Penpal Program

Undergraduate and high school pen pals exchange letters and ideas

Undergraduates in Dr. Simona Goldin’s ED 118 course exchanged letters with high school students from UPrep: Art and Design Academy until finally meeting at the SOE to share their visions for a better world. 

How often are young people asked what they need out of their school? What about the needs of their teachers? Their community? The fact that these questions are rarely asked does not mean that students are not ready to answer. 

Undergraduates in Dr. Simona Goldin’s ED 118 course corresponded with high school students from UPrep: Art and Design Academy for several months before meeting on the University of Michigan campus. Their letters encouraged them to share their interests, their school experiences, their personal and community aspirations, and their vision for a better world. 

Finally meeting face-face for the first time, they sat down at the School of Education to share their personal stories with each other and discuss their educational dreams. “I think it’s cool that my pen pal is a photographer,” said one student. “In addition to education courses, I also take ballroom dance here at the university” shared another, just as a high school student next to her revealed her interest in dancing. 

After getting re-acquainted, students formed small groups to discuss the state of education and the challenges they have faced as students. Goldin asked them to explain what a school would look like if it nurtured their individual greatness, their teachers’ greatness, and their community’s greatness. When the group compared their ideas, they discovered common themes such as their desire for more freedom to explore topics of interest, opportunities for hands-on learning, and smaller class sizes. There were also calls for learning about being a member of society and building stronger life skills that are often neglected by school curricula but essential to student success. The students also talked about the importance of food security, reliable transportation, and modern technology in classrooms. These needs, they said, should not be ignored and have a particular impact on low-income families. 

Through this collaborative work, high school students and undergraduates realized that their overall needs and goals had more commonalities than differences. Together, they affirmed that an ideal school would give them more support while also offering them new and exciting opportunities to grow. 

The 2018 pen pal project was coordinated by Dr. Goldin and her former student Michael Chrzan, an SOE alumnus who is now a 3rd year teacher at UPrep: Art and Design, a charter school in Detroit. Dr. Goldin designed this pen pal program in 2013, and has supported it in her class since then. One of the program’s main objectives is to give high school students and U-M students the opportunity to be in conversation with each other about their personal interests and their lives in school. SOE students have benefited from the opportunity to mentor and engage personally with high school students to share their lived experiences. At the same time, the high school students gain exposure to college students’ writing while also learning to write for a new audience. “We have seen, over the course of the pen pal program, that the benefits accrue to both sets of students,” says Goldin. “They inspire each other and learn from each other.”