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GeoPals: Global Friends Help Kids Learn About Writing


Curriculum Center

When Barbara Soto discovered a listserv whose members are active, community-minded senior citizens, an idea occurred to her. Why not combine their knowledge and commitment with her students' need for the influence of mature adults? What started as an e-mail correspondence project has blossomed into a win-win outreach program called GeoPals! Included: Teachers, students, and mentors tell what they get out of being involved in the GeoPals program!

Image "Many of the children in today's classrooms struggle with academics," Barbara Soto told Education World. "Overcrowded classrooms, media competition for their attention, and stressful home situations sometimes supervised by single parents can make it difficult for students to set academic goals and adhere to them."

Soto is a woman on a mission, and her mission is to improve the literacy and communication skills of children. A retired teacher, she missed the classroom so much that she is now a substitute teacher who also serves as the director and administrator of an e-mail project called MultiAge GeoPals. The program connects fifth graders from Reynolds Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona, with senior citizens and other adults from the United States and around the world. The senior mentors and the students communicate through weekly writing assignments that promote good writing skills, keyboarding techniques, and cross-generational understanding.

When she discovered a listserv whose members are a large group of energetic senior citizens with experience, knowledge, and time, Soto surmised that putting her students' needs together with those giving adults could be a great combination. GeoPals was born!

"Why not link the academically challenged children with the community-service-minded mature adults?" thought Soto. "Why not develop a yearlong protocol that would properly supervise and monitor a curriculum-based e-mail mentoring program? Why not give the adults an opportunity to offer a helping hand to the students? For many, community service becomes an easily attainable goal when it can be accomplished so easily and from the comfort of home."


'Dear Abby' Exercise

Barbara Soto shared with Education World an exercise that is part of her GeoPals curriculum. Each mentor creates a Dear-Abby-type letter that asks advice about a problem -- real or made-up -- related to character, responsibility, or reliability. Mentors send their "Dear Abby" letters to their student counterparts. The students respond by return e-mail. Click here for the complete activity, including a sample letter.

In 1997, Soto was just starting to explore possible uses of the Internet, and she was quite a "newbie"! Still in the classroom, she joined a local listserv designed to provide technology tutoring for newly connected senior citizens. A retired librarian ran the mailing list. As Soto read the questions and responses of the list members, the idea for GeoPals took root.

"It dawned on me that the people who were writing back and forth on this listserv had a lot of know-how, and they also seemed to have a lot of time," explained Soto. "I had students with academic deficiencies, many of whom really hated any language arts activities. I asked the retired librarian, 'What is the possibility of linking up the seniors with my students in a mentoring program?' My position was that the kids would respond to getting messages on a regular basis.

"At that time, I hadn't fully considered the self-esteem benefits," added Soto. "Nor was I really cognizant of how much the seniors would enjoy being 'needed' again."

The list owner agreed, and Soto put out a call for mentors. She found volunteer mentors for each of the 32 students in her class. She worked out the basics of the e-mail project during the first year and devised activities as they were needed. Another classroom joined for the second year of the GeoPals project. With a little tweaking, revising, and mentor recruiting, that year began with 64 student-mentor pairs. A third year followed. Now in its fourth year, the project involves four classrooms.


Currently, 120 children and 72 mentors participate in MultiAge GeoPals. (Many of the adults work with two students.) The mentors live in 30 states and ten foreign countries. The children receive e-mail from all over the globe!

Soto's goals are twofold: to help the kids develop computer literacy and to enhance their language arts, writing, and communications skills.

The program begins three weeks into the school year and ends three weeks before the last day of classes. At the start, a schedule is sent to each mentor. It contains the dates and topics for the semester. Then in the middle of each week, the next week's activity is forwarded to the mentors. The description includes a full example of how the mentor may present the activity to the student.

