I moved to North America from the UK over a decade ago, and when I first arrived, I missed all sorts of things, from TV shows and foods to country-specific lesson content. To ease my homesickness, I decided to set up a pen pal exchange between my new school and my old school back in England. I asked a former colleague if she was interested in her students becoming pen pals with mine. She was enthusiastic about the letter-writing project and we designed it with a literacy and social studies cross-curricular objective.
To start, her students wrote short letters to my class. They each included a basic overview of their life and a bunch of questions. My students, all fourth graders, were so excited to get letters in the mail that had their names written on the envelope. My class worked on their replies and sent them off to England. However, even though it was a thrill to receive a letter from across the world, snail mail did entail an awful lot of waiting around, so we moved our exchange to email.
Further reading: 3 Global Collaboration Projects for Your Classroom
We set the children up with their own email addresses, and put these under one central email alias. This allowed the teachers to screen each email exchange to make sure it was appropriate, and then prepare spelling lists and topic word banks based on the exchanges. Because the messages were now arriving within seconds of hitting "send," we moved to weekly exchanges. This allowed our students to breeze through the usual "getting to know you" questions and move on to topics that really allowed for meaningful cultural exchanges.
Learning from Letters
I found that the questions my class asked made me miss home, and the English students' questions highlighted things I didn't know about my new home. One set of queries revealed a contested fact: my new city was coined the "coldest capital city in the world." The British students brought this to our attention, but it didn't sound right to us, so we launched a research project. My students scoured encyclopedias, farmers' almanacs, and online sources, and found that although our city wasn't the coldest on record for the current year, it had been in the past and was still in the top five.
All these vital study skills were encouraged by one question from our new friends. In our letters, we asked the students to describe what they thought made England different from other countries. We revealed some amazing insight into their national identity and learned about the royal family, soccer, the weather, and beloved national dishes like sausage and mash and baked beans on toast.
Building a Lasting Legacy
Our pen pals project lasted for the entire school year. By the end, the students had made some real friendships—one student even met up with their British pal on a summer vacation to Europe. The project also more than met our learning objectives. The students practiced real-life questioning and research skills and perfected their letter writing and reading for meaning and clarity.
They also learned facts and figures about another country, but more importantly, they saw inside the day-to-day activities of someone who was the same age but was living a very different life. In getting to know one another, they recognized all their similarities and learned to appreciate their rich cultural differences.
If you'd like to set up a pen pal project in your class, follow these steps:
- Think about your contacts at home and abroad. Do you have any connections to teachers and schools in other countries that you can approach?
- If you don't have access to schools in other countries, consider posting a request on teacher message boards and forums. You can also check out the interactive map at The Teacher's Corner to find pen pals across the world.
- Use modern technology to elevate the traditional pen pal project to a multimedia experience. Use Skype for video meetings or Dropbox to share assignments and photographs.
- For further information on snail mail pen pal projects, sign up with International Pen Friends, and if you're interested in email pen pal connections, visit ePals.
Further reading: Exploring Cultures in Your Classroom
Our pen pal project was one of the most rewarding and worthwhile student activities I've ever led. It helped our students learn about the world and their place in it, and develop lasting connections and friendships across the globe.