I initially started the College Pen Pal project to promote authentic writing opportunities and increase motivation among my students, but the project blossomed into real relationships and honest conversations between students with over a decade of age difference. Nothing made my students more excited than pulling out a bright new envelope that contained a handwritten note from a college student. Each time new letters arrived, I was amazed by my students’ organic conversations, from discussing the importance of legible handwriting to marveling at having the same Halloween costume as a “big kid.”
Establishing authentic project-based learning allowed my students to build connections beyond the classroom. While reading stories of their pen pals in college, my second graders began to see this educational path as a route they could also take. Pen pal writing increased my students’ positive self-image and confidence as they developed relationships with positive role models through writing.
So, how can you create a pen pal community in your own classroom?
Form a Partnership with a College
Identify a group of college students. Reach out to a professor at a nearby college or at the university you attended. It doesn’t matter what year the college students are in, but both sides must be committed to continuously writing letters. I created a partnership with a professor who was searching for a service project for her first-year seminar. She established the pen pal project as a required component of the college course.
Determine the length of the partnership. Since colleges often run on semesters, the college students may be available for only half the year. Each time we did the program, we ran it from September through December.
Discuss how to promote students’ safety. Be sure to establish routines that will respect the safety and privacy of all students. In our partnership, we collected all the letters in class and mailed them as a group between the schools so that none of the students provided their personal addresses. We also reviewed all letters to ensure that students were not sending inappropriate messages to one another. If necessary, the college professor asked students to rewrite. I also reviewed all letters upon receiving them and before mailing back my students’ responses.
Introduce the Project
Introduce the concept with a read-aloud. In my second-grade classroom, I used the book Dear Primo: A Letter to My Cousin, by Duncan Tonatiuh. In this culturally relevant book, two cousins write back and forth between the United States and Mexico to discuss the similarities and differences in their cultures. After reading this book, I asked my students, “How would you like to have a pen pal?” Their smiles were worth all the planning!
Build interest and background knowledge. Be sure to give your students information about whom they are writing to and why. I showed my students pictures of the college campus, their mascot, and a map of how far away the college was from our school.
Model how to write a letter. Start with the basics (greeting, body, closing); don’t assume that your students will know how to write a letter, because this may be their first time.
Provide safe details. Explicitly teach students what personal information is OK to include. In my class, we created an anchor chart of private information that should not be shared in the pen pal letters. The list included the students’ last names, contact information, etc. This was a valuable discussion on how to share safe details such as a town name instead of an exact address.
Exchange the Letters
Develop a routine of reading and writing letters. Teach students how to appropriately read with the purpose of responding. Model how to ask and answer questions effectively in a letter.
Provide scaffolded resources. Create sentence starters or paragraph frames to support students in effectively crafting their letters. This may include interactive modeling within a small group.
Proofread letters. Have students peer-revise and peer-edit their letters to create a finished product that they are proud to share. Spend time individually conferencing with students to provide constructive feedback and monitor the exchange of information.
Make the Project Meaningful
One of the most effective things I did was to allow students to take the lead on reading letters from their pen pal (and deciphering what the letter said or what the author intended to say). This promoted authentic learning about being clear when writing information or asking questions.
I also provided time for students to have discussions and work together when writing letters. This time allowed students to authentically discuss all parts of the writing process. They naturally began paying attention to things that sometimes are overlooked, such as handwriting, grammar, and correct punctuation and capitalization. Students were motivated to reread, revise, and edit their letters because “big kids” were going to see them.
Finally, my best piece of advice is to let students know when the letters are supposed to arrive. For the three years I did this project, I observed near-perfect attendance on letter-writing days.
Grow and Adapt the Project
Once you have established the flow of letters between both classrooms, identify other ways you can capitalize on this relationship. While my students wrote their letters, they continuously asked questions about colleges and careers. To capitalize on this natural curiosity, the first-year seminar professor and I created a “Career Day” where second graders learned about careers from their older pen pals in prerecorded videos and pamphlets created by the college students.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, we couldn’t send physical letters between our classes, so we adapted our partnership to create a Bitmoji classroom where students recorded letters to one another. This allowed us to continue the benefits of the project within the confines of the pandemic.
Developing a pen pal project takes time and collaboration. There will undoubtedly be bumps along the road with absent students, package delivery challenges, or school schedule changes. Give yourself grace as you get your project off the ground, and know that it doesn’t have to be perfect to be impactful. Once you kick off the project, take a moment to step back and marvel at the excited conversations, authentic collaboration, and motivated writing that naturally occur in your classroom.