When Hudson Middle School student Don Brown met his pen pal from Alaska — via the magic of Skype — he had one probing question on his mind.
"Do you have a snowmobile?" he asked Charles Active Jr., a sixth-grader at Gladys Jung Elementary School in Bethel, Alaska.
"No," Charles replied with a shrug, "but I have a PlayStation."
This led to a brief conversation about the boys' favorite PS3 games.
Before the Skype session on Feb. 1, Hudson Middle student Joshua Davis and his Alaskan pen pal, Damian Cabales, already had discovered a common bond. They are both in the Boy Scout program. Joshua even sent some of his old badges to his new friend.
They are thousands of miles apart, "and they have so much in common," said Rhonda Starr, a sixth-grade teacher at Hudson.
It was Starr, a language arts teacher on the school's Ligers team, and her teaching co-facilitator Linda Bell, an ESE specialist, who first coordinated a large-scale pen pal project that would link more than 100 of her students with the same age children in Alaska — in the process giving them a stronger link to literacy.
"We reminded students that this was letter writing, not text messaging," Starr said. "We want to prepare students for the FCAT, where they will have to answer essay questions, and life in general."
"We want the students to think beyond abbreviations," agreed Bell.
And a pen pal project, in the teachers' view, would give their students an incentive to learn.
"We're giving students a buy in," Starr said. "They're not just handing letters to a teacher. They're sending these letters to a new friend."
The students found these new friends courtesy of Bell, who reached out to a family friend who now lives in Alaska. Rocky Wright, a native of Tarpon Springs, supplied the names of schools in his area. Acting on this tip, Bell located the website for Gladys Jung Elementary School, where she connected with Sharlet Collins, a sixth-grade team leader. Soon the Ligers were exchanging pen pal correspondence with three classes at Gladys Jung, headed by teachers Collins, Sheila Leary and Beverly Chmieralczyk.
"I've never had a pen pal before," said Morgan Olds, 11, "but I wish I had."
"I've had one other pen pal, but she's from California. This one is from Alaska!" enthused Ashley Kyler, 11. "I've learned that it's so cold over there, and they have sled dog races."
Their classmate Robin Kenny said that the class' pen pal project is "really fun because I get to learn stuff about other people."
"Over there they have a different culture," said Valeria Encarnacion, also in Starr's class, "and a different climate."
The students started writing in November; after two rounds of pen pal correspondence, Starr and Bell decided to add another dimension to the project: allowing students to "meet" their pen pals via a video and audio Skype session in the Hudson Middle media center. Aiding them in this project would be media specialist Marcia Pringle and technology specialist Jerry Marsh.
"It's a good idea to tie in modern technology these kids understand with the art of letter writing," Pringle said.
"I loved this idea and was determined to make it happen," Marsh said.
As kids filed in to the media center Feb. 1, they talked and laughed with excitement as they anticipated seeing their pen pals face to face.
"You can meet great new people this way," said student Chloe Osborne, grinning. "Maybe someday you'll meet them in person and get married!"
After getting a short lesson in online etiquette from Starr, the kids got to meet their pen pals face to face on Skype; comparing notes about their favorite music groups, video games, and sports, their hobbies and interests, and other details of their lives. At the end, each child got to wave and say hello to their individual "pal."
"This day is about all of us," Starr told the kids.
• The following students from Schrader Elementary were selected to read their essays at the Young Author's Tea on Feb. 1: Gaby Hernandez, Chloe Kepner, Anthony VanVliet, Madelin Grimmer, Teagan O'Brien, Serenity Whitcomb, Thomas Carbone, Hailee Smith, Matthew Botarf, Charles Crisson, Tanner Clemmons, Joel Puma, Matthew Krebs, Gianna Hernandez, Jonathan Lugo, Nicole Patufka, Mia Galioto, Jake Pierce, Logan Dalby, Nathan Johnson, Liza Butler and Sara Flowers.
Students of the Month
• Hudson Middle: Evan French, Sarena Cregger, Ethan Fox, Maya Wentz, Jasmine Jaman, Brandon Seifert, Lilyana Liske, Alyssa McKenzie, Samantha Bostick, Kyle Mabesoone, Uniti Lezak, Leila Tirone, Kristof Cseh and Kire Simonsen.
• Moore Mickens Education Center: Abbie Musgrove, Jesse Malone, Ashley Nottingham and Maria Rosales
• Schrader Elementary: Alexis Kempf, Shelby Chapman, Luke Leiby, Austin Hunsberger, Anthony Wade, Savanna Hallmark, Kayla Vikete, Zoe Coats, Kolby Germer, Tyler Vuu, Paris Sager, Nolan Hagar, Rahil Siddiqui, Anna Healy, Maia Faulkner, Tanna Pierce, Joshua Deleon, Christian Browning, Isaiah Arguelles, Hunter Harper, Tyler Greska, Gavin Hoogerheide, Nathan Huffman, Ian Filoseta, Jessica Moody, Roddrick Ohanson, Aubrey Powell, Mia Glover, Joshua Plourde, Ryan Brown, Daisy Schwendeman and William Kelly.
• Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce students of the month: Savannah Baptist, West Zephyrhills Elementary; Lailani Perez, Heritage Academy; Austin LaRose, Zephyrhills High School; Mikayla Isbell, Raymond B. Stewart Middle School; Matthew Ely, The Broach School; Michael Leach, Chester Taylor Elementary; Haven Queen, Woodland Elementary; Jocelyn Couron, East Pasco Adventist Academy.