When Mackenzie Sweitzer, a high school senior, introduced herself to her penpal, she described where she lives in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Hudson, North Carolina, as a very conservative place. "We're in the Bible Belt," Mackenzie wrote, "what more do you expect?"
Ashlie Humphries, Mackenzie's penpal, lives in Sammamish, Washington, a wealthy Seattle suburb. When Ashlie wrote back, she told MacKenzie that the typical mom where she's from is like one particular mom in the movie Mean Girls, "the one who rocked the Juicy sweatsuit and acted like she was 22 years old," she wrote. "Haha, anyways...what is a 'Bible Belt'???"
No one else in Ashlie's class knew either.
Thus began PenPal News Red-Blue, a 6-week online exchange program—a startup being seed funded by Mozilla’s Hive Learning Network NYC—to connect middle and high school classrooms from politically and geographically diverse parts of the country to discuss election-year issues. Each week, students read and respond to articles on subjects like the economy, health care, and the role of government, and send what they write to their penpals. The goal of the exercise is to share opinions, question assumptions, and relate issues discussed on the campaign trail to students' lives.
Emily Young, Ashlie's government teacher at Issaquah High School, says that she's noticed her students feel freer to discuss class, race, and economic issues in a personal way with someone who's not already their friend. "They can be open about the fact that their dad just lost his job and their family is struggling in a way that they couldn't be with a person they see walking down the hall every day," Young says.
In the third week of the curriculum, students responded to a radio documentary reported by a young woman in New York City, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. illegally.
After listening, Brittany Hendrix, a classmate of Mackenzie’s at South Caldwell High School in North Carolina, wrote to her penpal, Sophia Kim, in Washington State:
I think the 11 million people who are here illegally should be sent back to their home country. They have every right to come to America, if they do so legally. If the other immigrants here can do it legally, then they should be able to as well. However, I do think that if we could spend a little time and money to make the whole process a little easier, that it would be much easier on everyone, rather than to try and spend a lot more time and money, trying to track 400,000 people a year to deport them.
Sophia wrote back:
Alicia (the young woman featured in the radio story) is in a really difficult position. I can actually empathize with her because my parents immigrated here (legally) from South Korea but it took a really long time and was a tedious process. My parents work 17 hours a day, 7 days a week and they've been working like that for 15 years. I feel the same responsibility to support my parents because they've supported me.
...I understand your point that illegals should be deported, but I disagree. When I got into the topic of immigration in my Spanish class, I learned how difficult and dangerous it is to live in Mexico, or other foreign countries. We have so many liberties here in the US that immigrants would literally die for, much less cross illegally and risk being deported. There are kids that die walking across deserts trying to flee the dangers of their hometowns to try and find work so they can send money back to their families and hopefully make a better life for their families. I understand this because this is basically what my parents did for me and my brother.
I don't know what we can do to make it easier for immigrants, but it's an issue that U.S. needs to address. As the immigrant country, I feel we have a duty to accept people who are just trying to do as all citizens are.
When asked, Brittany said that what Sophia wrote didn't change her opinion. "But it made me think about it a little," she said. "She comes from a completely different background from me, so I'm sure she can see things that I don't." And Sophia says she's enjoying the discussion despite the disagreement. "It's interesting to learn about people's views and why they have them—why they believe what they believe," she says.
Conversations like these should be part of every student's education. A successful future depends on raising a generation that respects perspectives, opinions, and cultures different than its own.
Increasing access to technology in classrooms around the country—and the world—gives educators this opportunity. It's time we take advantage of it.
Free six-week state-to-state exchanges will continue throughout the school year and international exchanges are coming soon. Teachers can sign up to participate on the PenPal News website.