Students receive their weekly assignments from their mentors via hard copy in a Monday morning "mail call." Students have the time to write rough drafts of their responses, which they keep in a special folder in their desks. They type their responses in the computer lab during their weekly computer periods and saved them on floppies or send them to a wired computer in the school. The communication between student and mentor alternates weekly between structured exercises and casual writing. Teachers send the student messages to the mentors on Fridays.

The assignments students complete are based on state standards for English, language arts, social studies, civics, history, geography, and math and are drawn from the curriculum. Soto's love of geography is evident in such exercises as Why Is This place Famous? In this activity, the mentors help the students with research papers about geographic locations, using information from reference books and the Internet. In an English grammar assignment, the kids play word games that include synonyms and homonyms. A creative writing activity asks students to analyze fables and write their own versions in present-day settings.


Although Soto believes that GeoPals has had some positive effects on the Reynolds students, she feels measuring what they have gained is difficult. She has seen students develop a sense of writing style and the ability to file and organize material in chronological order. The children's sentences have become longer and more complex. To Soto, those are wonderful, if somewhat subjective, outcomes!

"I don't know what the performance levels for the writing of English insofar as grammar, punctuation, and usage are across the country, but the skill range at fifth-grade level here in Tucson is very wide!" Soto stated. "These are fifth graders, and some of them have no notion of what a paragraph is, how to do a bibliography, or what the beginning, middle, and end of an essay means. When they have modeling in front of them on a weekly basis and it grabs their attention because it is authentic, they learn. It's a kind of osmosis, but they learn."

Even those students who possess exceptional writing skills benefit from the GeoPals program. Soto says that the ongoing communication with adults provides modeling that polishes student work. The assignments themselves guide the students into research, and the e-mails give students a taste of what they can accomplish through competent communication.

"I've also noticed the 'esteem' factor," said Soto. "These kids have a grown-up who writes to them every week -- a grown-up who responds to their written expression, thereby giving meaning to it.

"There are benefits for the mentors too," Soto added. "Many of them, especially the retired seniors, enjoy being needed. After all, they have spent a lifetime acquiring skills and knowledge, and, quite often, after retirement, they are not needed anymore. After a year or so of retirement, many seniors develop a desire to commit to community service. GeoPals allows them to make a significant contribution at a relatively minor level of inconvenience to themselves. That's kind of like having your cake and eating it too!"

Because the program incorporates e-mail communication, guidelines to protect the students have been developed. Exchanging snail mail addresses and telephone numbers is not allowed. Occasionally, a mentor will go on a trip and want to send a postcard or other note by regular mail. Soto permits the mentors to send their mail to the classroom teachers in care of the school. A Canadian mentor once made beautiful pressed-flower bookmarks and sent one for each child. Another mentor sent a vial of volcanic ash from Italy. Some of the mentors have even sent books or tapes to the school library!


"Our fifth-grade teachers have all shared the wonderful experiences that the students have gained from the experience of having a GeoPal," said Reynolds Elementary principal Pete Palazzo. "The GeoPals program has the combination of technology, adult mentors, and the enthusiasm of young children to create a successful educational program for the 21st century."

When he first learned of the project, Palazzo expected that GeoPals would be an excellent vehicle for the students to communicate with adults around the country and world. His greatest concerns were how to protect students and screen the e-mail messages. Soto, with the help of parent volunteers, has been able to provide the students with security and confidentiality.

"The program helps students see the benefits and advantages of technology used in a positive way," said Palazzo. "It offers adults who may not be able to travel to our school a way of assisting young children. The students at Reynolds have a way to share information about themselves and their community with others from other communities. It also develops the students' writing skills in an authentic setting."

GeoPals would not be a reality without Palazzo's endorsement. He and Soto wrote a grant proposal for new hardware to support the e-mail project. The goal is for the program to go "wireless," with a portable cart that holds ten laptops, a hub, and a printer. GeoPals classrooms would share the setup and also use it for other computer work. The district approved the grant but postponed it for more than two years because other matters have received higher priority. Good hardware and software are essential to the function of a program such as GeoPals, and keeping it operational with the limited equipment available has been a challenge.


