Our Pen-Pal From Prague

A Pen-Pal is an exciting way to learn about other people and countries, because it is hands-on.  No computers, no iPads, just real things that children can touch and see; letters, pictures, and even a book.  There is no instant gratification; instead there is the anticipation of what will come.  And come, it did.  This is a Montessori preschool in Prague, Czech Republic.  The handwritten words on the cover are beautiful, but the story is even better.


Last winter the older brother of one of my students was visiting here. He is a Montessori preschool teacher in Prague, and asked if he could read a book and do an activity with the children.  I was thrilled.  Of course it was the day before school vacation for the holidays, and he planned on visiting the class later in the afternoon.  Do I need to tell you what young children are like at the end of the day, right before a holiday?

Mike came into the classroom and children were drawn to him.  I think there is a magic string that connects children to certain adults; there must be.  The adult has to hold powers of joy and heart, and the magic string transmits it to children.  How else can people like Mike (and Milly) connect with young children?

I sat back and watched Mike as he read Little Mole and the Snowman to fifteen transfixed children.  It was wordy, yet they loved it.  He then taught the children how to count in Czech, and proceeded to do ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes’ in Czech.

It was now long past 4:30 PM, nearly an hour had gone by, and children wanted more.  I had witnessed a remarkable teacher, one who must have had a magic string.  What did I do?  I asked if our classrooms could become Pen-Pals.  And, we did.

We wrote a big letter on chart paper asking our new Pen-Pal many questions.  They responded with a book depicting what they do:


As we read these first few pages we had so much to talk about!  Isn’t that what Pen-Pals do?  “They use sign language for number three.  They have a tree in the classroom.  They’re good writers.”  The language and thinking and connecting went on and on.  As we read every page of the book, we discovered musical instruments, we learned that a circle is an ellipse, and children can paint up to their elbows!

imageA Pen-Pal seems to align with language, with real books, and with the idea that learning is exploring.  It takes time for children to absorb what they learn.  While my class is doing that absorbing, we get the thrill of writing our own book for our Czech Pen-Pals.  That will be yet another learning experience.


About Jennie

I have been teaching preschool for over thirty years. This is my passion. I believe that children have a voice, and that is the catalyst to enhance or even change the learning experience. Emergent curriculum opens young minds. It's the little things that happen in the classroom that are most important and exciting. That's what I write about. I am highlighted in the the new edition of Jim Trelease's bestselling book, "The Read-Aloud Handbook" because of my reading to children. My class has designed quilts that hang as permanent displays at both the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, and the Fisher House at the Boston VA Hospital.
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27 Responses to Our Pen-Pal From Prague

  1. Love this post. I’m Australian and I’ve been fortunate to have had an American poet as a pen-pal for over 35 yrs. Sometimes I feel the bond between pen-pals can be even closer than family.

    • jlfatgcs says:

      Thank you, Glenice. Yes, a pen-pal can be an incredibly close connection. I wonder how many teachers do this with their class? It’s an old fashioned idea, yet so very rewarding for children, not to mention a terrific learning experience.

  2. I remember having pen-pals as a kid. It was a link to other worlds. Nearly all of my relatives lived either in the same town or within a few miles so we hardly traveled at all. Now I’m thinking — what an important lesson, or a reminder, this is, that writing is about communication with real people. Not, or not only, about getting it right or passing a test.

    • jlfatgcs says:

      Bingo! You hit the nail on the head. Real communication; that’s what is important, yet often forgotten. Well, not in my class. When we write our big letters on chart paper, I put them on the table so children can not only sign their name, but draw pictures. They love it, and in my heart I know that it is cementing all the important elements about communicating with real people. And it’s not about passing a test, just about learning core values and doing the right thing. Thank you!

  3. Man, you’re good…
    I kept two pen pals from childhood through college and one of their weddings But because of too many moves and life we lost each other… 😦
    One bennie of snail mail penpals you forgot to mention – the STAMPS! (extra art lessons and history wrapped up in a neat little package)
    Keep up the good work, lady!

