Dena Shelton, a Southeast Missouri State University alumna and first grade teacher at Cape Christian School, and Dr. Julie Ray, Southeast assistant professor of early childhood education, collaborated to publish a recent article in Young Children, a journal published by the National Association for the Education of Young Children focusing on developments in early childhood research, theory and practice.
Ray and Shelton’s article chronicled an innovative and effective home-school communication strategy developed by Shelton in her classroom last year. Her idea, which began as an electronic pen pal program that was part of a social studies unit on communication, evolved into an interactive and successful home-school communication method. As a bonus, the project also proved to be an exciting and resourceful learning tool for her students.
Shelton began by soliciting e-mail addresses from students’ family and friends and from school alumni who wanted to participate in the e-mail project. The participants received regular newsletters via e-mail that included information on what the children learned, photos of the children participating in class activities, and samples of their work. The newsletters also included questions about class topics and an invitation for participants to respond.
“The project had many benefits, some unanticipated,” said Shelton. “Our e-pals were located around the world, and the project continued throughout the school year. The increased involvement with families, including parents who lived apart from their children and extended-family members, was one of the first benefits. Extended family members who didn’t live nearby or working parents who weren’t able to attend field trips or volunteer in the classroom could still be involved through e-mails, and long-distance grandparents enjoyed seeing pictures of their grandchildren at school,” she said.
The project, through the involvement of the e-pals, also enhanced her students’ learning across the board and provided an integrated learning experience. Shelton found ways to extend the learning opportunities to other areas of the curriculum, and her students often encountered new interests along the way.
Questioning their e-pals about their favorite type of apples led the students to graph a large hallway display as a math activity after receiving over 100 responses. One response from an e-pal living across country described some varieties the students were unfamiliar with, and resulted in some additional, and tasty, research for the class. Shelton also used the real-life examples of their e-pals to help the students calculate how many miles and hours away their e-pals lived, and to teach them about the difference in time zones.
She incorporated the e-pals into their science activities by having the class study the weather, topography and physical features of their e-pals’ locations. They marked the locations -of their e-pals on a world map for social studies, and used an atlas to study towns, states and geographic features. As the students’ interest in communicating with their e-pals increased, so did their vocabulary, writing, reading and technology skills.
In addition to enhancing their regular learning activities, the e-pal project also fostered the children’s appreciation for family and cultural diversity, according to Shelton.
“The children enjoyed sharing information and learning about each other’s families,” she said. “One student’s family was originally from Mexico, and her extended family there had never seen her in person. They were pleased to receive her e-mails with photos, and, because she did not speak English, asked a young niece to translate and type their replies. The first graders learned to use a Web site that translated Spanish into English so they could interact with this family.”
Shelton’s e-pal project ultimately enriched the entire learning experience for her first-graders.
“We had e-pals from around the globe,” she said, “and family members became teachers as the world became the classroom.”