Back when electronic media was in its infancy and the post office in its prime, postcards were a major form of communication between friends and family members across the United States. Now their usefulness and popularity in connecting people separated by geography and by generations seems to be returning.
Some children's books use picture postcard collections as a means of interesting children in other parts of the world. A recent article in Social Studies and the Young Learner examined how such books could be used in class.1
Here is another kind of easy and exciting project that uses postcards to engage elementary and middle school students in reading, writing, and social studies. Called "Postcards Across America," it begins with having students write letters to the editors of newspapers in different cities and states, asking their readers to send postcards about their community to the class.
Once the responses come in, have students locate the places they come from on a large map of the United States mounted on a bulletin board. They can tack up the postcards around the map. Classroom discussions will focus on the geography, history, and other facts about various locations written on the postcards. Students could also write follow-up letters to the senders requesting further information about their communities.
Use a newspaper or media directory, such as Gales Directory of Publications and Broadcast Media, to provide students with the names and addresses of newspapers in different cities and states throughout the United States. Select mid-size cities where student letters are more likely to be printed by editors, as the competition for space is often formidable in large and capital city newspapers.
With more narrowly defined objectives, you can have students direct their letters to places that have specific importance for your curriculum. This might be coastal cities, farming or manufacturing communities, historic sites, national park or resort areas, or towns or cities with the same name as your own.
Assign students to different states, and have them write letters to newspaper editors and place them in addressed envelopes. Lessons about letter writing may be particularly meaningful at this time. Enclose your own letter explaining the project to the editor in each envelope, and send them off.
Select a prominent bulletin board in the school to display a large map of the United States. Have students also prepare outline maps of their own states to record information. As the postcards arrive, have students read them to the class. The postcards may form the basis for discussing climate, land forms and other geographic features, economic conditions, historic sites, and other facts about the state in question. Add the postcards to the bulletin board, and place any letters or other material in a box or scrapbook for students to use for further investigation.
Postcards in One Classroom
Jon Armstrong, a teacher at Newfield Elementary School in Newfield, New York, has been doing "Postcards Across America" in his classroom for more than five years. He keeps the project going throughout the entire year, and reports that it is not unusual for his students to receive more than 3,000 postcards by year's end. Responses come from a variety of individuals; many are from other teachers and students, but quite a few have also come from retired people, local government officials, real estate agents, and chambers of commerce.
Armstrong's students have received a Mardi Gras cake via Federal Express; the key to the city of Baton Rouge, Louisiana; a case of pretzels from Pennsylvania; children's books from an author in Ohio; a state flag from the Governor of Alaska; and a surprise visit from a couple who detoured to his rural New York school on their way across country. One gentleman writes each year and sends cards to the students on special occasions. Numerous pen pal connections have also been formed throughout the country.
Postcards have been the impetus for short units of instruction begun at the request of students who wanted to learn more about something received through the mail. For example, a recent study of railroads was prompted by a retired railroad worker who sent the class old newspaper clippings, postcards and stories about trains.
During the year, Armstrong sends reports on the progress of the postcard activity home to parents. Toward the end of the year, his 5th grade class holds a "State Fair" in which each
student selects a state, conducts research about it, and prepares a display area including posters and food. Students from other classes in the school attend the fair, and mark their visits to state booths on a United States map they receive upon entering the fairgrounds.
As a final activity, Armstrong divides all the cards collected during the year among students. As a postcard collector himself, he is not unhappy with the prospect that he might stimulate interest in his hobby among the younger generation.
In an age of electronic webs and e-mail, cable and satellite dishes, "Postcards Across America" demonstrates that there's plenty of mileage left in one old-fashioned way of bringing people together. Moreover, postcards are a lively way to stimulate interest in the history and geography of the nation.
1. See Linda D. Labbo and Sharry L. Field, "'Wish You Were Here!' Picture Postcard Explorations in Children's Books." Social Studies and the Young Learner 9, no. 4 (March/April, 1997): 19-23.
Tedd Levy teaches social studies at the Nathan Hale Middle School in Norwalk, Connecticut, and is President-Elect of National Council for the Social Studies.