Nineteen writers and actors paid an unusual visit to P.S. 16 on May 20th, 2011. They were part of a mission called PencilPALS (PALS = Performing Artists for Literacy in Schools). After assembling in the library, they then split into nine different first and second grade classrooms where they read to students from pictures books, exchanged stories, and shared their enthusiasm for writing.

Next, they gathered in the 5-4 Gifted and Talented classroom of their teacher Janine Esposito and were introduced to their PencilPALs. Sitting on kid-sized chairs and a carpeted floor, young students talked to the “older writers” about their favorite books, about their school experiences and about their summer vacations. Among their “older” visitors were writer/director Nora Ephron, her sister screenwriter Delia Ephron and television writers from shows such as Law & Order: Criminal IntentOne Life to Live and The Cosby Show.

This visit was part of a program to exchange letters between school children and professional writers to encourage written correspondance as a way of thinking about their experiences and putting them into words. Nora Ephron found it great fun to write to her pal, 11-year-old Fabiola Adosav. “Fabiola is the only person who writes me letters besides the electric company, the phone company,” she said.

Gina Gionfriddo, a former Law & Order writer who helped administer the program at PS 16, said it teaches students how to write letters, an important skill to develop in an age where most communication is done by e-mail. It’s a slower process and allows the writer to be more reflective.

“I had a pen pal when I was a kid,” said Gionfreddo, “and I just remember how exciting it was to exchange letters and meet the person who you correspond with.”

Playwright and author Mark St. Germain got more than he bargained for when he was paired up with 11-year-old Gonzalo Vazquez of Corona. The writer sent Vazquez a birthday card, only to have the student call him out for messy handwriting. St. Germain is now trying to improve his penmanship.

“At least you tried,” Vazquez told St. Germain sheepishly.

But Vazquez said that corresponding with St. Germain has made him a better writer. “After reading some of his books, it inspired me to write,” Vazquez said. “I’ve been reading more.”

The mentors who attended this event include Nora Ephron, Deila Ephron, Brant Englestein, Sibohan Byrne O’Conner, Shelly Altman, Barbara Garshman, Jackie Reingold, George Malko, Anastasia Traina, Susanna Styron, Cynthia Benjamin, Michael Slade, Betsy Aidem, Gina Gionfriddo, Jerry Kass, Mark St. Germain, and Ethan Silverman

PencilPALS is an offshoot of BookPALS , a nationwide program of the Screen Actors Guild Foundation, and part of the Writers Guild Initiative. It brings actors, writers and talented performers into classrooms to cultivate in children a love of books and writing.

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