Reynolds teacher Kathleen Halstead has worked with GeoPals for three years. Through the program, her students enjoy the personal exchange of ideas, they practice their writing skills, and they get to know a person of a different age and have the benefit of his or her wisdom.

"GeoPals gives kids a reason for writing and communicating," Halstead said. "It also gives them an extremely enjoyable reading experience. They particularly enjoy hearing from someone who lives in a faraway place. They want to look it up on the map and find out about it. It makes the place real for them."

In her first year with the GeoPals program, fifth-grade bilingual teacher Socorro Montano has watched her students make great strides in their communication skills. She says that the students have gained knowledge not only by being so dedicated to their GeoPals and responsible for communicating with them but also because of the friendships they have developed with the mentors.

"They have enjoyed all the aspects of being a GeoPals student -- the informal communication, the learning process of answering challenging questions, and the fun activities that their GeoPals send them," Montano said. "The GeoPals program has a tremendous impact on my curriculum. The students get to practice and rehearse their communications and writing skills. They actually get to experiment firsthand with their social studies skills. Some of their GeoPals are people from different parts of the world."

Brian G. is a student in Montano's fifth-grade classroom. He describes GeoPals as "people who want to communicate with and help students and to make new friends with children."

"My GeoPal or my mentor has helped me be more responsible because I committed myself to write to him. He is very smart, so I learned a lot of things through his e-mail," explained Brian. "What I like the most about the GeoPals project is that my GeoPal writes very encouraging letters to me. He seems to care about my future. He tells me about himself, and he also asks me questions about grammar and social studies. I like writing to him. We should have a lot more people doing this kind of help."

"GeoPals are dedicated people who want to share their experiences with students," added another student, Herman C. "They also like to help with school things like grammar and social studies."

Herman feels that communicating with his mentor has helped him a great deal. He especially enjoys her stories about when she was about his age. His mentor sends cards to him on holidays and often tells him that she enjoys reading his letters. Herman tells her about his school and home experiences. "She [the mentor] is a very smart lady. The GeoPals project is a nice project for everyone. GeoPals are caring persons. GeoPals teach us communication skills, and they also teach us to be respectful and responsible to others," Herman said

Samantha S. echoes some of sentiments of her classmates. "My GeoPal, or my mentor, has helped me a lot to be responsible. I usually write back to her as soon as I get her letters. Sometimes she tells me stories that are fun, and other times she writes sad stories. I like to read them all. I tell her most of the things that I do at school and at home. She always answers me back. I like my GeoPal a lot."

In summation, Samantha suggests, "GeoPals are great! There should be more people like them."


Soto is extremely proud of the work of the GeoPals mentors. She says that she often receives personal notes from them that say such things as, "I haven't heard from Kyle for two weeks. Is anything wrong?" This year, a child in the program lost both a parent and stepparent. After the tragedy, the child moved out of state but kept in touch with the mentor, with the full support of a parent and counselor.

Art Wolinsky of Barnegat, New Jersey, is one GeoPals mentor. The technology director for the Online Internet Institute, he has been involved with GeoPals since its beginning. "As a participant, I get the satisfaction of working one-on-one with a child and seeing the growth that takes place over the course of the year," said Wolinsky. "I also get to do fifth-grade homework!"

One memorable activity from this year was the "Dear Abby" letter. At the time of that assignment, Wolinsky was coincidentally involved in investigating some questionable practices by an Internet company that were having a negative effect on his company. The investigation led him to information that would allow him to remedy his problem quickly and easily, but it would mean others would continue to be hurt. His alternative was to involve himself in a longer, more difficult struggle to help the others. Wolinsky reframed his dilemma in terms of a school playground and a bully who was bothering him and other children. He asked his GeoPal whether he should take care of himself and get the bully off his back or do the extra work to help others and put himself in danger. They both chose to help others!

