A Whole New World: SPFHS students chat with their new pen pals


Emily Wyrwa

“It’s super cool because I never really think outside of what I experience, and so it’s fun to see how different they live compared to me,” junior Carly Rinaldi said. “The lifestyle that they’re used to is so different.”
Mr. McKenna, Mr. Ewing, and Mr. Valentine — with help from media specialist Ms. Robin Stayvas — have launched an initiative for their Global Perspectives and Philosophy students to correspond with pen pals from South Korea. Their South Korean pen pals will be visiting Scotch Plains on April 27, 2020, which will give Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School (SPFHS) students the unique opportunity to have a face-to-face meet-up with their pen pals.
McKenna’s, Ewing’s and Valentine’s students were connected with the school in South Korea by Board of Education member Nancy Bower. Eventually, McKenna, Ewing, Valentine, and Stayvas came to be in touch with the South Korean teacher and assign students their pen pal(s).
“When I told [my students] about it, they were really excited to do it,” McKenna said. “They had a million questions about who they were and what their life was like; it was the same questions that the Korean students had in their letters. They just want to know who you are and what you do and if we’re similar. I think it’s nice to know that there are people totally across the world that are similar to you.”
Corresponding with pen pals from South Korea has been a phenomenal learning experience for the students. The students and their teachers find value in coming to understand the culture of their pen pals. Not only is writing letters to someone across the world a challenging lesson in communication, but students find it interesting to try to find common ground in the 6,998 miles between New Jersey and South Korea.
McKenna recalls students discussing their favorite Netflix shows with their pen pals and asking for recommendations as to what to watch next.
Not only are students finding commonalities between their American culture and that of their pen-pals, but they are coming to understand differences in their lifestyles that make each place unique. For example, in South Korea, birthdays are relatively irrelevant. When a person in South Korea is born, they are one year old. Everyone “ages up” a year on New Year’s Day. For example, if someone were born on Dec. 31, 2019, they would be one year old. On Jan. 1, that person would be two.
“[The way birthdays work] is just another cultural thing that I didn’t know and I wouldn’t have known unless I conversed with someone, and that often is the case that you don’t really know what the culture is like until you speak with someone from that place or you visit that place to experience it for yourself,” McKenna said.
“I like seeing the world, and I really want to travel,” Rinaldi said. “I think it’s really cool to have a heads-up of what to expect, but it’s also just fun to learn about their culture from their perspective as a local. It’s fun to see what it’s like to live there and to see different perspectives.”