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St. Albert students making new Italian friends through pen pal project

Technology is helping to bridge cultural and language gaps for Grade 5 students at Ronald Harvey Elementary School.
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Milla Whitehead, 11, is one of the Grade 5 students at Ronald Harvey Elementary School who is diving into a pen pal project with another Grade 5 class in Italy.

Making meaningful connections is hard during a pandemic, but some local Grade 5 students will be expanding their friend circle on a global scale.

Ever since Ronald Harvey Elementary School Grade 5 teacher and assistant principal Suzanne Radchenko travelled to Italy in 2016, she has been yearning to set up a pen pal project with a fellow teacher she met overseas who teaches in Lucca.

Now, as students are confined to their homes and conducting their studies solely online, it seems like the perfect time to start up a pen pal project, connecting students from different cultures.

“The students will have an opportunity to share their experiences with somebody else,” Radchenko said. She added it will be about sharing experiences not just to a local capacity, but also on a global scale.

“It is a big world, but it's also kind of a small world and we're fighting the same cause in different ways.”

To tackle the language barrier, students will write to their new friends by running their letters through Google Translate, and then emailing what the artificial intelligence interpreter spits out.

Last week, the 13 students from Radchenko’s Lanugage Arts class participating in the project filled out a form about their interests and hobbies, so the two teachers could personally match-make the students.

The exercise is also acting as good motivation for students to write in complete sentences, since otherwise Google Translate could just spit out gibberish.

“Everyone gave me complete sense, so it was wonderful. I was like, ‘I knew you could do this,’” Radchenko laughed.

Milla Whitehead, 11, said she is excited to participate in the pen pal project so she can learn about the culture of Italy, what hobbies kids her age hold and how they pass their time.

“It's pretty exciting because I don't know, I just think it'd be fun to see what it's like in another country, especially during COVID, and what they're doing,” she said. Whitehead added she hopes she can learn a little Italian along the way, too.

Her classmate Carson Stang said being a pen pal could be a “once in a lifetime opportunity,” and added he could maybe find a new lifelong friend.

“Not everyone gets the chance to do this, to speak to someone halfway across the world,” he said. Stang added he wants to ask his pal about what they do for fun, including what kind of music they listen to and what shows they watch.

Students’ routines have been so disrupted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Radchenko said routines provide a sense of security for children. The teacher said it will be good for students to look forward to something to.

“I hope that in this time of uncertainty and vulnerability, that they get a chance to make a new friend.”

Hannah Lawson

About the Author: Hannah Lawson

Hannah Lawson joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2019 after working as editor of the Athabasca Advocate. She writes about city hall.
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