Last year I decided it was time to start a pen pal project with a francophone class. I had wanted to do one for awhile but I always thought the process would be overwhelming and wasn't sure where to start. I finally decided to use ePals, which is a site for teachers and schools to team up on all kinds of projects, including the basic pen pal exchange. I got in touch with a 6th grade English teacher (I teach 7th grade so it was a good match) in a school outside of Paris, and before I knew it, the project was underway!
Preparing for the Project
Even though we got things rolling before the school year started, it took a considerable amount of time to plan the project. Because I had about three times as many students as the teacher in France, he teamed up with two other English teachers in his school so we had enough pen pals for everyone. Before beginning the project I got approval from an administrator in my building, sent home a letter to parents informing them about the project and allowing them to give permission for the students to include personal photos in their letters, and matched up my students with the ones in France.
We decided to do "old fashioned" snail mail instead of using a web-based program. Not only did this make the process easier (I would have had to get another permission from students to use the program, and for students who didn't have computers, it would be harder for them to complete their final copy of the letter outside of class), the students got to see authentic French handwriting (more on that later). The only downside was the cost of mailing the letters each time (we had two exchanges), but I think it was worth it.
Before we began exchanging letters, each school prepared a PowerPoint with pictures of the school and descriptions in the native language. The students loved seeing the school where their pen pals went. We also looked at it on Google Maps and took a walk around the city they live in.
The Project in Action
For each exchange, we came up with an outline for what the French students would say and what the American students would say back. In each letter, students wrote one paragraph in the target language and one in the native language. This way, they had an opportunity to practice both reading and writing in each exchange.
When the letters came each time, the students were thrilled. I gave them time to share their letters with classmates, ask questions about what words meant, and make observations or comments. One thing that frustrated the students a little was trying to decipher the French handwriting, which was not sloppy, but just very different from the handwriting they are used to seeing. I actually saw this as a great cultural opportunity. After all, if they ever end up traveling to or living in France one day, they will most likely end up reading French handwriting at some point.
Writing the responses was a full-class activity. I gave students an outline of what to write in each language with examples. Students could write more if they wanted to in the French section. I wanted students to finish a draft of the letter in class. This way, students were allowed to help each other (while I circulated as well) and then peer-review when finished. They had several days to "jazz up" a final copy to be sent to their pen pal.
The Project in Context
I tried to think of ways to incorporate the pen pal project into other lessons. One way I was successful in doing this was by creating a lesson based on authentic documents I found online that originated in the city our pen pals lived in. I found about 15 documents (photos, headlines, captioned photos, ads), and had students in groups list what activities they could do in that city (and cite what document they found that from). The activities also just happened to be vocabulary we were studying. When students were done with that task, they made a list of things they would like to do if they lived there and things they would not like to do, and we also briefly discussed cultural similarities and differences we could gather from the documents. I think using authentic documents from the city of their pen pals added to the relevance of the lesson and made it more interesting. This lesson was based on part of a Common Core-focused mini unit I created with two partners during a workshop at NYSAFLT's Summer Institute led by former NYSAFLT president Nancy Ketz.
The 5 Cs
For those of you who do not teach in the U.S., ACTFL's Standards for Language Learning are based on 5 Cs: Communities, Communication, Cultures, Comparisons, and Connections. It's important for language teachers to address all five of these standards, however, some are easier to address than others. Communication is often cited as the easiest of the bunch, since by teaching students language, we are addressing it. I felt like this pen pal project did a nice job of addressing quite a few of these standards.
Under Communication, Standard 1.1 states, "Students engage in conversations, provide and obtain information, express feelings and emotions, and exchange opinions." Not only did students engage in these types of conversations, they did so with native speakers!
Under Culture, Standard 2.1 states, "Students demonstrate an understanding of the relationship between the practices and perspectives of the culture studied." I don't think the students showed this so much in their letters as through our informal class discussions (which often stemmed from content in the letters).
Connections was the one "C" I don't think this project really hit upon. It's likely that there were students who, through this project, reached Standard 3.2, "Students acquire information and recognize the distinctive viewpoints that are only available through the foreign language and its cultures," but I can't cite any specific examples.
Under Comparisons, Standard 4.2 states, "Students demonstrate understanding of the concept of culture through comparisons of the cultures studied and their own." This, again, was achieved through informal discussions.
Under Communities, Standard 5.1 states, "Students use the language both within and beyond the school setting." I had a number of students submit their email address to me (with parent permission of course!) to be given to their pen pal to extend the communication beyond the classroom
I'm very happy I finally tried the pen pal project and I am excited to work with the same school next year. This project promoted reading and writing skills, peer review, and cultural understanding in a way that was really authentic and relevant to the students. Even in the 21st century, a somewhat timeless idea of a pen pal project, written with pencil on paper, still has a place in the classroom.
If you've considered doing a pen pal project with your students but haven't yet, I highly recommend it! If you've done a pen pal project of your own, how was yours different?