May 01, 2002 2 min read

Special Delivery

What’s in Betty Henry’s mailbox each summer? Her 1st graders’ homework.

It’s that time of year again. With summer approaching, students are fidgeting in their seats, ogling the green grass outside, and daydreaming of ice cream and swimming pools. Betty Henry’s 1st graders at West Vine Street School in Stonington, Connecticut, are as eager as any to get their vacations started. But they’ll skip out the door with one last assignment to complete: They must write their teacher a letter during the summer. And Henry doesn’t get off work- free either since she answers all their mail.

Henry initiated this vacation pen pal program in the 1980s because she didn’t want her graduating 1st graders’ newly acquired skills to lie idle during the off-season. “It’s an authentic writing experience,” she says. “This is teaching them to be lifelong learners and to apply their skills to the real world.” Composing a letter can be an eye-opener for 1st graders, she adds, because it helps them realize that they have “a voice.”

Henry notifies parents of the task and reminds students of the assignment in a note accompanying their final report cards. The teacher responds to all the letters, including the flood of procrastinators’ mail that arrives in late August. Students typically send a one-page message about their summer activities, such as trips to the beach, but pets are also popular subjects. Henry often responds with news of her cat, reading suggestions, and—if the kids are lucky—stickers. Usually about half of the class keeps its commitment, but Henry will be handing out self-addressed, stamped envelopes this year in an attempt to boost those numbers.

Samantha, a 2nd grader who participated in the pen pal program last year, calls letters a “special way” to talk with someone. An avid writer and fantasy-book reader, she says she wasn’t bothered by the summertime homework: “I liked it. I don’t normally get to write on the computer, so that was good.”

Henry admits that her summer letters program also helps her deal with one of the aspects of teaching she dislikes: saying goodbye to her students in May. “You have these kids all year, and they become your extended family,” she says. “The pen pal program is one way to keep in contact.” Apparently, she’s not the only person who craves continuity. After sending Henry the letter she requested following 1st grade, one student wrote to her every summer, unprompted, until junior high school.

—Rose Gordon