, Newburyport, MA

January 16, 2013

A viral lesson plan

Elementary students' call for postcards travels across the globe

By Angeljean Chiaramida

---- — Social media and the generosity of people around the world have made a social studies project come alive for fourth-graders in David Williams’ classroom at Newbury Elementary School.

Every year, Williams asks his students to bring in postcards as part of their study of the different regions of the country. He said he uses the postcards as tools to help his students understand the diversity that exists within the nation and the nuances between its regions, like New England and the South, and states as different as Maine and Texas.

“I’d explain they might have friends or relatives who live in other states — like cousins or uncles and aunts — and I’d ask my students to have them send postcards,” said the 12-year veteran teacher. “The pictures chosen for postcards can say a lot about a region’s climate and culture. And what people write on the back, and how they write it, can, too.”

In the past, Williams’ students might bring in about 40 to 50 postcards throughout the course of the school year.

But that was before his assignment found its way to Facebook this year — resulting in a flood of postcards from all over the globe.

The back wall of Williams’ classroom is now covered with the fruits of his students’ postcard labors. They surround a map with push pins delineating where each card originated.

After Savannah Sweeney of Salisbury mentioned the project at home, her mother, Darlene Sweeney, posted a little note on her Facebook page for two of her friends who live or travel outside the U.S. to see. From there, her request multiplied like the times tables.

“You know what they say, they told two friends and they told two friends, and so on and so on,” Darlene Sweeney said. “We started getting postcards from all over. Let me tell you, Savannah is thrilled. Going to the mailbox is the best part of her day. And I have just been so touched that all these people would do this.”

Savannah smiles when asked about her cache of cards, which includes two from the Middle East, one of which features a camel; one from Australia showing its world-famous Sydney Opera House and countless more from other exotic locales.

“It’s very exciting,” Savannah said. “I’d like to try to write back everyone. Maybe send them postcards of Salisbury.”

The cards that are most special to Savannah come from a class of students in South Korea. They study English with a teacher who got wind of Darlene Sweeney’s Facebook posting and proudly sent Savannah cards with pictures of their nation. The cards include personal notes on the back, written in English by her Korean counterparts.

That Korean children about her own age or younger were fluent enough in English to write interesting postcards wasn’t lost on Savannah. One wrote he was 8 and had been studying English since he was 2. He enjoys playing soccer, he wrote, and asked Savannah what she liked to do.

“I brought them in to share, but they aren’t going up on the bulletin board like the others,” Savannah said, shaking her head. “I’m keeping those with me.”

Savannah’s postcards are only a sample of the ones received by the students.

Ashley Perrin got a card from her mother’s sister in Missouri, who she has only seen a couple times. “It was really special to get the postcard from her,” she said.

Kate Olson’s efforts earned her a postcard from the nation’s capital. “It shows the cherry blossoms in bloom,” she said. “I think they’re beautiful.”

After a Swedish friend of Mia Gustafson’s mother visited and heard of the project, she sent a card upon returning to her native land that depicts a famous bridge at Uddevalla that looks remarkably like Boston’s Zakim Bridge.

Nathaniel Howard’s request to his great aunt got him five postcards showing the diversity of the Golden State, otherwise known as California. For students Duncan MacDonald and Skyler Bilapka, Chicago came to life through postcards.

New England is well represented among the cards, too. Aiden Hawes got one from his pen pal in Vermont. Riley McLaughlin received postcards from relatives in New Hampshire’s Lakes Region and Ben Janvrin’s grandparents responded to his request with cards from Bar Harbor, Maine.

Freya Tuomi got especially creative, writing to Ross Lynch, star of the Disney show “Austin and Ally,” to request a postcard. According to everyone in the class, including Liann Banks, “`Austin and Ally’ is an awesome show,” and classmates applauded Freya for really reaching for the moon.

Freya was thrilled when she got a card back from Lynch and dutifully brought it in to share. Since then, though, it’s been kept under wraps.

“That’s another case of a postcard too precious to part with,” Williams said.

For Williams, the impact of one card has especially stood out.

His class had read “Number the Stars” by Lois Lowry, the 1990 Newbery Medal award winner for children’s literature. Set in World War II Denmark as the German Occupation threatened, the novel revolves around a Jewish family and the work of the people of Denmark to get Danish Jews out of their country to Sweden just in time.

Williams said the students were moved by the novel, but the gripping story can leave an impression of World War II Germany that’s no longer relevant today. A postcard from Germany helped erase that impression, he said.

“The postcard is from Stuttgart and it has a beautiful fountain on it,” Williams said. “One student asked where it was from, and when I said it was Germany, the student was surprised. He said, `That’s Germany? I think I’d like to go there.’”

The moral is: A picture postcard can be worth a thousand words.

Anyone traveling who might want to share postcards with Williams’ students can send them to David Williams, c/o Newbury Elementary School, 63 Hanover St., Newbury 01951.