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Stories to Make You Smile: 1st Grade Pen Pals Reconnect Retired Teacher, 92

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It can be hard to keep students, particularly young ones, connected during remote learning. But under the coronavirus lockdown, two generations of teachers are working to engage Nancy Cartier's 1st grade class in Dayton, Maine.

As virtual lessons got underway in Maine, Cartier told her students at Dayton Consolidated School about her father, Vincent Nuccio. The 92-year-old had lost both his wife and son in the past two years, and the need to keep him safe from coronavirus exposure meant he could no longer see friends or sing in his local retired men's glee club. About half the class opted to write to him.

"I wrote because he's all alone in his house," said Easton LaPlant, 6. "I made him a picture with smiles all around and 'happy.'"

Nuccio was thrilled, and responded with cards and stickers "and that kind of snowballed into, you know, what I'd like to do, I think I could make a video for them," Cartier said. 

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In the first video, Nuccio introduced himself as their "mystery man" pen pal and went on to turn his introduction into an impromptu geography lesson, describing a family train trip from Beverly, Mass., to Portsmouth, N.H., and challenging the students to trace his route on a map.

Gillissa Greene, 6, mapped out Nuccio's route with her father and brothers one night while her mom Carrie made dinner. 

"Our conversations about Dr. Nuccio and this pen pal opportunity really became kind of a family conversation," Carrie Greene said. "I think it's fantastic. I've been learning as a stay-at-home teaching mom that writing is definitely one of the bigger challenges to get kids to participate—for schoolwork, it's definitely our biggest challenge in this house. So I think it was a great creative way to get the kids to write, and at the same time bring him some enjoyment."

It's also a return to the classroom for Nuccio, a math teacher early in his career and later a longtime education professor at Boston College.

"He has the teacher in him and you know, that has never left," Cartier said.

Now, most of the class has gone through several rounds of letters with Nuccio, and he has sent an additional video, showing off his singing and giving the students funny math puzzles to solve. Nuccio is already planning a new lesson, telling the students about his 13 children and asking them to chart the number of boys versus girls.

"It's exciting," said Winnie Herrick, 7. "I'm writing back to say sorry you can't go out and that I want him to keep singing in the videos." She has opted to call Nuccio "Vinnie" so their names will rhyme.

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Cartier said she has happy to watch the back and forth, and impressed with her students' eagerness to write by hand.

"I think years down the line they're going to be like, 'I remember getting letters,' and know how important that is. I just think that's kind of a dying art of writing and corresponding the old fashioned way," she said. "And I think they've learned, you know, that a simple gesture of drawing a picture or writing a quick note to a person that's alone is really what this is all about. It's a good reason, good excuse to have them writing and reaching out more themselves."

Easton, Gillissa, and Winnie's moms said their children have been more interested in writing since they started exchanging mail and videos with Nuccio.

"I like writing. I like that I get to have letters," said Gillissa. "I'm working on my next letter right now."

Photos: Top: Easton LaPlant, 6, created a "long-distance hug" to send to retired teacher and pen pal Vincent Nuccio. Source: Hillary LaPlant

Above: Winnie Herrick, 7, writes another letter to Nuccio, her 1st-grade class pen pal. Source: Jill Herrick

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