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Baker City Herald

http://www.bakercityherald.com/Local-News/From-Russia-with-lovethe-spell-checked-kind

From Russia with love(the spell-checked kind)

Molly Hirsch and Rene L. Williams sit down to compose a letter to their pen pals in Russia. Instructor Diana Pearson offered her language arts students a choice of writing letters as an assignment in their course at Blue Mountain Community College. The project offers practice in writing English for both sets of students. (Baker City Herald/Lisa Britton).
Molly Hirsch and Rene L. Williams sit down to compose a letter to their pen pals in Russia. Instructor Diana Pearson offered her language arts students a choice of writing letters as an assignment in their course at Blue Mountain Community College. The project offers practice in writing English for both sets of students. (Baker City Herald/Lisa Britton).

By LISA BRITTON

Baker City Herald

Val Hysong never has a shortage of material when writing to her Russian pen pals.

"I'm talkative," she said with a laugh.

Hysong and other students at Blue Mountain Community College in Baker City have been exchanging e-mails with students in Zeya, Russia, since December.

Zeya and Baker City became sister cities in 1996 after a group of Russian miners visited here and remarked at the similarities between the two places.

This writing project was started by Diana Pearson, who teaches classes at BMCC and has spent a great deal of time in Russia as part of the sister city arrangement.

Pearson said whenever she visits Zeya, she is bombarded by people who want to practice English. What better practice, she thought, than to write letters?

The Russian students are attending a community college on a satellite campus, must like BMCC.

To start, Pearson wrote a first letter to introduce the BMCC project.

"Then we just started answering back," Hysong said. "Since then I haven't stopped. Every time I have a chance I write to them."

Hysong is a native of Brazil, and she moved to the United States in 2006. She enrolled at BMCC in January and says her English has greatly improved — especially from writing letters.

(Writing is easier than speaking, she says, thanks to Microsoft Office, which corrects spelling mistakes.)

The pen pal project is an optional assignment in Pearson's classes. The students compose a letter, then Pearson corrects any mistakes before sending it to Russia.

"We don't want to send bad models of English," Pearson said. "And it helps these guys (her students) because they see what they need to change."

She doesn't, however, edit out slang or idioms.

"They're really interesting to students of English," she said.

Pearson e-mails letters to the Russian teacher, who then shares the writings with students.

"E-mail isn't as pervasive there as it is here," she said.

E-mail is, however, much quicker than the traditional way of pen pals exchanging letters via regular mail.

Questions, and more questions

The letters are full of questions about cultural traditions, hobbies, sports and weather.

Letters from Russia, though, almost always begin with a statement such as this one:

"Hello! My name is Ekaterina. I'm 17. My astrological sign is Lion."

The Baker students weren't quite as familiar with astrology.

"I had to ask her what my sign was," Molly Hirsch said with a laugh.

Through the writings, BMCC student Rene L. Williams discovered youngsters don't differ much from country to country.

"Kids are kids — music, clothes, fascination with the United States," she said.

Hysong can identify with that fascination. On her first visit to North America, she photographed a yellow school bus to show her friends back home.

"America has a big influence all over the world," she said.

The letters have covered all sorts of topics, from wedding ceremonies to holidays to popular music and school. One letter, from Egor, has this sentence: "At lessons I understand everything, but when I come home, sometimes I feel as I know nothing."

And here's another Russian excerpt, from Oksana, that relates perfectly to Baker City: "The weather here is not good today. It's cold, wet and windy."

Over the months the letter contents have grown more personal, asking about families and the lives of students.

The correspondence also sparked a project for the Russian students to research Zeya and submit information to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia.

One letter, from Ekaterina, Valeriya and Egor, shows their excitement about the project: "We beg your pardon for such a short letter. The fact is that we are absolutely taken by the idea of presenting some facts about our city in Wikipedia."

A challenge to others

Even after six months of exchanging e-mails, Hysong still marvels at who receives her letters.

"I'm talking to a person in Russia," she said. "It's incredible, it's very cool."

Williams wants to encourage others in Baker — youth, parents, teachers — to communicate with folks in our sister city.

"Why don't you learn a little more about Russia?" she said. "It makes the world a little bit smaller."


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