Grade 3 student pen pal project goes online during pandemic

When class was in session, students at two neighbouring schools befriended each other through handwritten notes. Now they’re continuing their friendship online with video meetings due to the pandemic.

Students at 2 neighbouring elementary schools began friendships through handwritten letters

Two Grade 3 classes from separate schools started a pen pal program pre-pandemic last winter. The students at Grenoble Public and Rolph Road Elementary Schools thought they would never meet after COVID-19 forced school closures — but their teachers decided to arrange a virtual get-together. 2:39

They may not be in the classroom right now, but two Toronto classes in different elementary schools have found a way to continue learning together about communication through the ages.

What first began as a traditional pen pal friendship between two neighbouring schools through handwritten notes earlier in the school year has now evolved into modern virtual hangouts while the students are in isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pen pal project was the idea of two teachers who both teach Grade 3 at the two schools in Toronto's east end — Anthony Cushman works at Rolph Road Elementary School in Leaside and Angie Massos is at Grenoble Public School in the Flemingdon Park area.

"We were trying to widen the community beyond the walls of our schools and connect with more people outside of school," said Cushman.

"I think there's always a benefit of meeting more people and a wider variety of people."

In November, students in Anthony Cushman's Grade 3 class at Rolph Road Elementary School received letters from their new pen pals in Angie Massos's class at Grenoble Public School. (Tony Cushman)

In November, students in Massos's class each wrote a letter introducing themselves and then placed it in an envelope to be sent to Cushman's class. When the letters were delivered to the other school, students took turns selecting an envelope and reading what was inside. From there, the matched pair from different schools wrote postcards back and forth to each other through the internal Toronto District School Board mail system.

Communication between pen pals evolved over time

The new friendships grew over the months with the children sending personal audio messages to each other, playing online games together, and then getting the chance to chat in real-time with one another through Google Sheets.

Miles Dymond, a student in Cushman's class, said the whole experience of writing letters and having to wait for a response, "felt strange and good at the same time. 

"You're meeting new people and you don't know what their faces look like and you don't know if they have a pet and that's what writing is for."

The pivotal moment for students to meet their pen pals in person was to happen in May, when one class would walk over to the other's school. But when schools closed because of COVID-19, Cushman and Massos pivoted to make a face-to-face meeting happen online instead.

On a video conference call with both classes at the end of April, each pair of pen pals took turns switching on their cameras and microphones to finally see each other's faces and ask and answer a question.

Questions included, "What have you been doing inside during the coronavirus?" and "What do you miss the most?" Common answers were: "Playing video games" and "Going to school."

Students in Angie Massos's Grade 3 class read the handwritten responses they received from their pen pals in Anthony Cushman's class. (Angie Massos)

The students enjoyed the gathering so much that they asked their teachers if they could set up more regular online meetings with their pen pals. 

"This project is all about the human connection, whether it's through letters, postcards, through online,  and now with this whole pandemic going on, we decided to do this online virtual platform for the kids to meet for the first time so it can continue their learning in a very meaningful way," said Massos.

'It's been a gift for all of us'

A second virtual meeting took place last week.

Students were invited to bring a stuffed animal to introduce to their pen pals. The one-hour session ended with a "stuffy dance off" with students singing and dancing with their stuffed toys to Drake's Tosie Slide.

The students' next virtual meeting is in two weeks, when they plan to play online versions of classic board games like Scrabble and 'Connect Four with their pen pals.

"It's been a gift for all of us to stay connected in this way because a lot of people are feeling isolated in this time and look at what we have," said Cushman. 

About the Author

Sannah Choi is a multi-platform journalist with CBC Toronto. She started as a TV reporter in her hometown at CBC Ottawa and has since worked on shows like Power and Politics, Ottawa Morning, Here and Now, and Metro Morning. She enjoys exploring her neighbourhood in Toronto's west end with her husband and son.

With files from Natalie Kalata