Four years ago, on February 29, 2016, Colorado Academy Fifth Grade teacher Tracey Allan had an idea to celebrate Leap Year with her class by creating a Back to the Future time machine with paper and pencil.
“I thought to myself that by the next Leap Year, these Fifth Graders would be Freshmen in the Upper School,” she says. “They would have “leaped over” Middle School, so wouldn’t it be fun to have a lens to go back and meet their Fifth Grade selves!”
So Allan had her class write letters to their future selves and seal them in envelopes. She set a calendar reminder on her phone for four years in the future and entrusted the letters to Freshman Dean Meg Hill for safekeeping.
“The letters lived in one of my desk drawers the entire time,” says Hill. “Once in a while, I would look in the back of the drawer just to make sure they were still there.”
The big reveal
Four years later, in February 2020, Allan’s Fifth Graders—now Upper School Freshmen—gathered in their old classroom—now Buck McKenna’s room. Under the watchful eye of McKenna’s Fifth Graders, the Ninth Graders reenacted their morning meeting circle of handshake greetings.
Then, they opened the letters, to a mix of laughter and embarrassment, and discovered what was on their minds on Leap Year Day, 2016
“I hope by the time I read this I can control myself.” Bowen Smith
“Are Basketball and Soccer still my favorite sports?” Spencer Mills
“I want to work with dolphins and help extinct whales.” Madeleine Worrall
\“One question—do I have a girlfriend?” Lee Gastis
“I have a puppy. How is he doing?” Faith Reeman
And then there was Andrew Smart’s letter.
Dear Big Andrew,
Do you still like video games? (He does.) Are you tall? (He is.) Is your favorite food still chicken tikka masala. (It is.) I can’t wait until you see this note.”
‘How will I get there?’
For Allan, it took four years to see the learning she hoped the letters would produce. “We teach history, but young students don’t have a good sense of the passage of time,” she says. “They really had to think hard about what to say to their future selves.”
After they opened their letters, the Freshmen chatted with McKenna’s Fifth Graders about what they might write in a Leap Year letter. “I think that’s when some of the learning happened,” Hill says. “Getting these two groups together created a sense of community and continuity.”
For both groups it was a time to reflect on the past and the future. “It makes you stop and think,” Allan says. “Four years from now, where do I want to be, and how will I get there?”