UNION CITY — As a fifth-grade instructor, Sheilah Stettler is required to teach her students about the U.S. Constitution and how to write research reports.

But by the end of the year, she hopes to have taught them compassion and respect for others as well.

Thursday, the Emanuele Elementary School teacher had students work on holiday cards for soldiers in Iraq, folding the exercise into her character education curriculum.

"The most important character traits that I can see are empathy and caring, not to be hard-hearted or cold-hearted. ... That is why you teach — to make a better person later on," said Stettler, whose students also made Halloween and Thanksgiving cards for the soldiers.

In an e-mail to the class this week, members of the Army's HSC 62nd Engineer Battalion, serving at Camp Liberty, wrote that some of their own family and friends have forgotten about them or have chosen to ignore the situation in which the troops find themselves in Iraq.

Marylou Parnala, whose daughter is in Stettler's class, began corresponding with one soldier several months ago. Although she opposes the war in Iraq, she supports the troops.

Parnala's daughter, Marina Gonzalez, also is glad the family befriended the soldier, Antonius Smith.

"Because I don't have any older brothers, he's like an older brother to me," said Marina, 10, the oldest of four kids.

She hopes to meet Smith later this month when the 20-year-old is expected to return to the United States.

Staff writer Linh Tat covers education for The Argus. She can be reached at (510) 353-7010 or ltat@angnewspapers.com.