Passing notes, six thousand miles away

I left January's Fulbright conference inspired to launch a pen pal project, following in the footsteps of other ETAs who had connected classrooms across the world in this way. The idea resonated with me on multiple levels: under the best circumstances, I believed that mutual understanding, sheer excitement, no shortage of curiosity, and the capacity to compress distances spanning oceans and continents could all stem from a couple dozen letters.

To get the ball rolling, I turned to a good friend and former colleague in Rwanda. Like students in Taiwan, Rwandan students are learning English to navigate the broad array of information, opportunities, and culture made more accessible by English proficienc. To share this journey, I asked my friend to connect me with her son's English teacher, Michael, on the shores of Lake Kivu in western Rwanda. Within days we had scoped the idea, in a week we had paired 60 students, and within two weeks our sixth grade class at 稻香國小 were writing their first letters.


If given the chance, what would a Taiwanese sixth grader tell peers across the worl? Basic stuff, it turns out, and that’s exactly what we had hoped: how they get to school and what they like to eat; their favorite Korean dramas, basketball players, and sports to play during recess; what they do on the weekend, and how many dogs they have at home. These are elements of life shared by students egardless of geography, language, and worldview. While their answers are sure to differ, I hope that this project can bring to light just how much they have in common.


In letters to Rwanda, I asked students to share a reason they wanted to learn English. Jennifer told Belyse, “I’m learning English because I would like to learn about you.” Leave it to a 12-year-old to articulate how language can build bridges. Granted, it should not be English alone. Speakers of powerful world languages like English, Chinese, French, and Spanish who have the time, resources, and rationale should work just as hard learning others’ as teaching their own.

Perhaps most crucially, though, the succinct principle ennife articulated speaks to our scope as ETAs to bring disparate places and backgrounds together, creating space for dialogue, opening a small window onto the greater world, and using English as common ground to do so.




Author: Alex Villec, 2017-2018