Twice a month, fifth graders in Jennifer Strub's class at do two things: write letters to their pen pals and practice their dance moves.
Their pen pals are fourth-grade students at . Since October, the students have been talking about the differences between their schools. They draw pictures for each other, including self-portraits. They chat about their day-to-day lives. And, they discuss cultural differences.
Many students at Bayless Intermediate are from other countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam and Bosnia, Strub said. She used to teach at the school and began the letter-writing project to help teach her students about different traditions and cultures.
Connor Church said his pen pal doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas. The Chesterfield Elementary students have learned about Bajram from their pen pals. The three-day Muslim holiday, known most commonly as Eid al-Fitr, marks the end of the holy month of fasting called Ramadan. Based on what their pen pals have written, the students describe Bajram as a time when children visit family and friends and receive gifts, usually of money.
The pen pals from both schools got together to work at the St. Louis Area Food Bank recently. At first, it was hard to put names with faces. Though they had shared drawings of each other, some pen pals were shorter than expected or, in some cases, a different gender altogether. "I thought he was a girl because his name is Kaylee," Lina Qi, a Bayless student, said with a giggle.
Once everyone was paired up, they got to work sorting and processing donations to the food bank. Mostly, the fifth-graders said their pen pals were shy and quiet as they worked.
"We had said what we needed to over the letters," Kristen Belinsky said. Strub added that for many of the pen pals, English isn't their native language, so they might have been hesitant to talk too much. Plus, they had a lot of work to do. Together, the kids processed more the 9,000 pounds of donations, which will help about 7,000 people.
Occasionally, the students would break out of their shells, though. Myiah Hall said her pen pal showed off his strength when he lifted a whole box of canned goods on his own. Eileen Kosola said her pen pal joked with her and her mom when they stopped at McDonald's after the work was done, and her mom bet him he couldn't eat an ice cream cone in five minutes.
"It was good for them to see kids with such different backgrounds as equals in helping others," said Patty Sanfelippo, whose daughter Paige is in Strub's class. Patty Sanfelippo said Paige was "just astounded" when they found out how many people their work would help.
The students in Strub's class said they're looking forward to May, when their pen pals will visit Chesterfield Elementary. Many of them said they plan to stay in touch with their pen pals after school lets out. Sanfelippo said Paige has saved all the letters from her pen pal, Arnel. "They're special to her," Sanfelippo said.
Aside from learning about another culture, Sanfelippo said she's enjoyed watching the whole class grow in confidence and become goal setters. The class recently learned they won a Dream Catchers scholarship from the Rockwood Schools Foundation. The scholarship was given to 44 students throughout the district, including Strub's class. The money can be used for any educational opportunity the students wish.
Strub's class will use it to take professional dance lessons. They already know a bit of the waltz, rumba and swing. Strub has taught them steps she knew and they practice regularly and perform for their parents. Strub said the students worked really hard to complete the application for the scholarship. They each had assigned jobs, including writing essays, researching dance lessons and getting recommendation letters. They're such self-starters, she said, that they didn't even take a day off when she was sick. When she checked her e-mail that day, she discovered the students had contacted to ask if they would give them dance lessons. The dance studio agreed.
Most of the students said they liked the waltz the best.
"It looks really elegant, and it's fun to do," Erin Dowling said. Swing was the second favorite. Katherine Wuesthoff said she liked swing the best because it was so upbeat. Though the students said they had a lot of fun learning the dances, they know they're learning more than just steps.
You have to have courage to perform for other people, Caleb Barnes said. Jimmy Bowman added that he had learned more about self-control, which he said is needed in dance and at the food bank. "You need it every day," he said.