Shannon Sarazin never used to write letters. Like her peers, the 11th-grader at Bloomington Kennedy High School communicates with her friends and classmates through e-mail and social media.
But last September, she developed a sudden interest in writing letters after she received a handwritten one and some Pokemon cards from Koura Shunsuke — a sixth-grade student in Japan. Sarazin, 17, was touched by the fact that someone in a faraway place took time out to write to her in two languages, English and Japanese, and included gifts.
“The handwritten words touched my heart,” said Sarazin, who responded to the letter by attaching an American flag keychain and a dollar bill. Sarazin wrote to Koura about her love for archery and wanted to know about kendo, a Japanese martial art. So far, she has written three letters in English and Japanese and yearns to exchange more.
Sarazin is one of the 25 students from Kennedy High School who are part of the Pen Pal Project — a bilingual letter exchange between the students at the Bloomington school and those at Prefectural Itoshima High School in Fukuoka, a seaside city in southern Japan. Not only has the program enabled the students to go back to old-fashioned letter-writing, but it has also emerged as a pivotal tool for enhancing their foreign language skills — English for Japanese students and Japanese for the Minnesota students.
“I now know that Japan has more to offer than its popular cartoons and comic books,” Sarazin said.
The project was started in 1996 by Toshishige Yamasaki, an English teacher at Itoshima High School, with 40 students and was based on e-mail exchanges at first. Over the years, it was transformed to the regular postal mail.
“The handwritten letters are real while e-mail is still in the world of virtual reality,” Yamasaki said in an e-mail, explaining the reason for the change. “When you hold the handwritten letter … you feel that it is actually written and drawn by someone on the other side of the world. The handwritten letters give us human warmth.”
Today, Kennedy High is one of five U.S. schools in the program, which has enabled 320 students from Japan to connect with as many pen pals here. At Kennedy High, it is supervised by Frances Bressman-Egan, who has been teaching Japanese and world history at the school for 23 years.
“The goal is learning language and, of course, to be acquainted with the culture in both the countries,” said Bressman-Egan, who got in touch with Yamasaki through ePals, an online platform that allows teachers and students from around the world to collaborate.
There are only 10 schools across the state, all in the Twin Cities area, that teach Japanese as one of the languages, Bressman-Egan said.
The content of the letters exchanged this year covers many subjects, from vacations and holiday memories, to musical tastes, and even Minnesota snow. Yet communication via reading the letters has been challenging at times because both groups of students have rudimentary knowledge of the languages they’re studying, and it shows up in the shape of misspelled words, italicized fonts and broken sentences.
Skylar Volten, an 11th-grader at Kennedy High, would find some quiet corner in the classroom to write a letter to her Japanese pen pal Syouji Issa — a practice that she said has helped her to accept the cultural differences that people across the world come with.
“They are made to sit in the same class for a whole day,” she said, noting that she felt for them because this is too long. Schools in Japan start at 8:30 a.m. and end at 3 p.m. before the mandatory after-school clubs begin that last more than an hour, according to Bressman-Egan.
The class has given the students an opportunity to have a real-life communication experience beyond what they normally read in books or watch on television. The letters that take two weeks to cross the ocean are sometimes accompanied by pictures, drawings and currency notes. Also, the teachers exchange videos and slide shows through e-mail.
“Surprisingly, students in Japan do not have much access to technology,” said Bressman-Egan, who taught English in Japan for three years in the 1970s.
In the letters, these 25 Bloomington students from 10th, 11th and 12th grades have found kindred spirits thousands of miles away. Shannon Hansana, another 11th-grade student, was amazed to read about the Japanese festival Hakata celebrated in July and mentioned in the letter that her pal Shouya Ujino wrote to her.
After having shared six letters each, the project is on pause, as the students in Japan are moving up a grade level and will no longer be in the class. It will start again with a new group of Japanese students next fall.
“I kind of want to keep sending them letters, though … but life moves on,” Sarazin said.