"Though pen pal programs have been around for quite a while, the technology allows this program to do things you could not do without technology," Wolinsky observed. "Without technology there is no way a teacher could gather a group of mentors and coordinate communications that are based on curricular objectives."


A two-year mentor from Cork, Ireland, Bill Murphy is a self-employed "itinerant computer operator." At 69 years of age, he might be described as semi-retired, but, Murphy says, he is "never happy whilst idle." His background is in communications training and study skills, making him an ideal candidate for the GeoPals program.

"I only hope my young GeoPals get half the enjoyment that I do from the interchange," reported Murphy. "Satisfaction. The satisfaction of feeling the curious young mind in action. I doubt if many fifth graders even know where Ireland is -- and here they are finding the little dot on the globe. I can almost feel their amazement that I live on a tiny island, not even as big as Arizona, and yet there are almost 200 million in the United States we can claim as descendants!"

U.S. Geological Survey geographer Joseph J. Kerski, of Denver, Colorado, could help the students find Murphy on the map. He has been a mentor since 1999. He joined the program because he believes that all professionals in their respective fields have a responsibility to give back to the educational community from which they have gained their experience and education.

Kerski explained, "In our own small way, by interacting with individual students, we can truly make a difference in the lives of our students, communities, and world. I try to encourage the students I mentor to think big, to dream big. I encourage them that if I can get a job in science; then they can too! Even if they are not interested in science or geography, I encourage them to be their best, to go for it! I also show them that even as adults, it is OK to get excited about learning new things each day.

"In my writings with the students, I try to give them a sense that they are worthwhile and they each have a unique contribution to make," Kerski added.

Marjorie (Mardi) Roberts Morris of Gainesville, Georgia, is a teacher who has also enjoyed her mentoring experience. She finds that watching the students' growth over the school year is rewarding.

"GeoPals is a positive contribution that an adult can make to the life of a young person without even leaving home," said Morris. "The activity reinforces the students in the areas of communication skills, computer skills, and relationships with adults. It requires little time and no extra money. It also makes the adult much more aware of what is going on in the classrooms and some of the obstacles that teachers face."

Morris worked with a fifth grader whose mother had died, and the child faced special challenges. Their communication turned out to be a very supportive resource. With an understanding teacher and constant affirmation from the e-mail pal, the student seemed to "pick up steam" all year. As a widow, Morris felt that they had a unique point of reference.

Another educator, retired superintendent Donald J. Behnke of Scottsdale, Arizona, has been a mentor for three years. He enjoys working with students in positive ways. He explained that helping them practice writing, increase vocabulary, and observe a schedule is fulfilling.

"I have worked with two boys and one girl," said Behnke. "We and the media think children are so very different now from those of past generations, but the interests of the boys are cars and football and of the girls makeup, rock stars, and babies in the family. Is that so very different?"

Behnke shares a common thought among the mentors -- he hopes that the students gain as much from their partnership as he does. He also believes that connecting children with adults is becoming increasingly important as the population ages. He suggests that better communication among people of all ages will help ease intergenerational issues, such as paying for Social Security benefits for seniors.


Soto plans to launch her fifth year of GeoPals next September, and she has classrooms just waiting to join in the activity. The addition of more classrooms will require more mentors, so she is seeking volunteers. This is her call:

"Are you patient? Do you have one hour to give to a kid each week? Do you feel uneasy about how well our children read and write? Would you like to give a kid a few 'tools' to work with so he or she is better prepared to move on to the next grade? Do you like to write? Are you creative and innovative? Do you like to work with kids? Are you community-service minded? Would you like to make a difference in the life of a child? Are you willing to make a commitment for one academic year? Do you have regular access to a computer and to Internet connectivity?"

If you can answer yes to those questions, please contact Barbara Soto and join GeoPals!

NOTE: Barbara Soto is a teacher consultant with the Arizona Geographic Alliance, which is part of National Geographic's alliance network.