pizza. The top half of the pen pal’s letter in written in English; below is her writing in her native language. Michael McGrady with his letter from Tonia, a South American student whose favorite food is pizza. The top half of the pen pal’s letter in written in English; below is her writing in her native language. “I thought it would be cool if we set up a pen pal system,” Harrison said. “It makes the language come alive. It’s not just something you get from a book.”

Onosko immediately endorsed the project. “You’re learning a language to communicate, to learn about another person, another culture and other countries,” she said.

Getting around technology

The program was introduced in Onosko’s seventh-grade class during the 2016-17 academic year. After Harrison delivered letters from the Ecuadorian teens, Lawn students were tasked with writing responses to their companions. They decided to use snail mail because of the unreliable Internet connection in the region along the Pacific side of South America. Further contact between the two schools through Google Docs proved futile.


Abby Wagner, clockwise from left, Kyle Hund, Kelsey Gouviea and Audrey Magarian with letters from the Ecuadorian pen pals. The letters are delivered to and from the South American country by Rhode Island College professor Jill Harrison, whose sociology class travels there every December. Abby Wagner, clockwise from left, Kyle Hund, Kelsey Gouviea and Audrey Magarian with letters from the Ecuadorian pen pals. The letters are delivered to and from the South American country by Rhode Island College professor Jill Harrison, whose sociology class travels there every December. “A real letter, the old-fashioned way, is still the best way to communicate for them,” Harrison said.

While writing letters made logistical sense, Onosko’s students also found that method to be more engaging than waiting for an electronic response.

“There’s something about having the actual letter,” she said. “The kids decorate them and draw pictures on them. They’re like little works of art. There’s something nice about that old-school letter that really appeals to my students.”

This year, it was Lawn School’s turn to establish communication. Harrison took another crop of letters with her to Ecuador in December from the same students who participated last year. Each American received a response back from a Henry Davis student when Harrison returned to the United States in January.

Finding ways to bond

Because both groups of students are relative beginners at each other’s languages, their letters typically were comprised of short sentences about their families and favorite hobbies. For example, the Ecuadorian children typically answered questions about sports by describing their love of soccer. Some of the Lawn eighth-graders said they were surprised to find a connection through that sport, which resembles a religion in South America.

Soccer provided a significant element of the letter that Julia Cotsonas received. She continued correspondence with a girl named Gloria because both of their favorite numbers – 30 for Cotsonas and 1 for Gloria – stem from the numbers on their soccer jerseys.

“It’s cool that we have that connection,” Cotsonas said. “It’s cool how two completely different people can connect on this sort of basis. We can both learn information about each other directly from ourselves.”

In addition to her letter, Cotsonas also sent along a photograph of the waterfront at East Ferry, which allowed Gloria and her classmates to paint of picture of Jamestown. Cotsonas was glad to reconnect with Gloria following their seventh-grade relationship.

“I can see how she grew throughout the years,” she said. “Once you write these letters, you kind of have a connection. We’re in different countries, but we still can keep in touch with each other.”

Cotsonas’ classmate Alicia Holland wrote to a 12-year-old boy named Miguel. Like most of her classmates, her letter included basic facts, like her name, favorite classes and activities. The kids wrote their respective letters in both Spanish and English, which impressed Holland because of the quality of Miguel’s English.

“It’s really good, perfect,” she said. “He sent a response that was kind of like mine. He told me what he liked to do and how many siblings he had. He’s artistic, really nice and he really likes to play soccer.”

Plans for the future

Before she left for Ecuador in December, Harrison stopped by Onosko’s class to speak to the students about the work her class does in South America. They also were shown a video about the Harry Davis school to understand what life is like for students there.

The Henry Davis Foundation was founded by an American Christian missionary in the 1960s. It also operates an orphanage, which houses both orphans and children in foster care. The student body of the school consists of orphanage residents, along with children who live with their families in the surrounding community. Owing to their American connection, every student at the school is taught English.

“When native speakers come down there, they grab them right away and put them into the classes,” Harrison said. “Hearing native language speakers is something really critical, and our students get to learn some Spanish along the way.”

Harrison and her students have been visiting the school since 2009 as part of a global citizenship course she offers during winter break. This year, they were in Conocoto from Dec. 27 through Jan. 13 and stayed on the school grounds.

The college students also were tasked with developing a project to work on while in Ecuador, such as creating educational games for the children or setting up hydroponic and medicinal gardens.

Lawn School eighth-grader Nayan Sapers, who once visited Ecuador on a family trip, said both the video and letter from his pen pal gave him a different view of the country than what he had seen as a tourist.

“I saw the sights and everything, but I really didn’t delve into the life,” he said. “Their experiences are kind of condensed to this place and they don’t really have much opportunity elsewhere. I really want to expand his knowledge of other things.”

Because the letters are popular among the eighth-graders, Onosko plans to continue the assignment next year. Holland said her class has enjoyed sharing the letters.

“We were all ecstatic,” she said. “We were really happy to get responses.”

The Ecuadorian students also have enjoyed reading the letters from their American counterparts. According to Harrison, the class always is full when the teacher plans to hand letters to her students.

“There was that kind of enthusiasm and excitement about it,” she said.

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