Are Virtual Pen Pals the Cure for Polarization? Three High Schools Are Finding Out.

Dozens of high school students separated by distance and culture now have access to a pen pal system for the 21st century. Through the international nonprofit Narrative 4, students at Floyd Central High School in rural eastern Kentucky and students at University Heights High School in the South Bronx meet via video to discuss the political, economic, and demographic differences between their hometowns. They’re also working through a year-long literature-based curriculum and are engaging in travel exchanges between the locations in order to build empathy and understanding. They met in Kentucky in October and will meet up again soon in New York City.

The students discovered they have more in common than anticipated and now, despite the everyday experiences and the 670 miles that divide them, regard one another as “family.” In a recent interview with New York 1, Narrative 4’s Kelsey Roberts explained, “We work with students and educators around the world to bridge those divides and show one another that we are human, at the core level.”

One similarity the students found is that, in each of their communities, a stigma is attached to mental illness. The classes have decided to develop a project to address the problem.

“As our country faces increasingly divisive issues, it’s critical to support students and educators undertaking efforts experimenting with tools that make respectful engage possible,” said Foundation free expression director Sarah Ruger. The schools are using a University of Chicago metrics system to measure attitude changes before and after the program, which cover changes in openness, acceptance, and understanding among students from vastly different socio-economic, geographical, and cultural backgrounds.

The Narrative 4 exchange is made possible by Brooklyn startup Shared Studios and the Charles Koch Foundation.

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