By Jo Mathis/AAPS District News Editor
It was an event Katy Wagner’s fourth graders at King Elementary had been anticipating for weeks. They were going to meet their pen pals—if not in person, the next best thing.
The University of Michigan PenPal Program connects Michigan student-athletes with AAPS elementary students to promote positive mentorship, relationships, and enhance social-emotional learning by exchanging hand-written letters on a consistent basis.
All four sections of fourth grade at King Elementary are partnered with student-athletes, and other fourth grade classes throughout the district are in various stages of the program.
Wagner’s class at King is partnered with the U-M cheer team and men’s diving team and they all met recently via Zoom. The meet-and-greet began with a welcome to U-M student-athletes, who introduced themselves to the class. They then broke into smaller breakout rooms to answer questions from the kids.
“I really liked that we got to ask them questions about their sports in our breakout rooms,” said King student Kavni Latchamsetty after the event.
Then they all returned for a Kahoot online trivia game with eight questions about U-M trivia. The meet-and-greet concluded as all joined in a round of “The Victors.”
Wagner said the Pen Pal Program gives students a meaningful connection with the student-athletes from the University of Michigan. She believes it will be remembered as one of the highlights of their year.
“These connections feel even more important during this virtual learning and make the writing more authentic for our students,” said Wagner. “It was really nice to hear the student-athletes share about what they are studying at U of M, and some of their anticipated paths matched what our students have expressed studying in their futures.”
Wagner, a U-M alum, said that her intern and most of her students are big Michigan fans, so they were very excited about this opportunity.
“They have been asking for weeks about when we would be doing the meet and greet,” she said. “I hope that in our future meetings that maybe those pen pals that could not attend today might be able to join us.”
Katy Wagner asks the U-M pen pals to introduce themselves.
This is the first year the pen pal program is coordinated from U-M’s Athletic Department to match individual teams with classrooms across multiple schools, explained Colette Hemker, Michigan Athletics Assistant Director of Leadership Development & Community Engagement.
There have, however, been many smaller-scale pen pal programs from individual teams connecting with classrooms (such as this at Pittsfield) as well as the Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC) connection with Burns Park.
“I’m a big believer—and there is research to back this up—that compassion is contagious,” says Hemker. “No one can change the world alone, but we can all do small things that when added up, make a big impact. Student-athletes have a great opportunity to leverage their platforms to be a positive influence for others and start those ripples of compassion.”
This year with COVID-19, all students, whether in elementary school or at a university, are facing similar challenges navigating virtual schooling and not being able to do the normal activities they want to do, noted.
“By building relationships through PenPal letters, I believe the student-athletes benefit just as much as the children,” Hemker says. “All parties are able to enhance empathy and take on new perspectives. By teaching the children about grit and overcoming obstacles, each student-athlete’s own growth mindset and authentic leadership improve. For the children, not only are they working on their penmanship and improving their writing skills, they have a mentor to learn from and look up to. It’s a win-win!”
AAPS teachers from several elementary schools signed up this fall for the program. Based on the speed of the teacher providing classroom rosters and the student-athletes signing up for the opportunity, they are all at slightly different phases, Hemker explained. After the teachers provided their class roster, the student-athlete liaisons would assign their teammates to each student. The athletes wrote the first introduction letter. Some teams are already sending their second letter after receiving responses from the students.
Other teams have only just signed up, so they are just beginning the process.
So far, three classes—one at Allen and two at King—have held meet-and-greets.