May 29, 2024

East Union teachers push the envelope with third graders

East Union third-grade students meet their pen pal who have they have corresponded with during the school year.

AFTON – East Union students learn the letters of the alphabet earlier in their education. The third grade year, the students learn about letters; ones written to others and what it can emotionally mean.

In its sixth year, East Union got the the idea through AmeriCorps at Graceland University. East Union After School Coordinator Tammy Ross implemented the idea with third-grade teachers Tara Luther and Rheanna Pettit. The academic aspect of the program is for students to learn how to write letters, sentence structure to help them understand sustaining a conversation and a series of information. But it turns out to be more meaningful and emotional.

“We talk about making connections with others and with what they have written and connect it to pen pals,” Luther said.

Letters are written once a month to volunteers who accept the letters and write back in return. Attempts are made to match students to volunteer receivers which are throughout Union County. The two teachers said there have been relatives of students volunteer, but they are not assigned to those students. The program strengthened during the early stages of COVID as volunteers wanted to be involved to give them an activity.

The letters are progressive during the year as students start introducing themselves listing various favorite common items. As the year progresses, what happens to the student, and the recipient, are shared. Student letters are vetted before sending and the teachers do all the mailing.

“It’s like Christmas morning once a month,” Pettit described how the students receive their letters. The emotion is based on what the students are asked or what they learn about their pen pal. “They really get engaged. Everybody is always sharing.”

Volunteers told the teachers they have pictures from the students hanging on refrigerator doors.

The two teachers say the volunteers write their letters in cursive, which adds to the academic influence of the program.

“In third grade we are just learning how to write cursive,” Luther said. The two said having letters written in cursive is a great tool for students to better understand the style of writing. Despite cursive, students are looking beyond the dotted i’s.

“Kids don’t necessarily see it as school work. It’s fun for them,” Pettit said.

Third-grade students recently held their meet-and-greet where students met the people they wrote. The event is held at the Afton Community Center. The event includes games, activities and have light refreshments. There are icebreakers to initiate conversations.

“They finally get to connect in person,” Pettit said. “This is more fun and a real-world connection. It goes beyond the curriculum,” she said.

The two teachers said the program is growing with volunteers. There are some volunteers who have been writing since the first year. The two teachers said some students asked if the letter writing can continue in fourth grade. It’s only for third grade.

“Next year we will have the first letter writing students enter high school,” Pettit said. “They still remember their pen pal.”

John Van Nostrand


An Iowa native, John's newspaper career has mostly been in small-town weeklies from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River. He first stint in Creston was from 2002 to 2005.