Hanawalt 5th Graders Skype Guten Tag to German Pen Pals

Hanawalt 5th graders connect via Skype with their "pen pals" in Germany.

Hanawalt 5th graders connect via Skype with their “pen pals” in Germany.

Mike Garvey’s 5th graders were unusually abuzz Tuesday morning when they arrived in Room 305 at Hanawalt Elementary. The first order of business was a temporary rearrangement of furniture to create a wide circle of chairs. Then the usual stuff: National anthem, Pledge of Allegiance, daily announcements over the intercom including a weather report. Lunch orders were taken; chicken nuggets or beef burritos? Okay, let’s see, what’s next on the agenda?

At that point Mr. Garvey pushed a button on his tablet and connected with his counterpart, Jan, at a school in Hanover, Germany and a 40-minute Skype session ensued between classes of 10 and 11 year-old pen pals.

Pen palling is not a new classroom concept but Skyping breathes real life into a longstanding way of bringing different peoples together to discover how much they have in common.

“I actually started working with schools internationally 12 years ago through ePals, an organization that promotes international collaboration,” Garvey said.  “Allowing our students a chance to experience what schools are like in other parts of the world is a passion of mine. We started by sending letters and instant messaging students in Bulgaria. They did not have the technology to video conference, so we sent videos, pictures, and letters. We began video conferencing with students from Italy and Germany about eight years ago.”

So he and Jan, in a sense, are old pals. Their students, though, are always meeting anew every year and it never takes long to establish the universality of shyness on the part of 10/11 year-olds in the “presence” of strangers.

Technically, the kids weren’t complete strangers before this morning. Garvey’s class first introduced themselves the old-fashioned way when they sent a batch of personal letters last fall. Their new pals reciprocated with a package that arrived before the holidays and included some German candy, among other goodies.

Last month was the first exchange via videoconference but there wasn’t time for all of the students to get personally introduced to one another so today they picked up where they’d left off, taking turns one or two at a time.

The interrogations were mostly generic and bashful; favorite foods, favorite colors, favorite animals, number of siblings, etc. Pretty garden variety stuff but it made the point that kids everywhere tend to tick alike, even when there’s a seven hour time difference between them. Horses, hockey, ice cream, pizza, puppies, video games, soccer/futbol (whatever you call it, kicking and chasing a ball is a ball no matter where you happen to be in the world). And hey, look at that, you don’t have to be anywhere near Chicago to wear a Bulls hoodie to school!

Despite Jan’s and Garvey’s ongoing connection and the tendency for 5th graders to be 5th graders in some constant ways from one year to the next, there is a unique wrinkle this year that demonstrates how shrunken the world has become. One of the girls in Jan’s class in Hanover, Maria, has an aunt who lived in Des Moines for several years and has actually heard of Hanawalt!

Few of the students in Garvey’s class have yet traveled overseas but when you’re Skyping with German pen pals in 5th grade don’t be surprised if you’re visiting in the flesh by the time you’re in college. That’s becoming a more common experience. But despite steady increases, fewer than 10 percent of all U.S. college students currently study abroad, according to the Institute of International Education.

While biding their time until that opportunity arises Garvey’s students do the next best thing. Now that some of the awkward formalities are out of the way the kids will explore other layers of 5th grade Euro style.

“We’re going to learn more about Hanover now,” said Kate Beeman who didn’t get face-to-face with her personal pal this morning but does not seem like the shy type. If she and her classmates don’t already know they’ll discover that, like their hometown, Hanover is a state capital with a metro population of roughly half a million.

Owen Johnson found some common ground thousands of miles away when he shared that he’s into ice hockey, a popular winter sport in Germany. Harder to explain might be that his favorite team is called the Coyotes and plays in the desert (Arizona’s NHL franchise). He doesn’t like them because they’re so good (currently running 6th in a seven-team division); he just likes their name and the look of them.

That reminds Kate that if there’s one thing that bugs her it’s people who change their favorite team from one year to the next depending on who’s in first place. Frontrunners they’re called, she learned Tuesday morning. Maybe she can mention that in the next Skype session. They’ve probably got those in Germany, too.

Photos of Hanawalt 5th Graders and Their German Pen Pals

Published on