Coalhurst Elementary students have writing pals in Burdett

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Students from Coalhurst Elementary and Burdett School stand outside the Coalhurst Community Centre.

Students in two Grade 2/3 classes separated by about 100 kilometres of Highway 3 celebrated five months as pen pals with an in-person meeting that included a historical tour of Coalhurst.

Emma Lenz’s Grade 2/3 class at Coalhurst Elementary School played host to their counterparts from Monica Etherington’s 2/3 class from Burdett School in early June. They took a walking tour of Coalhurst, visiting the sites of the coal mine, hospital, early schools and businesses.

Coalhurst and Burdett communities both celebrated centennials in 2013.

Burdett students researched their hamlet’s history for sharing as well, learning about and presenting on  irrigation, post office fires and the history of their school.

About a half dozen letters were exchanged by pen pals, a partnership that begin with collaboration between their teachers.

Etherington had visited Lenz’s classroom in January to see how the Daily 5 program for reading and writing instruction is used. During that visit, Etherington says she was struck by the compatibility between their two classes. The idea of pen pals was born.

“She and I both had about 20 students in our class,” Lenz says. “In the afternoon of our visit, after the pen pals had lunch and recess together, the Burdett students each took a turn at the front of the class reading what he/she had written about a landmark in Burdett.”

The Burdett students left Coalhurst Elementary a book they’d compiled about their community. The book is similar to the Coalhurst History Book students at Coalhurst Elementary created in honour of the town’s centennial.

“As we wrapped things up, the students and I have been talking about the highlights of our year,” Lenz says. “One at the top of the list was the visit with the Burdett buddies.

“It was beneficial educationally as it gave authenticity to their writing. They got to write about a familiar topic — themselves — and in a way that the receiving student would clearly understand what they had written.”

Lenz says one of the interesting aspects of the collaboration was the series of letter exchanges she arranged with Etherington, taking advantage of people or places the two teachers had in common. Letters might be left at stores both women frequented, or with relatives, or even at running events the teachers had in common.

Lenz says her students also exchanged letters with Karma Braun’s class at Vulcan Prairieview Elementary this year, at lesser frequency than with Burdett, but with just as much enjoyment.

Both Etherington and Lenz told their students they could continue to write to their pen pals this summer if they wanted, and more than half voluntarily exchanged home addresses and seem poised to continue writing their pal.

Etherington says other students at her school have said they wish they had a pen pal and the work students did to research and present their community history was exciting for students and for the community at large.

“The legacy project for this class this year became better than ever planned or imagined,” she says.

Lenz said her students were not only excited writers this year, but they were prolific readers. Many of her students accepted a 40 book challenge in January . One Grade 2 student, Rowan Desserre, finished reading 40 books by the end of February, and another 40 by mid-May.

Students of all reading abilities were able to take on the challenge, and they found support at the Lethbridge Public Library Bookmobile, which makes a stop in Coalhurst. The CES students had a shelf in the travelling library devoted to books the students requested.

Lenz says she and her students have had “awesome conversations” about the books they’ve read.

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