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Friends from afar, no more

First-grade pen pals from Tualatin and Aloha meet after a year of correspondence
by: Jonathan House, First-grade pen pals Charlie Yates of Tualatin Elementary, left, and Adriana Gonzalez of Aloha-Huber Park K-8 School play together after meeting for the first time on June 6.

Though they had never met before, Isabella Moon and Macy McDilda say matter of factly that they are best friends.

'We are going to go play, and then we are going to draw with chalk,' said Isabella, 7, in between bites of a sandwich at the Tualatin Elementary School playground.

'Yeah,' Macy said.

The two BFFs aren't alone in their declaration. All across the playground students run, swing and play with so-called 'best friends' they are meeting for the first time.

On Wednesday, June 6, students in Kaycee Ojeda's first-grade class took the long bus ride from Aloha-Huber Park K-8 School in Beaverton to Tualatin Elementary School for a picnic with pen pals the classmates had spent the past several months writing to.

The letters are the latest in a series of pen pal relationships between Ojeda's class and Tualatin Elementary first-grade teacher Julia Fossati.

'Some of the letters they write to each other are so cute,' said Fossati, who has taught at Tualatin Elementary for the past four years.

Since October, students at each school have written a letter to their pen pal across town as a way to practice their writing skills and make new friends.

'In both of our first-grade writing programs, we saw that there wasn't a lot of letter writing built into the curriculum,' Ojeda said. 'This is a really good opportunity to expose them to a type of writing they wouldn't otherwise have much practice with.'

Fossati said along with the newfound friendships, learning to read and write letters has had a profound impact on the students' writing skills.

'We see some (writing) samples of other students that don't have pen pals, and it is amazing how quickly our kids can think about in detail questions or say something to someone in a letter.' Fossati said. 'At the beginning of the year, it took them a few days to write a letter, and now they can write one in 15 minutes. They're really good at it.'

Aloha-Huber's Denise Zavala-Rodriguez, 6, said she was nervous about meeting her pen pal, Tualatin's Dalila Padilla-Romero, for the first time. However, the two instantly hit it off.

Ojeda said she believes her students when they say they have formed lasting friendships through their letters.

'We had to switch one student to a new partner at Tualatin and there were tears,' she said. 'They did not want to be separated.'

Each month, Ojeda and Fossati had their students write to their pen pal, asking questions and learning more and more about each other.

'I don't know how many letters we wrote, but I think it was a lot,' Macy said.

Students asked each other important questions, said Isabella, such as what their favorite color was.

'We also asked what your favorite food is,' said Macy.

'Mine is an egg,' Isabella chimed in.

'Mine is my mom's homemade lasagna,' Macy remembers writing. 'I love lasagna.'

Several of the students said they enjoyed having pen pals and that they had built friendships out of the letters, along with learning a lot about writing.

'I like to write, and it's really fun to write to someone and find out what they like to do,' Macy said.

Isabella put it differently.

'I like to write to other people because you might get to have a message sent back to you,' she said. 'Macy wrote me one time and said, 'You are so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so pretty.' I can't believe she said that.'

Fossati and Ojeda said they hope to expand the program to include other first-grade teachers in the schools.

'We are hoping for next year to get other team members on board and eventually get the whole schools involved and plan a field trip where the kids can meet at the end,' Fossati said.

Wednesday's get-together was last minute, Fossati said. Ojeda was able to get permission for a short 1-hour lunch at Tualatin Elementary.

'We thought one of two things would happen when they met each other for the first time,' Ojeda said. 'Either they would be shy and want to stay with their classmates, or they would be excited and want to play, and it looks like it's the latter.'