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Home Education Magazine

May-June 2001 - Articles and Columns

Good Stuff - Rebecca Rupp

Letter Writing

Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad books are charmers. Toad is mopey and disaster-prone: his kite won't fly; his garden won't grow; he loses lists and buttons; and he looks silly in his striped swimsuit. Frog is cheerful, upbeat, and supportive. They're a perfect pair -- funny, touching, and delightful -- and their adventures deal neatly with many of the trials and tribulations of childhood.

In Frog and Toad Are Friends (Harpercollins, 1970), one such tribulation centers around the mailbox. Toad is miserable because he never gets mail; the kind-hearted Frog promptly writes him a letter -- but then entrusts its delivery to a very slow snail. All eventually ends happily, but young readers will sympathize with Toad's disappointment with his empty mailbox and the awful frustrations of waiting.

The best bet for filling an empty mailbox, of course, is to send somebody a letter. A useful introduction to the technicalities of letter writing for early-elementary-aged correspondents is Loreen Leedy's Messages in the Mailbox (Holiday House, 1994) in which the green and toothy Mrs. Gator teaches her class how to write a creative range of letters, among them friendly letters, thank-you notes, letters of apology, fan letters, complaint letters and letters to the editor.

The ProTeacher Web site at www.proteacher.com/070041.shtml also features letter-writing instructions and activities for elementary-level kids, including "Arthur's Letter Writer Helper" in which Marc Brown's Arthur covers all the grammar basics -- plus such extras as "Five Things to do with Junk Mail." There's also a list of emoticons, which are all those funny little faces that you can make with the symbol keys on a computer keyboard.

For older students, almost all style manuals cover proper letter formats -- see, for example, The Bantam Book of Correct Letter Writing (Lillian E. Watson; Bantam Books, 1983), which covers everything from the rules of grammar to the proper forms of address for archbishops, admirals, and the Queen of England. (Included are dozens of useful sample letters, none with much personality, but all written in admirably correct form.)

The English Plus Web site at www.englishplus.com features a short but comprehensive section on letter writing, which covers business and friendly letter formats, envelope formats, and correct methods of letter-folding.

For a snazzier approach to letters, see Laura Allen's Clever Letters: Fun Ways to Wiggle Your Words (Pleasant Company, 1997), a collection of ideas and activities for creative correspondents aged 9-12 (or so): for example, kids make invisible ink, design stationery, experiment with decorated lettering techniques (how many ways can you think up to dot an i?), and invent secret codes.

Joan Irvine's How to Make Pop-Ups (William Morrow, 1988) is a marvelous collection of easy-to-follow instructions for making creative mailables: send a friend a pop-up castle, pirate ship, flapping bird, erupting volcano, or cow jumping over the moon. Sequels include How to Make Super Pop-Ups (Beech Tree Books, 1992), which are truly super, and How to Make Holiday Pop-Ups (Beech Tree Books, 1996), which are multicultural.

And don't overlook the art potential of the envelope. If you need a few ideas, the Envelope and Letter Folding Web site at www.ghh.com/elf/elf.html describes more ways to make and fold envelopes than you ever dreamed existed, with detailed diagrams and instructions.

The Smithsonian National Postal Museum sponsors an annual contest to turn a plain envelope into a spectacular work of art. If interested, contact the Graceful Envelope Contest, National Postal Museum, Smithsonian Institute, MRC-570, Washington, C.C. 20560; or visit the Web site at www.si.edu/postal. The Web site also includes games, puzzles, quizzes, and interactive online exhibits for young letter-lovers: kids learn about mail on board the Titanic (five postal clerks went down with the ship), view a display of folk art mailboxes (including one shaped like a loaded cannon), and tour Franklin Delano Roosevelt's stamp collection.

For politically concerned kids, Barbara Lewis's The Kid's Guide to Social Action (Free Spirit Press, 1998) includes instructions for writing letters in support of worthy causes -- often the first step in making a difference (Free Spirit Press; (800) 735-7323; www.freespirit.com).

