Getting to know you (and me) through buddy letters

A date, a salutation, at least five sentences, a picture they’d like, a closing, and your name.  It’s good to ask at least one question so they have something to respond to.  These were the parameters of a buddy letter, as a few complaining middle schoolers explained to me.  What were they complaining about?  Not the connection to kids in other classrooms, but the formal structure of it.  Why did it have to have rules?  Why did it have to have all of those components?  Why couldn’t we just video chat?
This week, I made a deal with these complainers:  If I wrote a buddy letter to every kid in the school, they would stop complaining about having to write a formal letter every week. So the deal was struck, and I sat down and began to write.
First, the pictures, I scrolled through my phone and pulled out a set of photos that I thought were interesting and accessible to kids:  a snow-covered tree, a stump with a line of mushrooms growing out of it, my jack-o-lantern, and a Halloween costume from last year, a pie I baked, a snapshot of me with three (teenaged) nieces and nephews piled on top of me at a family reunion.  Then I applied the formula to make a unique combination of information, question, and photo for each of our 48 kids.
Doing this taught me more about my role and responsibilities than I thought.  For example, a picture taken on my walk to school could be accompanied by the question “what do you see on the way to school?” or “how do you get to school?”  But there were many kids who know that I already knew how they got to school.  The second-grader whose scooter I helped up the stairs last year, or the 7th grader who tells me every day which bus or train number he took would know that question to be disingenuous.  They got a different question.  Some kids, I realized, I know better than others.  Some have shared years worth of daily news with me.  Some,  especially the new kids this year, are ones I need to work harder to get to know.
I also had to think about personality.  Who would laugh at the picture of me dressed as Obi-Wan Kenobi?  Who would giggle at the sight of me piled under a stack of teenagers?  Who would be interested in questions about cooking and baking?  Did I know what made each tick?
And finally, what would I choose to reveal about myself to each child?  Which kids seek more connection and which would rather maintain a little distance?  How much of myself did I feel comfortable revealing.  How much do I want to invite them into my life beyond school?
We do buddy letters as a way of helping kids connect across pods and have a special friend outside of their classroom.  Friendship takes work and wise choices.  This dare taught me more than I thought I would learn about myself, as well as connecting me to some new and existing friends.
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Karen Carney

is the head of school. Karen’s career demonstrates a rich and diverse set of skills: project oversight, curriculum development, educator training and mentoring, and classroom instruction. Prior to coming to Chicago Friends School, she worked as a senior specialist in science curriculum for American Institutes for Research. Before this, she oversaw educational programming at the Adler Planetarium, first as its director of education and then as associate vice president for visitor experience and learning. She has also worked in instruction and teacher development at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Learning Sciences Research Institute and has authored more than 20 scholarly papers, book chapters, and conference presentations.

Karen is an active, dedicated Friend (Quaker) and has held various leadership positions at the Evanston Friends Meeting. She enjoys baking, cooking, and painting and is a member of the Playmation improv comedy team.