Pen Pals: Harvard Extension Dean Inspires Fourth Graders

It’s an endearing and enduring relationship. For nearly five years, former Harvard Extension Dean Michael Shinagel and fourth graders from a suburban Chicago elementary school have been great friends—by way of the US postal service.

Letters from Dean Shinagel's fourth grade pen pals

In 2007, Frank C. Whiteley Elementary School joined a national program called No Excuses University. The program fosters high expectations for college attendance among children. Classes adopt a university and find a sponsor from the university to in turn adopt the class. Sponsors typically become pen pals who write motivational letters to the class.

The search for a Harvard pen pal

Kathy McAvoy chose Harvard for her fourth-grade class. And she and her students began a writing campaign. “We took pictures of everyone dressed in crimson and white, and sent a handwritten letter and picture of my class to each dean at Harvard,” McAvoy says. “Several deans offered us grad school students to be pen pals. But then I received an e-mail from Dean Michael Shinagel ... I was quite impressed that someone as important as he is would do something like this for a group of kids he’d never met!”

“You are the best dean a child could have!” – Brandon

A few times each semester, the dean writes letters to share the things that are happening in his life. He has written about travels abroad, important people he has met, events on the Harvard campus, and the antics of his dog, Quincy. 

Each letter gives McAvoy topics to incorporate into her lesson plans. When Dean Shinagel sent a brochure of a train trip he took from South Africa to Victoria Falls, the class followed his itinerary through South Africa. Another time, after traveling to the Middle East, he sent photos of historic sites, which the class researched. In their response letters, the students are able to practice their writing.

Dean Shinagel's fourth grade pen pals in Chicago

Some of former Dean Shinagel’s fourth-grade pen pals in Chicago

McAvoy says Dean Shinagel knows how to engage nine- and 10-year-olds. His most popular letter mentioned getting a valentine from his dog, Qunicy. The dean received so many questions about Quincy that he sent a photo and the actual Valentine’s Day card. “To have a dean at Harvard University reach out and touch the children’s lives in this way was astonishing to me.”

In addition to letters and photographs, Dean Shinagel sends care packages with things like Harvard chocolates, pencils, and t-shirts. Whenever the packages arrive, McAvoy says, “the children shriek with delight.”

“You are the smartest man who will ever read something I wrote.” – Trenton

The dean has kept every letter and card the class has sent him. “As dean of continuing education, I have a professional commitment to lifelong learning,” he says. “I am pleased to help motivate Mrs. McAvoy’s students about attending college. I am also a teacher who has taught freshman English, so I appreciate good student writing. I am always impressed by the enormous progress the students make in their writing skills since the start of each year, and happy to contribute in some way to that improvement.”

McAvoy says, “As elementary educators it is our mission to lay the foundation for our students’ academic future. Through this program, our students learn the importance of setting and achieving goals, allowing them to reach their full potential, and encouraging their eagerness for college. It has proven to be one of the most rewarding and enlightening projects my class(es) have ever experienced.”

Every year McAvoy hosts reunion lunches. She says that even students who come back to visit from junior high ask about Dean Shinagel and, of course, Quincy. “I’ve even had incoming third graders come up and tell me, ‘I hope I’m in Harvard next year!’”

The students say that Dean Shinagel means everything to their class. They think the dean is “awesome, funny, and kind.” But nine-year-old Jacob puts things into perspective:

“Dean Shinagel rocks our classroom.” 

“I am so grateful and appreciative of Dean Shinagel’s participation in this program,” McAvoy says. “And I have tried to impress upon the children that they should do something, when they grow up, as wonderful as Dean Shinagel has done for us.”

Video message from former Dean Shinagel to his pen pals

This blog post is a condensed version of a story that appeared in the 2012 Harvard Extension School Alumni Bulletin, by Linda Armstrong Cross. You can download a PDF version.

Kathy McAvoy replied:
I am the lucky teacher who found the world's greatest pen pal, Dean Michael Shinagel! Words cannot express the wonderful experiences my students have had over the last five years, due to this outstanding educator, friend and gentleman! It has been my honor to get to know Dean Michael Shinagel, his friendship will be cherished always! Kathy McAvoy
Marcilla Pena replied:
I am impressed with this initiative of Dean Shinagel! This is so nice and important to these kids. Mr. Shinagel, keep sowing in this kids' lives because their hearts are good land. The fruits will soon appear! Greetings from Brazil!