SOUTH PASADENA — In an era when many classrooms bulge with high-tech teaching tools, seventh-grade teacher Howard Smith has gone back to the basics--the pen and the postage stamp--to introduce his students to world history.
The idea came to Smith last summer as he sought ways to make social studies more interesting to his students at South Pasadena Middle School, where he has taught for 22 years.
When classes resumed in September, Smith laid out his project: Students would pick a country and write to its head of state, inquiring about the nation's history, geography, educational system and government.
Smith warned his students not to get their hopes up too high. He was afraid, he said, that the children's inquiries would fall into a bureaucratic black hole or draw only perfunctory answers.
Much to the veteran teacher's surprise, the response has been phenomenal. Hand-signed letters, autographed photos, maps, videotapes, pamphlets, handsome hardback books and names of schools seeking to correspond with the South Pasadena students have poured in.
All of a sudden, youths who did not know Switzerland from the Sudan are spouting statistics about annual rainfall and economics in these nations. Others are scouring newspapers for articles that will tell them more. One student, 12-year-old Stephanie Tseng, even discovered she was a distant relative of Lee Teng-hui, president of Taiwan.
"I was surprised they took the time to write back to me," said Leah Dansker, 12, who is corresponding with officials in Israel. She has received letters, literature and copies of Israeli newspapers in English and Hebrew. "I've never written to anyone outside the country before and this was the biggest letter I ever got back."
One of the most personalized responses came from Arpad Goncz, president of Hungary, who wrote a charming, two-page letter that praised the "talent, ambition and self-assurance of Americans," thanked the South Pasadena students for sending a hand-drawn map of Hungary and outlined his typical workday.
The statesman closed his letter with the following:
"The tasks of a political leader are enormous . . . I do get confused, of course. And yet, I feel I have the personal integrity and popular support . . . to hopefully serve the best interests of a small but proud and energetic nation: Hungary."
Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney wrote about balancing his job with the demands of his family, with whom he enjoys fishing and watching hockey games.
Even when the heads of state delegated their letter-writing to subordinates, the responses were interesting.
Shulamit Nardi, an assistant to Israeli President Chaim Herzog fretted about his country's main problem, "the ongoing peace negotiations with neighboring Arab countries."
Fridolin Bargetzi, a high-ranking Swiss official, sent a response in German, which a German-speaking school employee translated for the class.
Susan Hussey, a lady-in-waiting--a woman attending or waiting upon a queen or princess--wrote on behalf of the British Royal Family. Letters came from nations as young as Latvia and as ancient as Egypt.
"I'm amazed that world leaders would make that kind of time. The kids have really gotten to see their human side, and it's helped connect them to the world," said Marsha Aguirre, principal of South Pasadena Middle School.
Aguirre said Smith's project succeeded on a human level as well as a scholastic one. Educational experts add that Smith's approach to history, though not unique, is a highly effective way to teach.
"It motivates kids, and the writing helps develop language arts; these projects are good examples of the interdisciplinary approach," said Ruth Shirey, executive director of the National Council for Geographic Education, based in Pennsylvania.
Indeed, Smith worked closely with Sandy Wells, a seventh-grade English teacher at South Pasadena Middle School, who taught the students how to write formal letters and polished their grammar and vocabulary.
Smith's aim was to incorporate the new state framework for social studies, which stresses interactive learning, critical thinking, multicultural issues and language arts.
He also encouraged students to tap their bilingual skills wherever possible, writing in their native tongues to leaders of Spanish-speaking and Chinese-speaking countries.
But the letters were only the first step of what Smith has now parlayed into a year-round project. Students are doing additional research on their chosen country, continuing their correspondence and making contact with schoolchildren in those countries to compare educational systems.
Smith's class is now studying pre-revolutionary China. But their textbooks shed little light on the Chinese educational system before the overthrow of the emperors in 1911. As a result, students have written to China's leaders, asking for any historical educational background they can provide.
The project will culminate this spring with each child presenting an oral report.