    • jlfatgcs says:

      Thank you Laura! You are so right. My wheels are turning; we are deep into making a book in return (that could be another blog post). I could invite our postmaster to come to our classroom and talk about stamps…just when we are ready to mail our book to Prague. We have done so much on geography, so this might work. Love it!

  4. Great idea! I’ve always had pen pals and although my current ones are frequently more often via email, I’ve kept them for 25 years. One from France, another from Germany (now lives in Australia), and a third from Canada. P.S. Jennie, I hope you’re seeing more traffic to your blog today. I completely forgot to let you know, but I’ve finally posted my Spirit Animal award!

    • jlfatgcs says:

      Hi Marcia! I love your story. Thank you. Pen-pals might be a thing of the past, yet they are a great hands-on way to teach literacy and also giving. Boy, has this been terrific in my classroom. The children have already planned a book to our pen-pal telling what we do. Today we wrote a letter on big chart paper; I put the letter on a table for children to write their name and draw pictures. That cements the literacy. Thanks for posting the award. Honestly, I have had a few awards and this is just not my thing. I’m not about ‘me’ and my computer skills to forward the award are rather sad. I’ll stick to writing. Thank you so much!

  5. frenchc1955 says:

    Thank you once again for a wonderful post!

  6. reocochran says:

    Jennie, I enjoyed this extraordinary connection between young man Mike who transfixed the children with his reading. Now, this continuing project is keeping the connection going. Prague is so different from in America. I imagine this will create so many exciting lessons!
    When I worked at a nursing home for four years, I contacted 4,5 6th grade teachers and asked if they would be interested in creating a bond, teaching caring for elderly and blend in a dab of history. When I read replies, one teacher could guarantee coming two times on the school bus. I was the one who would read their 25 letters to 25 coherent residents. Some wonderful stories and photos back and forth until our December visit from students and then, in June some parents came in cars following the bus. Parents who wanted to meet the people who their students talked about and some promised to continue into the summer. My activities asst and I holed up in our kitchen when the June trip was over, bawling. We initiated Easter egg hunts, Halloween trick or treating and we had the same 5th grade teacher start all over again with new match ups. I had 300 residents so the next group of adults/students continue the tradition. If you wish to edit this,please feel free. We have rambling going on! 😉

    • jlfatgcs says:

      When I met young man Mike, there was no doubt he was “it”, a renaissance teacher. I love, love your story about the nursing home. You did something wonderful. Connecting generations is important. On one hand (generation) I have Mike. On the opposite end I have Milly. I feel very lucky. Robin, I have just closed the best poetry book, written for children. It’s more prose than poetry. I immediately thought of you and your grandchildren. You know how picky I am, and this book is not only wonderful, but right up your alley. “Where I Live” by Eileen Spinelli. Happy reading, and many thanks!

    • jlfatgcs says:

      By the way, I let the children decide ‘what we do in school’ for the book. Wonderful. We are deep into it.

      • reocochran says:

        So happy you are on the same page I uses to be on, creating a democratic classroom, Jennie. What we do in the classroom will be marvelous! Thanks for mentioning this book, “Where I Live.” Off to write this down and check the library for this book. This sounds like a lovely one to share with the grandies! 🙂

      • jlfatgcs says:

        Let me know what you think of the book.

  7. I’m leaving WP today but want you to know that I think you’re brilliantly creative and a wonderful teacher. I will stop back in a few months to learn what you’re up to. I wish I had discovered your blog earlier. Wishing you the best in your amazing work with children ❤ Laine Anne 🙂

    • jlfatgcs says:

      That is so nice. Thank you! I will keep posting all that happens in the classroom. I’m so glad you enjoy and follow my blog, and you can always scroll down for more stories. I call myself a storyteller, yet others think that is not really the right term. Would welcome your opinion on that word. Look forward to your blog when you return. Many thanks!

  8. Léa says:

    If only every child could have such a teacher as you, or Mike, they do deserve the best. Unfortunately, that is not usually what they get. Perhaps some videos of you in action to be used as resources for training future teachers. Even some lesson plans may help?

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