Spanish teacher Evelyn Pitale wanted to teach her third-grade students more than the language. She wanted to teach them about a different culture.
But mostly she wanted to teach the children at St. Francis Catholic School that no matter where they are, people are pretty much the same.
Because Pitale's cousin, Raquel Rodriguez, is a third-grade teacher in Santa Isabel, Puerto Rico, the two decided to match up their students as pen pals.
Pitale's class wrote the first letters in November 2011 and sent them to Puerto Rico, along with pictures of themselves. Pitale made sure the letters were written properly in Spanish.
"It keeps them interested," she said. "It's really been great."
Pitale said her students were thrilled when they received responses from the children in Puerto Rico.
And she uses those responses to guide her lessons. Because the children first wrote about weather, she started with a lesson about weather, teaching her students the words for various weather conditions. When they wrote about family, she taught the children vocabulary words about family. In their most recent letters, the children in Pitale's class wrote about pets. So they've been learning the names of different pets in Spanish.
"The kids are very excited," Pitale said. "They ask me every week, 'Did we get a letter?' 'Did we get a letter?' It's really gotten them excited about learning a new language."
After her students received letters about the Puerto Rican children's favorite foods, Pitale said she prepared empanadas with rice and beans for the class.
Laura Payne, 9, said she really enjoyed that lesson. The empanadas left quite an impression on her.
"They were great," she said with a giggle. "I still want some."
Laura's mother, Megan Payne, said she thinks the pen pal project is wonderful.
"I love that they're learning about other countries," she said. "I love the challenge they have of communicating with other people."
The classes have exchanged pictures of their schools and their local areas, as well as maps. Pitale's students also sent the other class a South Carolina flag, some books about the state and some saltwater taffy.
"I want to make sure that they take away a lesson of tolerance and acceptance of others," Pitale said. "They may speak a different language ... but we're really all more connected than they think at this young age."
She said some of her students have picked up on that by pointing out the fact that the other children wear uniforms like they do, have the same hobbies and even look like them.
Pitale hopes to Skype with her cousin's class in the near future so the students can see and speak with their pen pals.
"My hope is that I'm able to perhaps find other classes in other countries so I can have pen pals for my other students," Pitale said. "Maybe I can find a class in Spain for fifth grade or in Mexico for fourth grade."