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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

As they enter the room, I wave the big yellow envelope in the air. They know what it is, and the room comes alive with excitement. They can barely wait until I open the envelope and pass out the contents. Their pen pal letters have arrived!

With Tech, Who Needs Pen Pals?

With the introduction of technology in the classrooms, I felt as though pen pals had become a thing of the past. That was a disappointing feeling. In my humble opinion, no matter how many times you Skype, FaceTime or share YouTube videos, there is nothing like a letter. No form of technology-based communication produces the excitement on my students' faces like the arrival of a letter from their pen pal. Watching them devour their letters, with intermittent shouts of, "Mrs. Mims, you know what my pen pal said?" is something to be savored.

Pen pal letters provide the opportunity to break down classroom walls. Whether the class you connect with is in another state or another country, it serves the same purpose. It gives your students a chance to see a world outside of their walls. My classes have connected with other classes as close as Georgia and as far away as Russia.

This year, I took advantage of Skype in the Classroom and connected with a class in Spain. So far, we have exchanged letters and videos, and plan on much more collaboration throughout the school year, including a Skype session.

Pen pal letters also provide an avenue to create better writers via an authentic audience. My students know that not only is someone actually going to read their letter, but also respond to it. This encourages students to write with meaning, to write with a sense of purpose. As the year progresses, there is always a vast improvement in their writing.

Many states have implemented Common Core, and letter writing is not a part of the Common Core standards. However, it is very easy to create projects that classes can share through letters. For example, classes that are connected via the Global Read Aloud project can write letters to each other about their reaction to the same book. Students can share narratives about their lives, and then compare and contrast with the lives of their pen pals. The possibilities are endless!

Making Connections

When I joined Edmodo in 2010, I used it as an opportunity for reaching out to teachers who would be interested in connecting with my class. A teacher answered me, and our kids wrote each other at least once a month. We also connected our classes via Edmodo, but the most important connection was through letters. Not only did our students connect, but this teacher and I connected as well, and even met in person at an ISTE conference.

In 2011, I created a Pen Pal group on Edmodo named Pen Pals Who WRITE. I wanted to share my enthusiasm for pen pals by providing a forum where teachers could connect their classes. Over 100 teachers signed up, and it is still presently open.

After reading an article about a class that had connected with a local university, I decided to do the same with my students. I am currently in the third year of my partnership (see page 5 of this PDF) with Wilmington University Women's Basketball team. The students and basketball players write each other once a month, the ladies bring them goodies on the holidays, and one day in the year, we stay after school in order to attend one of their games. My students are full of questions about college, basketball, etc., and these young ladies, who are great role models, willingly answer them in their letters.

Skype in the Classroom makes it so easy to connect, although it does require a Skype account. Once connected, you can set up your own Skype lesson and connect with teachers around the world. I posted that I was interested in being pen pals with a fifth grade class outside of the United States, and chose from the responses I received. The great part is that, although we are writing letters, we will still use Skype as a form of communication.

How to Begin

I always require my students to begin with a letter of introduction. They write at least two paragraphs, one talking about themselves, and the other asking any questions they may have for their pen pal.

It's always a good idea to read the letters that are sent to your students. My students are made aware of the type of conversations they are allowed to have, and I always read their letters. They do not write their last name and may not disclose personal information.

Written permission should be obtained from the parents. I always do this because some parents might not want their child to correspond with someone they don't know. Again, I have been fortunate and have always had 100 percent participation.

Pen pal letters may be a thing of the past to many people, but they will continue to be a part of my classroom's future!

Have you brought pen pals to your students? How have they responded? What tips would you share for others?

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