ILWACO - Part geography project, part pen-pal pastime - the Great American Mail Race has given the fifth-grade students of Hilltop School the opportunity to reach out and learn all about other kids their age from around America.
The project began with each of the students in the four fifth-grade classes picking two states - one town or city from each - and sending them a package addressed to "Any fifth grade class." Some students picked their state and city at random, while others had their own reasons for their choice.
"Some of them have lived there or have wanted to go there," said Julie Briggs, who teaches one of the classes.
Inside the packages was a questionnaire asking various questions that pertain to the kids, their school and their area, including "Do you have computers in your classroom?" "How many recesses do you have a day?" and "Do you say the Pledge of Allegiance everyday at school?" Also included were some postcards from the Peninsula, including scenes of the ocean and the International Kite Festival.
The students began sending out the letters in January, with Joe Doupe's class getting theirs out first. His class has also received the most replies so far, including Walker Sexton's letter to North Pole, Alaska. Other states that the students have received replies from include: Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, Hawaii, New York, Nevada, Missouri and the Blue Grass State of Kentucky.
Zach Wilson, a student in Briggs' class, chose South Dakota, because his friend had lived there at one time, and Kansas, because a character from a television show he watches is from there. His letter to Dodge City, Kansas was the first to be replied to of all the letters sent by the students. The returned letter included five postcards with pictures of "old country stuff" and the state flower, the sunflower. Also enclosed was a school lunch menu and completed questionnaire.
"There was much interest in the lunch menus sent to us by the schools," said Sue Anderson, another of the fifth-grade teachers at Hilltop.
Wilson's classmate Marshall Powell didn't look very far away when choosing one of his locations - Salem, Ore. For the other he chose Iowa. When looking at the map, it wasn't hard for him to pick which town to send it to.
"Marshall City, because it's named after me," he said.
When asked if he was surprised that Wilson's letter, which traveled some 1,700 miles to Kansas had already been replied to while his letter that only had to go as far as Salem - only 150 miles away - hadn't, Powell replied, "mail doesn't always get to where you send it."
As the letters come in, the classes record them on sheets of paper next to a large map of the United States in the main hallway of the school. So far, the classes have combined for a total of 12 responses from all over America.
"Students ask me every morning if I have gotten any letters," said Anderson. "They are all excited to see if the communities that received their letters have replied. Students have taken personal 'ownership' of the state and town that they wrote to and are eagerly anticipating a response."
And the teachers know that the project has not only been a fun time for the kids, but they are also learning many things.
"Students use communication skills, map skills and research skills," said Anderson. "We hope that by communicating with students across the United States, we will have a better understanding of the similarities and differences of children and their thoughts of the world in which we live. Ten and eleven year olds seem to have common interests across the country."