Children connect with letters to Russia

Pen pal program helps elementary students learn about a different culture

Posted: Monday, December 24, 2007

At a time of cooling relations between the U.S. and Russian governments, a group of Juneau elementary school students are building a warm friendship with children in the central Russian city of Saransk.

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In an age of e-mail, they're doing it through the old-fashioned art of letter writing.

In the exchange, Juneau children with names like Calvin, Mason and Kody are getting to know something about children named Kira Tomesevenye, Grisha Imarov and Roman Romanaov.

What the Auke Bay students know about their pals is preliminary. Finn Cole, 8, said his pen pal, Anna Pchelnikova, likes computer games and dance. But it's there that the connection begins.

It's important for Russian and American children to meet without the political side of things, Auke Bay music teacher Ann Boochever said. She first visited Saransk in 1992 shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. These students know nothing of that time, she said.

Through his pen pal Igor Healy, 9, is reconnecting with Russia. Healy was born near Moscow and came to Juneau at age 2 with adoptive parents. He said one of the commonalities with Russian kids is a love of computers. Russian children like computers the same way children all over the world do, he said.

Eight-year-old Calvin Wade's pen pal sent a cell phone intricately made with paper and cardboard as a gift with his letter. Wade's writing partner is known only as Ceveh. Wade said he's learned the capital is Moscow and that "The Snow Child" is a famous Russian story.

The letter exchange between 54 Auke Bay Elementary students and Russian children came about while a friend of Boochever's traveled to Saransk to get art from the Russian students to support a recent performance of "The Snow Child."

Russian students sent drawings and paintings of their town, families and onion-domed cathedrals along with a photo and the letters.

Through the art, Casey Todd, 9, learned of a 16th century Russian tyrant, Ivan the Terrible. "He cut the eyes out of the people who built Saint Basils," he said. Beyond the famous legend, Todd said he thinks his Russian counterparts are splendid artists.

"They're really good," he said.

Mason Lowe, 9, thinks he and fellow Auke Bay students can learn from differences as much as the obvious similarities. They speak a different language, we can learn from them, he said. "Russia is cool."

Similarities in the children's lives have been found too. Russian teacakes are like powdered doughnut holes, but harder, said Healy. Todd found the witch-like mythical old woman called Baba Yaga in Russian folklore to be similar to the stepmother in Cinderella or the witch in Hansel and Gretel.

While the children from Russia sent notes explaining their likes, Kody Lowery, 7, said he told his pen pal of his favorite things; baseball, football, pizza and pop. Lowery is sure his pen pal, Azat, knows about pizza.

Todd hopes to keep the communications line open. His pal sent an e-mail address and phone number to encourage conversation from halfway around the world. Todd said he is more likely to call than send e-mail.

Many of the letters from Russia came in neat, technically clean English, but a volunteer interpreted some of them for kids in Boochever's class. Friday they wondered if Russian class was taught at Floyd Dryden Middle School. If not, they'll wait for high school to learn the complex Slavic language.

The writing exchange came about as the students prepared to perform the Russian play, "The Snow Child."

Boochever likes to have the children perform plays from different cultures in an effort to highlight minority students in the school systems.

"It gives a different understanding of culture," she said.

The students may not be able to articulate exactly what they've learned, she said. "But, they have a feeling for Russia now."

The art exchange and letters from pen pals made the play so much more real, she said. "They have the chance to learn that children far from us are the same."

Healy has lost most of the Russian words he spoke as a toddler and hopes to help the kids in Saransk work on their English. "If this keeps going they'll get better at English," he said.

The students expect their next exchange to happen in February after a friend of Boochever returns from a visit to Saransk with letters.

"You keep a pen pal by writing often," Healy said.

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