Pen Pals from Palestine

“Hi my name is Brian. I just turned ten years old. My favorite sports are football, lacrosse, basketball, and soccer. I celebrate Christmas.  During Christmas, there is a man called Santa Claus. He comes down your chimney and puts presents under a Christmas tree. And what are your traditions? I’m sure they’re fun!” I never thought I’d be an ambassador so soon after graduating college, but for the past few weeks, I’ve been working as a go-between for two groups of precocious and highly opinionated future world leaders. Brian is member of a fourth grade class in Silver Spring, Maryland. At their December holiday party, the class wrote notes to the 9 to 11-year-olds in my Recycled Crafts class in Nablus, Palestine.

These cards—cheerful, honest, and eager—present a fantastic opportunity for true cross-cultural interactions between two sets of children who know very little about each other and would otherwise have little reason to interact. When I planned the activity, I hoped that the students would take away an appreciation of their mutual love of sports—especially soccer—and an understanding of each other’s religious and cultural celebrations. I didn’t anticipate that the students would also have an additional glaring similarity—misspelled English.

During each two-hour class, we spend about 20 minutes on English. The Palestinian students have been taking English since first grade, so they know their alphabet and numbers well. Some even have a fairly advanced English vocabulary, but few have ever used their nascent language skills to really communicate with others. And they certainly don’t have the ability to comprehend the misspellings of American fourth graders who speak English fluently. My students can do the work of seeing a new English word, such as celebrate, and looking it up in the dictionary. They cannot, however, find a translation for celibrate, celabrate, or celubrate. Still, I love those misspellings. They might not teach my students much linguistic accuracy, but they allow them to connect with the Americans as real, live children with similar scholastic woes.

Ultimately, I decided to type up a corrected version of each message and slip it into the envelope with the cards. The children could enjoy the authentic handwriting and illustrations of their peers without being overwhelmed by their spelling mistakes. My students made lists of the English words they did not know. In small groups, they looked up those words in English-Arabic dictionaries. Later, they completed crossword puzzles and played word games with the new words. Celebrate was among them.

This week, we will talk about the similarities and differences that my students see between themselves and their American counterparts. Next week, we will use our own recycled-paper cards to write notes back. To prepare those cards, my students ripped old paper to shreds, soaked it in water, mashed it to a pulp, and laid it on a tray to dry. They designed stamps out of old sponges and used them to decorate their cards. At this point, the cards and vocabulary are ready, and I can’t wait to see what my students have to say!


Karen Campion is currently a TYO Fellow as a recipient of the Princeton Class of 1956-81 International ReachOut Fellowship.