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The Power of the Pen(cil)

An SJSU Behavioral Science Major befriends a 6th grade cartoonist, but how did this come to be?

It’s the power of the pen(cil)! Any pairing is possible through the Writing Partners program, where SJSU students are paired with elementary students and write letters to each other throughout the course of the semester.

The overall objective for this program is to enhance writing and interpersonal skills. While Writing Partners teaches children how to improve their grammar, spelling, and narration, it coaches the university students on how to diversify their interpersonal skills by communicating with the youth.

The Writing Partners formula is simple. The elementary students would write their first letter to a mystery SJSU student. The SJSU student would receive the letter and would write back to each other two more times, for a total of writing to each other three times over the semester.

Fall 2021’s Writing Partners program consisted of 43 SJSU student-engaged learners from SOCI 173: Socialization and Identity, taught by Professor DeHaan, and 43 McKinley Elementary School students from Mrs.Wicklander and Ms. Bracamonte’s 5th and 6th grade classes.

We will be following the strengthening bond between Daisy, a senior Behavioral Science major at San Jose State and a 6th grade cartoonist in Ms. Bracamonte’s class. To protect the minor’s identity, we will be calling him Lewis.

It was clear that Lewis had a passion for illustrations. All over his first letter, you can find cartoon characters with their own names and personalities. For example “Bonky the Donkey” is the main character in Lewis’ show. In his own creative way, Lewis took his passion of illustration and turned it into an entertaining letter to send off to Daisy.

“I truly enjoyed reading your letter and seeing your own cartoon characters,” responded Daisy in her first letter to Lewis.

Daisy was able to strengthen her interpersonal skills by writing her letter to adhere to a young student, so when she mentioned that she wanted to become a social worker, she used an example that most children would be able to understand. She also talked about herself for a bit, like how she has a dog and that she likes reading and playing a video game called “Animal Crossing.” 

Conversations about the future and an extended educational career was a prevalent theme in not only Daisy and Lewis’ letters, but most if not all of the writing partners. Talking about college gave an opportunity for the elementary students to open up their feelings and thoughts about receiving a higher education.

Lewis, for example, had a dilemma with deciding where he should go to college and what he should be when he grows up. Daisy gave him a few good options for art schools. She even told him about how the creator of the animated series “Gravity Falls,” was from Piedmont, California as an attempt to inspire Lewis a bit more and get excited about what the future holds for him.

In his last letter to Daisy, Lewis drew a picture of her dog, “Kairo” and expressed that it meant a lot for him to have someone to talk to. He even asked his writing partner for ideas for an upcoming character that he was developing.

In her parting letter to Lewis, Daisy wrote “Your creativity goes to show that you have the ability to becoming a great cartoonist or director one day. Don’t give up on your dreams!”

At the end of the program, what would usually happen is that the Writing Partners would be able to meet each other in person, but due to the pandemic, the program had to make a few adjustments. Instead of meeting in person, the SJSU students gave a virtual tour of the campus to their penpal through a web platform called “Padlet.”

The sociology students went above and beyond just a virtual tour. They gave words of advice and encouragement, and shared how some of the places on campus helped them a lot through their time of being a university student.

Daisy talked about how the 8th floor of the MLK library was a place where she got her homework done, and that she loved the 8th floor because of the beautiful view!

Daisy’s virtual tour of San Jose State University via Padlet

The impact of Writing Partners is more than just improving writing and interpersonal skills. In the duration of Daisy and Lewis’ alliance, they were able to create a safe space for each other and talk about what they’re passionate about. Because of this program, many of the elementary students had the opportunity to talk about things that they might be struggling with, interest in their academic future, and had an outlet to talk about topics where they felt safe and heard. The SJSU student-engaged learners from SOCI173 demonstrated a phenomenal manner of responding to the students appropriately and further making them feel understood.

Writing Partners has been going on for the past 10 years and time after time, proves to be a program that is able to deliver a safe space for some of the most vulnerable groups of people out there: children and college students finding their way through adulthood.

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