Delivering Literacy

Postage is free. No bills or junk mail are allowed. Letter carriers donít have to trudge through rain, sleet or snow. This school post office is an effective teaching tool and a fun learning experience for students..

By Helen Dolik

On a hot day last July, teacher Grant Ranalli was busy wrestling a donated Canada Post mailbox into a van heíd borrowed from his brother. It barely fit.

He dropped off the mailbox at St. Helen School in Hamilton with visions of a school postal system dancing in his head. Ranalli sanded down the mailbox and spray painted it the school colours of navy and gold. He covered it with a sheet to shield it from tiny, prying eyes and waited for school to begin.

"At that point, all I had was a mailbox and a bunch of ideas in my head," the Grade 4 teacher at St. Helen School says.

"I had no idea how well it would work out."

Now the phrase "youíve got mail" has special meaning at St. Helen School. Ranalli launched St. Helen Post in October and the in-school postal system is a hit. Students, staff, visitors and seniors from a centre attached to the school send and receive mail. Kids and adults tossed 1,000 pieces of mail into the made-over mailbox by Christmas.

Itís an ideal way to promote reading, writing, and real-life skills such as addressing envelopes and job responsibility, Ranalli says. The postal system also meets curriculum requirements.

RECOMMENDED FOR SCHOOLS

"I recommend it for any and every school," says Ranalli, the postmaster-general.

Ranalli borrowed the idea of an in-house post office from a previous school where he taught and expanded the concept to make it easier for teachers and more fun for students.

The post office is open two to three weeks before major holidays, such as Halloween, Christmas, Valentineís Day and Easter. Fourteen Grade 4 students applied for and passed both written and practical tests to become "posties." They collect, sort, reject, accept, re-sort, cancel and deliver the mail daily. One special-needs student delivers packages on her tricycle, equipped with a basket on the back. Sheís the Pony Tail Express.

Student postal workers signed an employee contract with St. Helen Post and Ranalli drafted an employee handbook detailing job descriptions. They follow a weekly shift schedule and if someone canít work, they have to find someone to cover their shift. St. Helen Post has its own cancellation stamp and gold logo.

"It has proven quite successful Ė so much so that we have had trouble keeping up with the volume on some days," says Ranalli.

100 LETTERS DAILY

During the Christmas rush, more than 100 letters were handled daily. And no wonder. Postage is free. No bills or junk mail are allowed. Letter carriers donít have to trudge through rain, sleet or snow.

Teachers were asked to come up with unique street names for the class address. Some took suggestions and voted while others made up their own. Grade 3 is 3 Kangaroo Court. Grade 4 is 4 Roadrunner Road. The office chose 1958 Tiger Terrace because the school was built in 1958 and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats football team.

The freshly painted street letterbox is located in the main hallway and collects the mail. Canada Post also supplied a carrier bag and itís used to carry the mail for sorting and final delivery.

Markís Work Wearhouse provided free uniform shirts. Business Depot donated the envelopes. Dancy Metal Products, of Mississauga, contributed mailboxes for each classroom. Students sent handwritten thank-you letters to the donating companies.

The postal system was kicked off amid fanfare at a school assembly featuring popular letter-related songs like Return to Sender. Principal Dorothy Spence cut the ribbon circling the mailbox and the secretary officially mailed the first letter. The support of the principal, teachers and staff has been vital to the success of the program, Ranalli says.

Spence says the schoolís postal system has sparked an interest in practical writing skills and has helped school spirit. She hears students talking about what theyíre going to write.

"The children are extremely interested in it," she says.

Spence mails letters to classrooms, complimenting new art work or sending congratulations to a school sports team. Students write to her, as well. One boy wrote to her about a problem he was having and it was looked after.

"We appreciated the community support around a project like this," she says.

The seniorsí program that works out of the attached senior centre has its own mailbox and receives about 20 letters a week. Students help with activities, get to know the seniors and send letters or cards.

WEE DELIVER

The United States Postal Service sponsors a program called Wee Deliver, which involves creating an in-school postal service. About 40,000 schools participate in the program, which was launched in 1990.

Schools in the U.S. can order a free Wee Deliver starter kit. The kit consists of a videotape introduction to the program, a teacherís manual, a sample press release, cancellation and return to sender rubber hand stamps, a poster, a cardboard mail distribution case and collection box, and a letter carrier mail bag. The postal service says that schools that implemented the program found that Wee Deliver is an excellent way to stamp out illiteracy and improve attendance and test scores.

Ranalli says St. Helen Post has benefited students, teachers and the administration. Several teachers in other schools have asked Ranalli about the in-house postal service and are interested in starting their own.

"It promotes reading because students love to get mail just like everyone else," he says. "It promotes writing. Itís difficult to get students to write, especially boys.

"It provides good motivation. I say to the kids Ďif you want to get mail, you have to send mail.í It really works when they see their classmates getting letters and they donít."

For schools that score low on reading or writing in the Education Quality and Accountability Office tests, this is an ideal way to address literacy, he says. The in-school postal service promotes real-life skills, greater communication and social skills.

"Some teachers think this is over and above what you have to do but itís what they have to do anyway," Ranalli says. "Having a postal system just adds motivation and reality to what otherwise would be an abstract lesson."

For teachers, itís a good way to evaluate writing skills and an interesting way to communicate with students, Ranalli says.

"Kids can write letters to teachers and say things they might not say face-to-face," he says. "If they have personal problems and they need to talk to a trusted adult, teachers can sometimes fill that void. This is one way they can communicate with their favourite teacher."

For the student postal workers, the service promotes a sense of self-worth and a degree of responsibility, he says.

They have to show up on time. They fill out an application form and sign a contract. They take a little written test plus a practical test where they have to identify errors.

FUN FOR STUDENTS

Stephanie Brown, Katie Niewland and Destinee Taylor are Grade 4 student postal workers. They all agree the postal system is fun. Stephanie, 9, has written five letters to friends, asking how they are, what they are learning and whether they want to play with her at recess. She thinks other schools should have one.

"They could make new friends writing letters," she says.

"I think itís fun and itís really good for the little ones to have because it helps them learn how it works," says Katie, 9. "I learned that being a postal worker is not that easy. You have to make sure the postal code is right and words are spelled correctly."

Ranalli says the students enjoy a sense of pride in their work. For example, Ranalli discovered that even the postmaster isnít untouchable. His eagle-eyed workers spotted errors in a couple of his letters and rejected them. Ranalli complimented his staffís proofreading skills.

"You caught the postmaster," he told them, his pride only slightly wounded.


To learn more about this activity, e-mail Grant Ranalli at positiveone@sympatico.ca.


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