Is it still a pen pal program if you don’t use pens? Despite the use of keyboards rather than quills and Edmodo instead of the mail, our students were never so excited about writing. This spring, our 8th grade students became international bilingual pen pals with some Chinese-language students at the excellent Carlmont High School in the San Francisco Bay Area. The resulting pen pal project was a truly inspiring language and cultural exchange and a symbol of the future.
We first made contact with Carlmont through a mutual acquaintance at Menlo School (with whom we’ve done a number of international student collaborations), but plenty of teachers solicit pen pal partnerships through sites like CILC.org. Once you have teachers signed on, making the project a success relies on three things: 1) setting a realistic calendar, 2) creating viable student partnerships, and 3) figuring out which technology and media are most effective.
Setting a realistic calendar – consider holidays, curriculum, and testing schedule that might conflict with the project; give ample time for receiving and writing letters (depending on your student population).
Viable student partnerships – teachers can receive introductory letters from the other school and read them before making partnerships. Consider the language level of the student but also their respective interests.
Effective technology – Dropbox is great for transferring large files; Edmodo can be used for more informal exchanges; Googledocs is great for collaborative documents. Deciding what’s best for you may have more to do with what you are already familiar with.
For our project, students made time outside of class to create polished letters to send to one another. They wrote in both English and Chinese to give both groups practice with their non-native language. For round two of the project they created videos, not only to show a glimpse into their respective cultures, but also to practice oral language skills. Students were encouraged to give each other feedback in subsequent exchanges.
The response from students about the pen pal project was incredibly positive, and many wanted to continue to stay in contact with their pen pals next year. Here is some of their feedback:
Gillian: “I like to make friends with foreign people. I think writing letters with them is interesting. My pen pal is funny and she is very nice.”
Peggie: “I think when I made the video with my friends in the mountain of our school it was the coolest part. All of us made the videos to our pen pals by using a funny way. We told them about our school’s pond, and there are many large and colorful fish in it.”
Candy: “The pen pal project is a new activity for me. I can meet different friends and understand things we don’t’ know about foreign places. The coolest part is that my pen pal sent the video to me. It was the first time I heard the sound of a teenager from another country.”
Alice: “I think this project is really amazing. It let us keep in touch with a foreigner, and we also learn about American special customs. I really want to go study in America!”
Alan: “It’s interesting to learn things from each other. I learned many things about America and practiced using English to write the letter.”
Andrew: “I can know some differences from them, and I can share some special things in Taiwan with him. Writing a letter to him helps me learn English, and it helps him learn Chinese too. I think having a pen pal in the USA is very cool!”
Overall, this project was a great success for all students involved. Not only did they have the chance to practice their second language skills, but they also connected on a very real level with students in another country, giving purpose to the language they have been working so hard to learn.