Fairfield Ledger
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Neighbors Growing Together | Oct 23, 2014

Pence kids correspond with Australians

By ANDY HALLMAN | May 08, 2014

Justin Messer’s fourth-grade class at Pence Elementary School has become penpals with an elementary school “down under.”

Their correspondence companions attend an elementary school in Byron Bay, Australia, a city of about 28,000 people near Brisbane on the country’s east coast. The idea for the two schools to write back and forth came from Ron Louthan, a Fairfield author. He hoped the two classes would each read his book, “The Unlikely Confederacy of Hoggy, Froggy and Ernie,” and then act out the first three chapters in a reader’s theater which could be viewed over Skype. He also hoped they could collaborate on stories, which would be started by a student in one school and finished by a student in the other school.

The two classes have not completed the reader’s theater or the collaborate writing but they have gotten to know each other quite well through emails and through a Skype session in April. The students introduced themselves one by one in front of the camera and got to see the person with whom they had been corresponding over email.

Messer said his students had a ball talking to their new friends halfway around the world. They were surprised and enchanted to learn the students in Byron Bay had practiced a song to sing for them, called the “Iowa Waltz.” Annie Roberts, the elementary teacher for the class in Byron Bay, said the Pence students were very interested to learn about wild animals in Australia.

Through their online correspondence, the students discussed the geographical differences between their two cities. The students in Byron Bay are two minutes from the beach, while the distance is close to 14 hours for the pupils at Pence. Roberts said her students were amazed at the amount of snowfall Fairfield received, particularly since Byron Bay does not receive snow at all.

“The weather was a big talking point and the difference in how much we were able to interact with the beach,” Roberts said. “Our kids do a whole term of surf school. Our kids were also trying to comprehend the opposite seasons. We have a big five-week holiday in December and January, and school starts for the new year in February, whereas you guys have your summer holidays in July.”

As a matter of fact, during the past few months the students have been conversing, the Byron Bay class graduated from fourth to fifth grade.

The Australian students watched promotional films about Fairfield and the two schools talked about how their two cities had a great culture, art, shopping and parks. The students asked each other about their daily lives such as the pets they owned, the computer games and sports they played, their homework load and what they got for Christmas. They discussed features of their respective countries, too, such as the fact that America has 50 states while Australia has only seven.

The two countries are so far apart that it is a challenge to find a time to chat that is convenient for both schools. Byron Bay is 15 hours ahead of Fairfield, meaning that when Pence students are being dismissed for the day, their compatriots across the Pacific are waking up to go to school. The time difference proved to be a problem when Messer first scheduled a Skype session with Roberts, because when the two of them agreed to talk on “Wednesday,” they did not clarify whose “Wednesday” it would be.

“It was quite funny as I had all my kids at school at 7:30 a.m.,” Roberts recalled. “We had a special breakfast and sat in front of the interactive whiteboard ready to meet our penpals. As time went on, we couldn’t understand why the Pence kids weren’t Skyping. I got hold of Justin and we realised we had a misunderstanding about the times. I thought we had planned Wednesday morning, which is only USA Tuesday afternoon, so poor Justin had to get on Skype and tell my kids it was only him! So the next day our kids turned up at 7:30 and really enjoyed meeting all the penpals.”

Messer said the kids were intrigued at the notion it could be Wednesday in America but Thursday in Australia.

“Some of the students got excited when they realized they were talking to us from the future,” he said.

Messer said the video call with the Byron Bay students prompted his class to endearingly imitate Australian accents for a few days afterward. The Australian students were kind enough to send a care package to Messer’s class, which included calendars with photos of Australian landscapes, a photo of Roberts’s class and a book on Byron Bay.

“We sent a packet of twisties [which are cheese-flavoured snacks], a jar of Vegemite, which is a spread that you eat with bread and is very strong. Not many of the Pence kids liked it,” Roberts said.

Messer said he and his class were so appreciate of the gifts their Aussie friends had given them, but he did acknowledge that the Vegemite was hard to stomach.

“We tried and liked most of them but one was appalling to most everyone who tried it – students, teachers, support staff, associates: Vegemite. It can be described as something that is a little like congealed soy sauce. We all had to get drinks after trying it,” he said.

The snack the Pence students enjoyed most of all was “Tim Tams,” a popular treat in Australia that consists of a chocolate-covered biscuit with chocolate in the middle. The Pence students are now preparing a care package to send across the ocean, too.

“Although Justin and I have found it difficult to complete the collaborative writing, we know the kids all love emailing their penpals,” Roberts said. “We plan to continue the connection. When Justin gets his new class later in the year, we will again allocate each child a penpal. I have also let Justin know he is always welcome to visit and stay if he ever comes to Australia.”

 

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