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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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 with the 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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Comments (11) Sign in or register to comment Subscribe to comments via RSS

Jen Barr's picture
Jen Barr
Instructional Technologist

My website started organizing a gingerbread man exchange 10 years ago. It's a great way to teach kids at their own place in the world versus others and geography or have writing/craft incorporation into a Gingerbread Man Unit. This year I'm opening up registration to groups and different grade levels. Each group can add their own spin on the exchange. Each class or group creates 20-25 Gingerbread Men and writes a letter about their group/area/school. Group leaders/teachers will mail one gingerbread man and one letter to each class/group listed on the exchange list I provide on December 4th. Gingerbread Men should be sent by December 11th. One gingerbread man will stay with you to start your collection. You should receive one from each person on your list.
We've had lots of positive experiences in the past and I hope this year is great too. Please think about joining. www.barrbunch.com

Courtney's picture

This reminds me a little of my 5th grade class although we had a system where we were write letters to students in the school. Our teachers would have a mailbox where we would send our letters to who we have addressed them to in the school building. This was fun and exciting and as you say "not only is someone actually going to read their letter, but also respond to it", that was the best feeling in the world. I think the simplicity of writing has been taken away from us because we do have technology that makes talking face to face easier than writing and waiting. I really like the idea of the basketball team interacting with the grade school class. I think students feel important and understand the meaning of a friend when they take time to learn about them through a letter than over Facebook comments. Since I am in a technology class I believe to accommodate my learning as a teacher I would set of email accounts for students to talk with pen pals. Similar to writing a letter, emailing requires thought and paragraph construction on a computer rather than paper. Since students are required to use technology more and more I think it would be appropriate for students to learn how the use email as early as possible. Of course the teacher would have to monitor the emails and acquire a pen pal that would have computer access I believe it still gives the same feeling as a letter written pen pal just in an up to date setting.

Lisa Mims's picture
Lisa Mims
5th grade teacher /Education blogger

The kids really do enjoy interacting with the basketball players! If you are interested in emails, Epals ( http://www.epals.com/#!/main) is a great resource. I know email can work, but my kids love getting letters!

Meghan Shaddix's picture
Meghan Shaddix
5th Grade Teacher

Wonderful idea! Several of the teachers in my school have switched over to ePals or a similar online pen pal service. It seems that the students get excited, however not quite as excited as holding a letter in their hands. I remember being young and getting so excited over mail that was just for me. Your post has persuaded me to stick with old fashion snail mail and I cannot wait to get started!

Lisa Mims's picture
Lisa Mims
5th grade teacher /Education blogger

You, and your students, will love it! We just mailed our second set of letters to our friends in Spain.:)

Kaitlyn Carroll's picture
Kaitlyn Carroll
Teacher from New York

For my class of third graders, pen pals are certainly not a thing of the past! The idea of communicating with another third grader in a different state (or country) is one thing that is always engaging. The most important factors in my decision to include pen pal writing activities into my classroom are for the cultural experience and of course the writing experience. Although we enjoying using technology to video chat with our new friends, we still continue to communicate via letter writing; nothing beats the feeling of opening a new letter! The writing process is such an important and developing skill at this grade level that it just cannot simply be left out. Frequently, several colleagues and I collaborate to integrate common core skills into letter topics. We typically like to have students discuss a recently learned topic or lesson in a different subject area each month. Of course, we still allow for friendly 3rd grade conversation regarding sports, hobbies, and interests!
As mentioned in your initial post, I think one of the reasons for the continued engagement in each student is due to an authentic audience. Students write and respond with such personal ideas and thoughts because they feel a sense of connection and understanding with their pen pal.
Recently, I was sincerely touched by the heartfelt letters that my students produced when I asked them to write to a close family friend of mine, who is currently an active duty soldier, serving our country overseas. They offered many thanks and just as many questions that they were eager to have answered, knowing they would soon receive their response.
In March, we will also be afforded the opportunity to video chat and correspond via letters with one of our classmates who will be leaving us here in New York to receive a medical procedure in Minnesota. The students are waiting with anticipation, the stories of their heroic classmate.
I love the opportunities and connections that are provided when we step outside of our classroom walls to learn about the rest of the country and the world through the words of another, just as eager to hear about our adventures!
Thank you for you post and the comfort in knowing that I am supported in my strong beliefs in the benefit of this classic educational practice!

Nicolas Rochas's picture

To help you to find pen pals for your class, here is a new site : www.skolinks.com
It's free and safe :-)
Skolinks is a french site but you can translate automatically.
Best regards

Lauren Anderson's picture

I am thinking of having my students have pen pals in Africa because I know someone who is teaching science there. I was wondering if anyone knows how they have been able to fund sending the letters because I feel it could be expensive.

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.


Have you asked your school to fund it? I guess it depends how often you want to write. You could write one letter as a class or have students partner up so you're not sending a whole class set.


Stuart Bourn's picture

great article Lisa. You gave some great insight into the benefits of penpalling. It really is a hobby that has stood the test of time and will continue to assist in cultural exchange - even in the modern era. You flagged some important topics, especially around penpal safety - ensuring that you do not give away your last name and address is very important in the beginning of a pen friendship. There is a great penpal club called Global Penfriends (www.globalpenfriends.com) where you can find penpals from all over the world - they are family friendly and for people of all ages and interests. Happy penpalling!

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