As a seventh-grade world geography teacher at Swampscott Middle School, Judy McKenzie always wanted to make other places — and the people who live in them — seem real to her students.
But when she and six other teachers from Swampscott went to Cape Town, South Africa, this summer to visit their sister school in Langa Township, they made their own profound contact with reality.
“It wasn’t a vacation,” said McKenzie, who lives in Danvers and retired from the Swampscott school system last summer. “It was an experience.”
McKenzie started a letter exchange program between her students and seventh-graders at Siyabulela Primary School in 2009, in which students write to each other four times a year.
She had tried to develop pen pal relationships with foreign schools in the past, but “they always fell apart,” she said, because schools in developing countries couldn’t afford the cost of return postage.
But when McKenzie discovered Opportunity Education Foundation online, she found the support she needed.
“One small piece of their organization is to encourage schools in the U.S. to start writing programs with other countries,” she said. “They pay for postage. They have liaisons in-country who will go to schools, pick up letters and post them. They paired me up, and that was five years ago now.”
“The things my students learned — it was incredible,” McKenzie said.
The exchange rate of four letters a year is slow, but email at the African school is only available through dial-up Internet service, and electricity can be erratic, further frustrating communication.
Besides, McKenzie said she and her students learn a great deal about their correspondents simply from the way they write letters.
“Penmanship is a lost art, and theirs is incredible. The first thing anybody says is, ‘Look how neat their writing is,’” she said. “They decorate their letters. The pride they put in their work is so evident.”