During this school year, 19 seniors living at Presbyterian Village North (PVN) are serving as an inspiration to third-grade students in Karen Gunter’s class at Good Shepherd Episcopal School. Each senior is paired up with a student, and the pair is writing letters back and forth as part of a unique pen pal partnership. Excitement fills the air when the students and seniors receive a letter, and both groups cannot wait for the next letter writing surprise to arrive. The exercise helps students learn and practice cursive, and it provides a tremendous emotional benefit for both the kids and older adults. Tim Mallad, CEO of Presbyterian Communities and Services, parent organization of PVN, came up with the pen pal idea after he sent a letter written in cursive to his daughter while she was at summer camp. Upon finding out that she couldn’t read the letter, he proposed the idea of the pen pal partnership to her third grade teacher, Karen Gunter. Gunter shared his concern, as she worried that the lack of exposure to cursive would prevent her students from reading historical documents like the Declaration of Independence.
“Tim and I began discussing the lost art of cursive at the open house held at the beginning of the school year,” said Gunter. “He agreed with me and believes that it is important for children to learn how to read and write cursive. He worked quickly to start a partnership and put me in touch with Lisa Englander, life enrichment manager for PVN. We matched 19 students with 19 seniors and they are exchanging letters at least once a month. Lisa said the interest was so high they had a waiting list going. We wrote our first letter in mid-November and dropped them off right before Thanksgiving. In their first letter, I suggested that my students share a little bit of information about themselves and write about their ‘Classroom of the Earth’ experience.”
The Classroom of the Earth program is an annual outdoor learning experience which begins for students in PreK and concludes in eighth grade with a backpacking trip in Colorado. Students complete many outdoor tasks and lessons like setting up a tent, white water rafting, rock climbing and more. In third grade, they spend their first night away from home in a screened cabin at a lake house. During this trip, they go on night hikes and many learn how to fish for the first time. Gunter recommended that they write about the experience and share how school is different than it was when the seniors went to school.
“In other letters, I am encouraging them to write about unique lessons and activities they are currently doing at school,” said Gunter. “Many kids have never written a letter or a thank-you note in their life. Some may have typed a thank you via an email, but handwriting isn’t practiced much anymore. I feel that writing letters helps them work on print and cursive. I love that my students and PVN residents will learn from each other throughout this pen pal partnership, as well. They are expected to write more than a mere two or three sentences, and I review them for spelling and grammar. They write a draft, and after the review process complete a final copy. Eventually, we plan to coordinate an event for the residents of PVN to meet my class. If they wish to write more than once a month or continue writing letters after the school year is over, they are welcome to do so.”
Gunter was eager to bring this concept back to her classroom, and she is thrilled that area seniors share her passion and endeavor. She is also thankful that Good Shepherd Episcopal School is letting her incorporate cursive into her lesson plans, as it is not required curriculum. Handwriting provides several mental, physical and emotional benefits. Cursive writing helps with brain development, assists with fine motor skills and enhances the ability to perform small tasks. Writing gives students a chance to be still, and the act of putting thoughts onto paper makes them more focused. It creates room for peace. If children are exposed to constant activity it impairs their ability to sit quietly. UCLA and Princeton published research which shows that students retain information better if they take notes by hand rather than using a laptop. Meanwhile, neuroscientists at the University of Washington have done studies which show that writing in cursive stimulates the brain in ways printing and typing do not.
“As several of our residents will agree, handwriting is a vintage art that is both practical and aesthetically pleasing. Handwriting is personal because it comes from a human and not from a machine,” said Englander. “Forming letters by hand not only helps children learn how to read, it solidifies knowledge and connects the dots when combining certain shapes and sounds. It also helps people develop their signature, which is like a person’s brand or trademark if you will. Cursive might be becoming obsolete in many classrooms, but we are excited to be a part of a pen pal program that makes it enjoyable for children to learn and practice cursive. The residents are learning about the children and are sharing information about themselves. It will be an insightful and heartwarming bond to watch develop.”