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A pen-pal exchange between Writers in the Grove and Gaston Elementary has both groups watching their mailboxes

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: STEPHANIE HAUGEN - Gaston Elementary students fill the letters to their Forest Grove pen pals with color, drawings, stories and questions.Gretchen Keefer had a question for the sixth-graders at Gaston Elementary School: What are you thankful for?

She wrote to them as part of the pen-pal relationship between Gaston Elementary and her Forest Grove writing group, hoping the question would give the students something to write back about.

Turns out the students had never thought much about thankfulness, said their teacher, Thea Hiersche.

But after taking the time to list all the things they love in life, they were "amazed," said Hiersche. From there, the class "started the conversation about how we, as a thankful community, could help others who don't have as much."

Keefer's writing prompt ended up inspiring a donation drive for Doernbecher Children's Hospital in Portland.

That's how words can turn into ideas that turn into actions. It's also how old-fashioned letters can provide inspiration and writing help to young students — and joy to their grown-up writing partners.

"Just seeing these older people gathered around the table — none of them can wait to open the letters as soon as we get our stacks," said Mary Jane Nordgren, a member of the writing group. "It really warms the hearts of everyone."

'Do you have any mail?'

Sheila Harter, whose children now attend Gaston Junior/Senior High School, was the instigator of this partnership. She had noticed elementary students seem to struggle with writing, so she tried to come up with ideas to make writing fun.

Her first effort was a pen-pal relationship with members of the military last year, but responses were often inconsistent because of soldiers' wide-ranging duties, schedules, time zones and locations.

So she decided to try Writers in the Grove, a group of about eight people who write everything from memoirs to fiction to poetry. They meet weekly to provide feedback on each other's projects and to practice writing exercises as a group. NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: STEPHANIE HAUGEN - Writers in the Grove member Bev Walker amuses her Gaston Elementary pen pals with funny stories about animals and snow days.

When Harter approached Writers in the Grove at the beginning of this school year, they were ecstatic about the idea.

So are the students in Gaston, she said. "Whenever I go over to school, the kids run up to me and say, 'You're the mail lady. Do you have any mail for us?'"

They're excited to receive personal replies to stories about their pets, families and favorite foods.

Each Monday morning, Harter picks up the students' letters from mailboxes outside their classrooms and takes them to the Forest Grove Senior & Community Center, where Writers in the Grove members have their weekly meetings. There she gathers the writers' responses to previous letters and drops them back off at the school.

Tangible improvements

Gaston second-grade teacher Ashley Cantrell has noticed a big difference in her students' enthusiasm for writing — and their ability — since the start of the pen-pal program.

"It's wonderful and definitely encouraging kids to be writing more," said Cantrell. "It gives them real-life experience for writing and they learn how to write a proper letter."

Keefer tries to make her letters to the sixth graders fun while subtly helping the students improve their writing skills. Recently, she asked the students to describe their friends without using the word 'nice.' "They came up with all kinds of great new words," she said, although they did use 'cool' a lot. NEWS-TIMES PHOTO:  STEPHANIE HAUGEN - Gretchen Keefer (center) mailed off a writing prompt about thankfulness and ended up sparking a fundraiser for sick children.

Cantrell said her students now associate writing time with fun, even when writing more formal essays.

"I used to not like writing, and now I do," said one second grader.

The letters the children write "are an authentic flow of ideas," said Cantrell, who usually reads them outloud to the class.

"I like telling Susan [Schmidlin] about how my day is going," said one of Cantrell's students.

They particularly enjoy Writers in the Grove member Bev Walker's funny animal stories and try to craft similar short ones to send back, Cantrell said. NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: STEPHANIE HAUGEN - Writers in the Grove member Lela Baskins reads through one of the letters she got from her pen pals at Gaston Elementary School.

Walker, a Forest Grove resident, writes to the students about a cat she once had that was named Bunny and the trouble he got into, such as the time he brought a lizard into the house and she had to chase it. She has also written about the dog that got sprayed by a skunk and the giraffe that ate her popcorn at the zoo.

"I almost feel like they're family because they tell us so many things and about their lives," said one student.

"I liked when Susan and Bev told us about their experience with the snow days," said another.

Phonetic fumbles

Walker and her fellow writers are often just as amused by their youthful pen pals.

While it's common for children to ask about favorite colors or animals, for example, one boy asked Walker about her favorite shape.

His was a sphere, he said.

"This boy is way past me. I think he'll grow up to be a brilliant mathematician," said Walker, who wrote back a short piece about the many different things shaped like a circle and what can be done with them.NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Gaston Elementary second grade teacher, Ashley Cantrell, shows a drawing from Bev from the Writers in the Grove.

Bill Stafford, an accomplished artist, sends his students art work. "That seems to be all they write about is art," Stafford said. "That and food."

The kindergarteners also participate, sending drawings to their pen pals.

At least one class from each grade — kindergarten through sixth grade — particiaptes in the pen-pal arrangement, with students and mentors usually responding two or three times a month.

The students love talking about their pets, families and favorite colors, said Nordgren, although she also sometimes receives letters from children whose families are going through a hard time, such as parents divorcing or separating.Fayth Sanders, 7, listens to her teacher read a letter to the class from one of their Forest Grove pen pals.

"That's their lives," she said. "I just try to be as encouraging as possible," without getting too involved.

While Cantrell is trying to teach the students to take pride in their spelling, those in the writing group get a kick out of the phonetic misfires. Nordgren received a poem for Valentine's Day: "Roses are red, Violence are blue, Shugar is sweat, and so are you."

"I try to go letter by letter to figure out what they're telling me and it's usually there," said Nordgren. "It is so fun."

"Kids really do need some outlet to write and keep practicing it," said Walker, whose youngest great-grandchild is 14. "Besides fire, writing is the most valuable thing the human race has ever had."

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTEL - Cami Cook, 8, thinks of something funny as she writes her pen pal Bev from Writers in the Grove.

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Dalton Wold, 8, a second-grader at Gaston Elementary, works on a letter to his Forest Grove pen pal.

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Anthony Benitez, 8, concentrates deeply while writing to his pen pal, Bev Walker.



By Stephanie Haugen
Reporter, Forest Grove News-Times
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