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Will you be my pen pal?

Barry McNamara
05/02/2011
By the time students at Monmouth-Roseville High School reach the Spanish IV course level, the new language they are learning has become a lot less “foreign.” In fact, the nine students currently enrolled in the class, which is taught by 2006 Monmouth College graduate Ana Fisher Franks, have a firm enough grasp of Spanish to participate in a “pen pal” correspondence activity with students in Mexico.

Those Mexican students are enrolled in an evening English as a second language (ESL) class taught by Monmouth College professor of modern foreign languages Heather Brady, who is completing a year abroad in Mexico as a Fulbright Scholar. Brady, who is conducting research and teaching at the Universidad de Gaudalajara, is also working with students “ages 4 to 40” in the town of Atolinga, which is located northwest of Mexico City in the state of Zacatecas. There, her students are working on improving their English by sending letters to Franks’ students, who respond in Spanish. Each pen pal has written and received three letters.

Brady said both groups of students are similar in that they live in geographically remote towns with a strong agricultural identity.

“As a result of globalization, these towns are undergoing significant economic change and struggling to find workable solutions,” she explained, adding that Zacatecas is one of the leading states in terms of sending emigrants to the U.S.

“So many of the students in my classes – and the correspondents – come from families whose members have emigrated at some point to the U.S.,” she said. “A lot of people in Atolinga and the rancho of Agua Zarca and other nearby towns have family members living in Monmouth today.”

In addition to studying at Monmouth, Franks said her connection with Brady was strengthened through the professor’s recent Citizenship course on immigration. Franks and her husband, Todd Franks, who also teaches at MRHS and is a 2006 Monmouth College graduate, have communicated with Brady via Skype, and the pen pal project grew out of those conversations.

Two of Franks’ Spanish IV students can definitely relate to the difficulty of learning a second language. Both Yareli Amador and Sahari Zamora had to learn English after moving to the U.S. from Mexico. Zamora learned some of the language while studying at a private school in Mexico City but still, she said, getting a command of English was “really hard.” Now, you might say the two students have the language covered from A to Z.

Zamora’s pen pal is a 15-year-old student who shares common interests, including reading, hanging out with friends and the “Twilight” series. Two other students in Franks’ class chose their pen pals through associations with agriculture and dentistry.

“My pen pal is an older student,” explained Rachel Switzer, whose mother is an oral surgeon. “She has children and is a dentist.”

“Students love making friends across cultures,” said Brady. “For them, national borders have little meaning. Students in Atolinga have a lot in common with their counterparts in Monmouth, sharing a passion for popular movies, music and reading, along with an interest in learning other languages.”

Franks receives the letters from Mexico as an email attachment, then shares them with the students.

“Some of the English is very good,” she said. “We notice little things like the tense of verbs being different than what they should be or adjectives being switched, but I think that students in both countries don’t realize they know as much as they do.”