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Postcrossing With Fifth-Graders

November 28th, 2012 (10:12 pm)

Postcards ExchangeMy son's school celebrated International Week this month. Every year, the school librarian coordinates an effort to bring in parents with expertise in a foreign country to speak to students during the week. For the last few years, I've given presentations on Italian immigration to the United States, based on my own family history and research for a book I wrote. But this year, in addition to my usual Italian-American talk, I presented a program on Postcrossing.
US1956853 Australia (VIC) web - Fireworks over Lincoln Mem (MVCS from JMP) (1)
Postcrossing is the website that connects people around the world through postcards. You join for free, post a profile on the site, and request an address. The site randomly chooses another Postcrossing member from somewhere in the world and sends you that person's profile and address. You use the information in the profile to select a card for that person. This is not a virtual card, but an actual physical postcard that you make yourself or buy from local shops, tourist attractions, museum stores, online retailers, or elsewhere. Then you write the card, including a unique ID number provided by the site, and mail it.

If you want to receive a postcard back from that person, you can arrange that via e-mail. But for the most part, Postcrossing cards go one-way. When the card arrives at its destination, the recipient registers the card on the site, using the Postcard ID. Sender or recipient can even post a scan of the card on the website, so that each Postcrosser has a gallery of cards sent and received. And while you're writing and sending cards, other Postcrossers somewhere in the world may be writing and sending them to you.

With more than 350,000 Postcrossers in 212 countries, the site is a great way to make worldwide connections and to learn about the sights, culture, geography, and history of other nations. Through Postcrossing I've seen astoundingly beautiful landscapes in Belarus, learned a Polish village's legend about the local witch, and seen a card of the Finnish edition of a Harry Potter book cover.

Coverage in Africa is still a little sparse, but in most parts of the world there are many Postcrossers. There are even two Postcrossers in Antarctica. I'd love to receive a card from there!

When you first join the site, you can have five of your postcards circulating at any one time. As you spend more time on the site and send more cards, you are allowed more and more of them. Each time one of your cards arrives at its destination and is registered on the website by its recipient, you're allowed to send another, to bring you back up to your total allowance. The more you send, the more you're allowed to send at once. I have sent nearly 1,300 cards over the last few years, so I can send out a maxiumum of 34 cards at a time.

US1956848 Brazil (Caxias do Sul) web - Lady Elliot Magic, by GardenofBeeden (MVCS from Jayson)I restrained myself for a month or two from requesting to send as many postcards as the site allowed, in order to build up a backlog. Then, a day or two before my presentation, I requested 25 or so addresses, all at once. I carefully selected a postcard to send to each of those Postcrossers and addressed and stamped the cards. At the top of each card I wrote a line saying that children were writing my cards as part of a school project. And to each card I added a Post-it note on which I'd written the most important points from the recipient's profile.

Then I visited my son's 5th grade class, talked about Postcrossing, and handed each child a stamped postcard. The students read the Post-its and wrote messages on the cards. I had extra cards, so some students wrote more than one. The kids loved the idea that somebody they didn't know, thousands of miles away, would read their messages. To protect their privacy, the cards were sent on my own account, and they signed first names only. At least one of the students has since joined Postcrossing (with her parents' permission) and another who already had an inactive account said he was reactivating it.

I write children's books, so over the years I have spoken to a lot of school groups, on various topics. I've never seen a group as engaged with my presentation as these 10-year-olds were, learning about Postcrossing. Now, one by one, the cards are arriving at their recipients' homes and I'm receiving back messages that I'm passing on to the class.

I selected the turtle card shown above to send to an 18-year-old Brazilian Postcrosser who loves animals. One of the students chose to write this one because, as he told her in his note, turtles are among his favorite animals, along with wolves and sharks. He also wrote above his love for soccer and the beach, and told her of the recent Presidential election here. (Here in the D.C. area, even the children are politically aware.) The Brazilian Postcrosser deemed it "awesome" to have children write the cards.

Speaking of politically aware fifth-graders, one Italian Postcrosser's profile said she was a fan of President Obama. For her I selected an Obama card and handed it to a politically savvy 10-year-old whose father is an elected official. I was floored when I read her outgoing card: I had no idea my son's friend had personally met the president! The Italian Postcrosser was excited to hear it too. My son sent the D.C. fireworks card, above, to a Postcrosser in Australia, who sent back through the site one of the most interesting, detailed responses yet, telling stories about koalas and wombats! Most of the Postcrossers who have replied so far did send messages especially for the children, and seemed happy to receive a note from a 10-year-old and to send back a few words about their own countries.

What an exciting project for these kids! The teachers want me to return in a few weeks for a multicultural event that's still in the planning stages. I don't know exactly what the focus will be, but I'm sure of one thing: There will be postcards.