Or go right to the top: The White House for Kids at www.whitehouse.gov/WH/kids/ includes a "Write to the White House" feature; and the U.S. Government Info/Resources at About.com Web site (usgovinfo.about.com) includes instructions and addresses for writing or e-mailing the president, vice president, senators, representatives, and other elected officials, the Supreme Court justices, and more.

Books involving letters for early-elementary-level readers include Janet and Allan Ahlberg's The Jolly Postman (Little, Brown, 1986), in which the postman, on his red bicycle, delivers mail to a host of storybook characters. The letters are all tucked in little pockets right there in the book: Baby Bear gets a note of apology from Goldilocks; the Wicked Witch gets a hilarious illustrated advertising circular; the Giant gets a postcard from Jack.

Fans of the Jolly Postman may like Alma Flor Ada's Dear Peter Rabbit (Aladdin, 1997), a collection of letters written by, to, and among Peter Rabbit, Baby Bear, Goldilocks (whose surname turns out to be McGregor), the Three Pigs, and a couple of Big Bad Wolves. There's a sequel in the same format: Yours Truly, Goldilocks.

In Catherine Sircusa's No Mail for Mitchell (Random House, 1990), Mitchell, the neighborhood post-dog, delivers everybody else's mail but never gets any letters himself. When he ends up in bed with a horrible cold, however, after bravely delivering a birthday package in the rain, he gets a whole sack full of get-well wishes.

Elizabeth Spurr's The Long Long Letter (Hyperion, 1996) is the humorous tale of lonely Aunt Hetta, whose sister sends her a letter so long that it takes a whole year to write and a thousand stamps to mail; Judith Caseley's Dear Annie (Mulberry Books, 1994) is the gentle story of the letters written between a little girl and her grandfather.

Holly Hobbie's enchanting Toot and Puddle (Little, Brown, 1997) is a tale of two very different pigs: Puddle stays happily at home in Woodcock Pocket while Toot tours the world, sending home accounts of his adventures on postcards. Double-page spreads compare Puddle's and Toot's activities, and show the postcards.

Stringbean's Trip to the Shining Sea by Vera B. Williams and Jennifer Williams (Scholastic, 1991) uses a similar postcard device: the story of Stringbean's trip across the United States is told through descriptive illustrated postcards, complete with handwritten messages and cancelled stamps.

For upper-elementary kids, see Kate Klise's Regarding the Fountain: A Tale, in Letters, of Liars and Leaks (Avon, 1999). The water fountain at Dry Creek Middle School has irrevocably bitten the dust; to design its replacement, the school principal hires the flamboyant and outrageous Florence Waters (who agrees with the Dry Creek fifth-graders: a real fountain should have a rootbeer dispenser, goldfish, lots of spraying spouts and spigots, and a place to toss pennies). The story is told through letters, postcards, memos, faxes, newspaper clippings, and bulletin board notices, which make it all even funnier.

In Beverly Cleary's Dear Mr. Henshaw (Avon, 1996), Leigh Botts confides his troubles in letters to his favorite author, Mr. Henshaw; in Elvira Woodruff's Dear Napoleon, I Know You're Dead, But... (Yearling Books, 1994), ten-year-old Martin gets mysterous letters -- via a "secret time-travel courier" -- from people in the past, among them Napoleon, Thomas Edison, and Vincent Van Gogh. Also by Woodruff: Dear Levi: Letters from the Overland Trail (Random House, 1998), in which 12-year-old Austin, traveling to the Oregon Territory by wagon train, writes letters home to his younger brother Levi in Pennsylvania; and Dear Austin: Letters from the Underground Railroad (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), in which Levi writes Austin about a harrowing trip south to rescue a black friend's sister from the slave catchers.

For teenagers, my teenagers recommend C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters, a series of fascinating, philosophical, funny and gripping letters written from Screwtape, a very senior demon, to his muddling nephew Wormwood, sent to Earth to tempt a wavering young man away from "the Enemy" (God) and into the depths of sin.

