CONNECT-ing the kids

Valley Elementary and Bensalem High School partner for inaugural online pen pal program

A special connection: Aaliyah Rosario (left), a 10th-grader at Bensalem High School, and Abby Pugh, a sixth-grader at Valley Elementary, met face-to-face after months of conversing on Google Classroom as part of the inaugural CONNECT program. Samantha Bambino / Times Photo

It was “many moons ago” when Bensalem High School social studies teacher Mary Ellen Phillips taught Zachary Taylor, a sixth-grade instructor at Valley Elementary.

At that time, Phillips hosted Athletes in Service – a pen pal program that matched high schoolers with younger students. Throughout the academic year, the pairs would communicate through written letters, getting to know one another’s likes, dislikes and favorite aspects of school, home and life.

When Taylor crossed paths with his former teacher several months ago at a professional development event, he pitched the idea to Phillips about implementing a modern-day version of the program he once enjoyed so much.

“The one thing that we’re kind of realizing now is that we’re doing a lot of academic teaching, but the social and emotional piece of education is lacking,” Taylor said. “We can talk as much as we want about how you treat people with respect and kindness. However, if it’s someone who’s only a few years older than you promoting that, I feel like that message might get received a little bit better.”

In fall 2018, Taylor and Phillips launched CONNECT, which randomly partnered each sixth-grader at Valley with a tenth-grader at Bensalem High School. Over the course of the past eight months, the students digitally chatted back and forth with their “buddy” through Google Classroom, responding to weekly topics conceived by Taylor and Phillips.

“They were things that were about them and their personal life more than ‘What’s your favorite subject?’ and that kind of stuff,” Taylor said. “What we really wanted was to get the kids to talk about their experiences in school, but also outside of school – mistakes they’ve made, things they’ve accomplished. Sometimes you’ve got kids that come in [to high school] with not much confidence. We want them to realize that you basically carve your path. You decide how you do things.”

While the Valley students got a taste of what to expect in the next chapter of their education, the high schoolers were able to “give back” and impart some wisdom.

“For my guys, there’s not many opportunities at the high school for them to do true community service,” said Phillips, adding how CONNECT is a precursor to the upcoming Building Bridges program, which will allow juniors and seniors to mentor seventh- and eighth-graders. “They were very eager to do it. They were very excited and they far exceeded my expectations.”

On the morning of Monday, June 3, energy was at an all-time high when the 10th-graders traveled up the road to meet their Valley buddies face-to-face for the first time. Though Taylor admitted he was nervous to see if the students’ relationships would carry offline and into the real world, he didn’t need to worry.

Each high schooler welcomed their pen pal with open arms, and enjoyed two hours of outdoor fun in the beautiful weather. While a large group of boys participated in soccer and basketball matches, the girls came prepared with picnic blankets and music to make the sixth-graders feel more comfortable. Since some Bensalem students were unexpectedly absent, the remaining Valley kids were willingly absorbed by other pairs.

Bensalem student Ryan Brown came equipped with a deck of playing cards to keep his buddy Jeffrey Khou occupied. For the two, CONNECT was surprisingly enjoyable.

“It was a very nice and new experience. If you think about pen pals, it was like an over-the-internet type of pen pals. I think it’s a great way to connect with people, especially a younger audience so we can get to know each other despite age differences, and they can have someone to look up to and know what’s in the future, what’s waiting,” Brown said.

At first, he and Khou didn’t think they’d have much in common. But within a few weeks of communicating, they discovered a shared love for video games and music – Brown is in band and Khou is in orchestra.

“Everything’s always awkward at first, but it kind of slowly transitions into a good relationship,” Brown said.

Aaliyah Rosario (Bensalem) and Abby Pugh (Valley) shared a similar sentiment, explaining how they bonded over everything from siblings to athletics.

“She seemed pretty cool. I was excited to come,” Rosario said of Pugh.

The afternoon concluded with a pizza party. Taylor and Phillips said they have every intention of continuing CONNECT next year. ••

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com