On a Thursday morning in Goleta, El Camino sixth-grade teacher Erin Morales, a few parent chaperones and 20 or so excited sixth-graders march up Hollister Avenue for about a mile in the brisk morning air.

Their mission? To meet up with pen pals the kids have been corresponding with for the last few months: the students in San Marcos High School teacher Michelle Acker’s remedial English class.

It’s an occasion fit for a little celebration, and not long after the kids arrive at Acker’s bungalow classroom, the pen pals – the older ones and the younger ones – were knuckle-deep in frosting, candy and graham crackers as they indulged in a the time-honored holiday pastime of the gingerbread house.

The meet-up is part of an ongoing writing program the teachers came up with a little more than a year ago to tackle an issue they both had in their classrooms.

“My students, for one reason or another, are usually not motivated to learn to read and write,” says Acker, whose job is it is to get her students’ English skills up to par with their peers in the regular English classes at San Marcos. The reasons for this lack or motivation vary, she says. Some have physical or developmental disabilities, others may not have established the fundamental language skills. Others might be in home environments that aren’t conducive to study, and so they lack interest.

Morales deals with a version of the same issue.

“I have only a couple kids that deal with ADD, and other learning difficulties,” she says, but on the whole her challenge was more about convincing her sixth-graders that reading and writing is cool, something that run-of-the-mill classroom assignments weren’t really doing.

Their solution to the problem was inspired by the teachers’ own emails to each other: a letter writing program that would engage both the remedial English students and the sixth-graders in an ongoing correspondence with each other. It would be interactive, instantly gratifying, and a practical way to learn to communicate.

The idea did get the students writing, but what the teachers maybe did not expect were the other happy results of the interaction.

“My kids think that having a Big Buddy in high school is so cool,” says Morales. “They really look up to the older kids.”

And it shows: the Little Buddies chatter happily with their older counterparts as the Big Buddies assist them with the finer points of constructing a gingerbread house.

“You gotta do it like this,” explains a senior to the kid across the table. He demonstrates the optimal application of frosting to keep the graham cracker walls of his house from falling in. “It’s like glue.”

The kid’s house, meanwhile, has had an earthquake and the walls have caved in. He promptly turns the crumbled architecture into an avant-garde cookie and candy sculpture he labels “Delusion.”

At another table, the Buddies seem to be creating a planned subdivision. Each house has the same exact architecture. The candy-sprinkled roofs and landscaping, however, are unique. The Buddies approve each other’s designs.

For the Big Buddies, the remedial English students, the effect of the interaction throughout the semester may be even more profound.

“They’re not very kind to one another in class sometimes,” Acker says. Low self-esteem is an issue with many of her remedial students. Sometimes the problem manifests itself as derision, or withdrawal, she says.

“But when the Little Buddy comes into the situation, they can be very helpful and encouraging,” Acker says. The presence of a kid who obviously looks up to them is, for many of Acker’s students, an experience they rarely, if ever, have. “They rise to that occasion.”

After the houses have been built and put away, it’s time for Reader’s Theater, an activity where the Buddies read holiday-themed stories to each other.

Some Big Buddies read to the little ones. Some little ones read to the big ones. At a couch in the corner Big Buddy Luis and his crew of Little Buddies – Emilio, Kevin and Erik – are reading one page each and passing the book between themselves.

The story is about little wooden people who stick dots on one another. There’s a sheet of adhesive dots placed in the book.

“The dots are for if you’re a regular person,” explains Erik. By the middle of the story all the Buddies have stuck dots all over themselves.

The teachers don’t know yet exactly how effective their collaboration is yet; they’ve only just ironed out the kinks on their first full year of it. Both say, however, that the correspondence and the periodic get-togethers have definitely fostered a good connection between the students. Many of her sixth-graders will go to San Marcos High School, says Morales, and many of the high school students came from El Camino.

It’s too early to quantify how much her remedial students have improved, says Acker, but the preliminary results are good.

“I notice that there’s more motivation to come to class and be involved,” she says. “It’s encouraging to see them take that initiative.”