Along these lines, high-school-aged kids might also enjoy Mark Twain's Letters from the Earth (HarperPerennial, 1991) -- the writer in this case is Lucifer, reporting back to angels Michael and Gabriel on the state of the human race.

Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road (Penguin, 1990) is a delighful exchange of letters between Hanff, a NYC-based writer with a love for classical literature, and a little British used-book store.

In Fay Weldon's Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen (Taplinger Publishing, 1984), Alice -- who is 18 and dyes her hair green -- is being forced to read Jane Austen, whom she loathes. Aunt Fay puts Jane in another light, in a series of witty and well-informed letters about life and literature, then and now.

Older kids and teenagers might also see "Letters, Letter-writing, and Other Intimate Discourse" online at www.wendy.com/letterwriting. This is a wide-ranging site on all things letter, including links to literary letters, presidential letters, Civil War letters, artworks featuring letters, and much more. There's plenty of food for thought and discussion in all of the above, as well as some great potential projects for young writers.

The bottom line in letter writing, however, is just that: the opportunity to write (and get) letters. Some sources for penpal-seekers:

G.I.R.L.
worldkids.net/girl/
An acronym for "Girls Internationally Writing Letters." A penpal club for girls aged 8-14.

Girl's World Pen Pals
agirlsworld.com/geri/penpal/
Penpals for girls aged 7-17.

KeyPals
mightymedia.com/keypals
Penpals from all over the world for either individual correspondence or classroom groups.

Kids on the Web: Pen Pals
www.zen.org/~brendan/kids-pen.html
A large list of varied penpal groups and sources.

Kid's Pen Pals
kidspenpals.about.com
A large site with many links including e-mail penpal lists, international penpal sources, letter-writing tutorials, penpal crafts, and penpal clubs.

The Letter Exchange
P.O. Box 6218P
Albany, CA 94706
A chunky magazine for letter-writers of all ages, categorized by interest (gardening, art, literature, education, etc). Includes a section for kids. This is letter-writing the old-fashioned way: you pick the listings that interest you and send a letter c/o The Exchange. An annual subscription costs $22.

Pen Pal Box
www.ks-connection.org/penpal/penpal.html
Personal penpal entries are categorized by age (6 and younger, 7-8, 9-10, 11-12, 13-16).

StudyBuddy Pen Pals
www.studybuddy.com
Penpal listings groups by age (6-12 and teens).

New Virtual Field Trips

New Virtual Field Trips by Gail Cooper and Garry Cooper (Libraries Unlimited, 2001) is an annotated compendium of field trips that kids can take via the Internet, on days when it's too cold, too snowy, too late, or too difficult to hop in the car -- or when the field trip in question is to Japan, Wales, the Amazon River, the bottom of the ocean, the inside of a cell, or the cockpit of the space shuttle.

Field trips are divided into 13 different categories, variously centering around history, geography, science, mathematics and logic, the arts, literature, sports, and "People You Should Know" (lots of them, from Leroy Anderson and Jane Austen to Andy Warhol and Frank Lloyd Wright).

Under "Virtual Time Machine" (world and American history), for example, kids view the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Library of Qumran, tour a paleolithic painted cave, or set to sea on board the Titanic; in "Outer Space," they operate NASA's Lunar Prospector, travel to Norway for an up-close look at the Northern Lights, and dive into the sun. In "Science and Industry," they experiment with cloning, monitor the ozone hole, solve a forensic mystery, or tour the Hershey chocolate factory or the inside of the human brain. Or what about a trip to a kabuki play, the Metropolitan Opera House, or Death Valley?

An interesting assortment for kids in grades K-12. Sites recommended for youngest trippers are marked "PG."

By the same authors: Virtual Field Trips (1997) and More Virtual Field Trips (1999).

$25 from Libraries Unlimited; (800) 237-6124; .

Take a Hike!

