CHELMSFORD, MA (Jan. 14, 2020) – If nothing else, the Covid-19 pandemic is giving cause for people to get creative, to tap deep into resources, to find a way – something of which is in abundance in the World Languages program at the Chelmsford Public Schools.
While student exchange programs have been a vital piece of the language learning process for decades at Chelmsford High School, any travel – especially international – is on hiatus for the foreseeable future. But Jess Nollet, World Language and Cultural Exchange Program Coordinator at CHS, and her peers are doing their best to ensure students experience the necessary dialogue and culture, however limited, in their pursuit of a second language.
“We hope to provide a similar experience for our CHS students by connecting them with students in other countries and starting exchange programs in the near future,” said Ms. Nollet. “I studied Spanish for 10 years in school, but I didn’t become proficient until I lived in Spain and made friends with native speakers. This is the best way to practice and improve language skills aside from studying it in school.”
While there is no substitute for language exposure that international exchange programs and travel opportunities present, Ms. Nollet and her staff have taken a plan B approach: Virtual Pen Pals, involving video conferencing and exchanges, e-mails and even traditional handwritten letters with ‘partner’ schools around the globe. Each medium is utilized to make the student – on both sides – a better listener, speaker, reader and writer of their second language.
Patricia Sanchez, who has taught Spanish for seven years at CHS, has forged a partnership with the Colegio Nuestra Senora de Fatima in Madrid while Veronica Gadbois, who teaches French at CHS, has partnered with École Secondaire Saint-Charles outside Québec City. Both Barbara Taha and Jessica Ferronetti, also Spanish teachers at CHS, have been exchanging messages with El Instituto San Román in Buenos Aires, Argentina since November.
In early December, 66 of Ms. Sanchez’s students sent videos to their Madrid counterparts – in English – introducing themselves, describing where they live, their hobbies, their families, what they do on the weekends, and other points of interest. The Madrid students recently responded with the same answers and a few questions of their own. “They’re very excited,” said Ms. Sanchez. “They’re very funny with the things they share. I’m learning about my own students because they’re sharing things I wouldn’t normally know about them.”
Ms. Gadbois has taken the original approach to the Virtual Pen Pal exchange: handwritten letters sent by traditional mail to her counterpart at St. Charles, Marie-Éve Tremblay, who matched each letter with one of her students. Ms. Gadbois fully believes handwritten letters, rather than e-mails, evoke creativity and more.
“I find that my students remember French much better when they have taken the time to handwrite the vocabulary or verb conjugations,” she said. “There are studies that show handwriting increases creativity because it slows down the brain. Studies also show that sequential hand movements, like those used in handwriting, activate large regions of the brain responsible for thinking, language, healing, and working memory.
“And letter writing is a lost art,” she added. “Hardly anyone does it anymore in this age of technology and I want my students to experience this ‘old fashioned’ way of life.”
Not only have Ms. Gadbois’ students have embraced writing letters, they embrace the logic behind it. “The letters have definitely improved my fluency in French,” said Madeleine Gaffney, a freshman who has exchanged two letters with her pen pal. “I find that writing my thoughts on paper helps me learn better, rather than just typing it.”
While freshman Brendan Keough has exchanged one letter, he and his pen pal occasionally text. “I wrote one letter, and he sent one back which contained his contact information, and so we have been texting each other back and forth for a while,” he said. “He texts me using French words that I did not know before, which has helped expand my knowledge of French vocabulary.
“I think that it is awesome to have the ability to text another kid from another country,” Mr. Keough added. “We have also talked about nice places to go to in our cities. He told me about the Château Frontenac, and I told him about Regina Pizza, and the Freedom Trail.”
Ms. Ferronetti established a relationship with El Instituto San Román through a colleague while in Argentina as a Fulbright Scholar in 2019. Both hers and Ms. Taha’s classes began exchanging e-mails in November, though the responses have understandably slowed since San Román’s students are on summer vacation until February.
Once they return to school, Ms. Taha said, they will begin dialogue via video conferencing.
“The plan is to continue the e-pal exchange and to host live Google meets.”