By Will Broaddus
---- — 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.”
Though English is a second language for the South African students, who grow up speaking Xhosa (pronounced “kosa”), they write well, motivating her students to respond with an equal degree of care, McKenzie said.
As much as her students enjoy this correspondence, it was greatly enhanced by an offer from the U.S. Consulate in Cape Town to host videoconferencing exchanges between the two schools.
Stephen Young, head of the geography department at Salem State University and a friend of McKenzie’s, got permission for her to use the university’s facilities.
The students now speak with each other for an hour and half of real time each spring, and are able to put faces and voices to the names of those who have signed their letters.
“We did that first video conference. When I tell you it was emotional ... when it got down to kids asking each other questions, it was incredible. I saw them mature in front of my eyes. They got it,” McKenzie said.
One of the Swampscott students asked what season it was in South Africa in June, and was told that winter, cold and rainy, was just beginning.
An American student replied that, in Swampscott, it gets so cold it snows.
“They were thinking we have it worse because we have snow,” McKenzie said. “But they don’t have heat” in South Africa, the American students learned from their new friends.
“We live in huts that have dirt floors,” they were told, according to McKenzie. “The floors are mud, and we get sick. Mothers can’t put their kids down.”
Along with McKenzie, the teachers who traveled to Langa on July 29 included Abby Rogers, Ann Bush, Catie Porter, Elly Mullins, Megan Bonomolo and Katie Wynne. They were joined by Wynne’s daughter Meg, a student at Swampscott High School.
The group wanted to go last year but couldn’t afford the airfare, and spent the year saving money for the trip, which lasted two weeks.
What they saw firsthand convinced them of the value of the students’ letter exchanges, and cemented their own relationships with their counterparts at Siyabulela Primary School.
“The conditions are terrible,” McKenzie said. “The school is the best thing these kids have. The average class size is in the 40s, and that included kindergarten. They didn’t even have enough seats, just 20 little plastic chairs. Anyone would be totally overwhelmed by what the teachers were trying to accomplish.”
McKenzie sees her retirement as an opportunity to develop ways to raise funds to keep the exchange going and introduce each new class of seventh-graders at Swampscott Middle School to new friends in South Africa.
“To see how well these teachers worked, how lovingly they worked with kids — they do so much with so little. We developed such a bond,” she said. “When I left there the principal gave me a hug and she said, ‘I am so glad I have gotten to know you.’”