From University Games, this illustrated board game was "invented by a kid for kids." (The inventor was a five-year-old named Derek, who clearly knows what kids like.) The trick is to hike through the pine forest, past the duck pond, and across the stream, collecting "critter stickers" to match the pictures shown on your color-coded backpack card. The player with the yellow backpack, for example, has to collect -- by landing upon -- a grasshopper, a squirrel, a spotted frog, a bumblebee and a rabbit. First hiker to make it all the way around the board to Camp Fun with all critter stickers in place wins the game. Playing pieces are bright-colored boots -- yellow, red, blue and purple to match the backpacks. Fun for younger hikers and nature-lovers.

For 2-4 players aged 4 to 7. About $15 from toy and game stores, or can be ordered online from www.areyougame.com.

Junior Achievement Titan

This is a detailed (and free) online business simulation for kids aged 13 and up from Junior Achievement, a national organization devoted to promoting business education. Participants become the CEOs of companies selling Cyberpens -- clever little electronic doohickeys in a range of colors (Gamma Green, Ra Red, Ion Blue) with a spectacular array of communications capabilities. (I lean toward the Raven VII Cyberpen, which is jet-black and has an Audio-Talk feature and a Global Positioning Satellite hook-up.)

The simulation, however, is far from a silly game. Future CEOs are extensively briefed by company officers ("Hello, I'm your Vice President of Finance") on various aspects of business management -- capital investment, research and development, production, marketing, and pricing -- and then review detailed company financial reports and production and marketing analysis graphs before making decisions about future business strategies.

Decisions are made in rounds of play based on quarters -- that is, three business months. The results are then published in industry and company reports, analyzed, and used to make the next series of business decisions. Players can compete in "practice mode" with computer-generated Cyberpen companies or can compete with other Titan players. Success ultimately depends on your company's Performance Index, which variously measures retained earnings, supply and demand potential, productivity, market share, and growth.

A highly informative challenge for would-be entrepreneurs and a creative introduction to the wild world of business math. (Titans! If desperate, check out the Gamma Green Cyberpen: it's recommended for corporate espionage.)

Sign up online at www.jatitan.lycos.com.

For more information about JA and their K-12 programs, see www.ja.org or contact the Junior Achievement National Headquarters at One Education Way, Colorado Springs, CO 80906-4477; (719) 540-8000. The Web site's "Resource Room" includes an excellent list of business-related links and resources for kids of all ages.

Emily's First 100 Days of School

In this delightful and very numerical picture-book by Rosemary Wells (Hyperion, 2000), Emily -- an adorable little rabbit in a green-checked pinafore -- and her class are going to learn a new number each day until they reach 100, when they plan to throw a party. For each number, creative activities, illustrations, and multidisciplinary associations help kids develop a solid number sense.

On day eight, for example, Emily's little brother Leo is sick in bed: Emily teaches him to play the card game "Crazy Eights." On day nine, Emily and her classmates learn the names of the nine planets in the solar system (and Emily dresses up like the planet Saturn); on day 12, Leo and Emily pick a bouquet of a dozen zinnias for their mother.

The book proceeds in this fashion through 26 letters in the alphabet, 36 inches on a yardstick, 50 stars on the American flag, 76 trombones (in the big parade), and 88 keys on a piano until -- finally -- the class reaches the long-awaited hundredth day. Everybody comes up with a creative idea for the 100 party: Martha wears 100 buttons, Angela recites a 100-word poem, Lewis makes a hat of 100 glued-together bottle caps, Terrance turns 100 cartwheels -- and Emily writes her parents a letter, signed with 100 bright-colored crayon kisses. From bookstores.

For more along these lines, see "Let's Celebrate 100 Days!" online at MathCentral.uregina.ca/RR/database/RR.09.95/danylczuk1.html. This site includes many creative suggestions for numerical math projects: keep a 100-day journal, make a string of 100 Cheerios, make a 100 crown by gluing 100 items to a cut-out cardboard crown, read "hundreds" books such as Dr. Seuss's The Five Hundred Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, and more.

(c) 2001 Rebecca Rupp

May-June 2001 Issue

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