October 20, 2014
Florida’s elementary students are reaping the benefits of old fashioned letter writing. PencilPALS, the SAG Foundation’s writing program, gives children firsthand experience with the lost art. Volunteers from SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild are paired with students and correspond by postal mail throughout the school year.
Each pair is given a questionnaire to complete that generates ideas for first letters. After that, a correspondence evolves, with letters exchanged on topics ranging from favorite books and school happenings to long term aspirations. The project often starts and ends with PencilPALS gatherings at school to give volunteers an opportunity to meet students in person and build a rapport. Students gain a sense of pride in their own writing and in their own letters by sharing them with interested readers. Some of these correspondent friendships have evolved and endured for years.
The children light right up when they check the mailbox and receive an envelope with their name on it. They can’t wait to read their letters aloud to each other and to their teacher. They clamor to write back immediately. These letters are more than just words to them. They are tangible expressions of human bonds, allowing kids to feel cared for, connected and valued. One student professed that she slept with her PencilPALS letters under her pillow at night. Another 2nd grader claims, “PencilPALS are nice to have because they are a different kind of friend. You know they are listening to you and always wanting to know what you are doing. It’s like another part of your family.”
Although a seemingly simple task, letter writing is an incredibly enriching experience for the students in this program. Young children develop their creativity and individuality when they write down their thoughts in letters. No one interrupts them, no one tells them they are wrong or prevents them from expressing what’s on their mind. Their thoughts flow freely from their heads and hearts to their hands. And recent studies by Indiana University show that the act of handwriting is far more beneficial than typing and texting. Handwriting increases brain activity and development, aids memory, inspires confidence, and, for younger children, hones fine motor skills and can be a predictor of academic success (Chicago Tribune).
And then there is that undeniable charm in receiving a handwritten letter in the mailbox. It is a treat and a treasure unparalleled by any other form of communication. Letters make these kids think and feel. And the feeling is mutually rewarding among volunteers. Writing programs are critical in this age of emailing and texting, when students have fewer and fewer opportunities to chronicle their experiences in thoughtful, polished prose. PencilPALS aren’t just reviving the lost art of letter writing; they are nurturing vital communication skills and, in their own unique way, preserving the art of humanity.