Dec 142010
Explaining "Lady Gaga" to Penpal Club students in Ghana.

Explaining "Lady Gaga" to Penpal Club students in Ghana.

So you dream of global understanding, connection, and communication. What better way to create this than to have students across the world write letters to one another?

Ahh, the romanticized International Penpal Exchange idea: so beautiful and so grand!

And yet, as those of us who have tried it often soon realize… so full of potential mayhem and chaos!

During the three months I volunteered in Sogakope, Ghana, I helped run the Youth Creating Change of Ghana International Penpal Exchange between Ghana, the U.S., and Canada.  Ohhh the mistakes I made at first!

So you don’t have to go through the same pain, I now give you…

10 Ways an International Penpal Exchange Can Go Wrong, and How to Avoid Them:

1. Problem: Technology WILL break down, or (in the case of both Ghana and the Boston Public Schools), hardly exist in the first place.

Using a drum as a makeshift desk in Ghana.

Using a drum as a makeshift desk in Ghana.

What this means if you want the letters sent fast (aka, by email) and there are few to no working computers around, is that someone (usually YOU) will be the one typing up and sending hundreds and hundreds of hand-scrawled letters via email.  Sounds sweet at first… but gets achy-fingered pretty fast.

Solution: Realistically assess your technology situation before starting and make a realistic plan! I can’t overestimate how much this oversight kills great Penpal dreams.  It IS possible to have an International Penpal Exchange with limited technology, but arranging for transcribing time, snail mail time, or people-carrying-letters-on-their-plane plans is essential.

2. Problem: Let’s put in this way: my students in Ghana had no clue who “Lady Gaga” was, and the Boston kids were utterly mystified at their penpals’ constant mention of fufu.”

Solution: Tell students, when in doubt, OVERexplain EVERYTHING! Repeatedly underline that students must describe many terms and ideas in detail, because an American child does not know the game “Ampe,” and a Ghanaian child likely isn’t familiar with Sushi,” “Skiing,” or “Justin Bieber.” (Yes, each of these terms came up at least twice per round of letters!) By extension, explain that even little details of their lives that they think are normal or boring may be fascinating to a child in another country with such a different culture.

A dog kept us company in the classroom in Ghana.

A dog kept us company in the classroom in Ghana.

3. Problem: Kids being kids, students often read their partner’s letter, really enjoy it… and then write back a page that makes absolutely no mention of the beautiful, profound, and fascinating things their partner just told them!

Solution: Explicitly show students how to use “active listening” strategies in their letter writing (ex: summarizing what was said) so their partner knows they read their letter and care about what they wrote!

4. Problem: How do you find your penpal partners in the first place???

Solution: There are a zillion different internet resources.  I found some of my partner schools by emailing former Boston teaching coworkers, some through Facebook linking with friends of friends who are teachers, and some through posting on the Global Education Collaborative Ning.  Other folks I know have enjoyed using online penpal finders like ePals, but (as #1 indicates) this requires excellent technology access.

5. Problem: A sweet student of yours has poured his or her heart into a letter… only to receive a one-line “letter” in response, or nothing at all.  This happened way too often at first in our exchange!

Writing about how delicious fufu is.

Writing about how delicious fufu is.

Solution: First, there needs to be extremely clear communication between lead teachers on expectations for minimum length of letters, and for when each letter is “due.”  I’d recommend some sort of spreadsheet (perhaps a shared Google Document) to ensure each student is paired up and sends and receives letters on time.  Without a spreadsheet system, this became a complete mess for me in Ghana as I added on school after school!  Which brings us to…

6. Problem: It creates a tangled, tangled web if your project involves multiple schools on either end.  At its height, the YCC Penpal exchange involved 6 different schools in Ghana and 10 different schools in North America… and it was SO CONFUSING!

Solution: In the first place, KEEP THINGS SIMPLE: one school to one school, for example.  Second, as the program gets bigger, keep records or a Google spreadsheet of who is writing to whom.  Also, guide students to address their penpals by their full names, schools, and classes, and sign that way as well.  In this manner a lost letter can find its home as fast as possible.

One of the six Penpal Clubs of YCC Ghana!

One of the six Penpal Clubs of YCC Ghana! (And the Ghanaian teacher's motor-scooter.)

7. Problem: You glance at an incoming letter and gasp at the inappropriate thing you see!  The concept of “What is appropriate” varies so greatly by culture.  In Ghana, for example, it is common to open a greeting with, “I hope you are fine by the grace of God,” which can seem inappropriate to U.S. teachers who are so entrenched in church-school separation.  Further, race and class relations within a country (not to mention the slang to describe them) vary widely. This led to numerous times when my Ghanaian students would ask things like, “What does it mean when my partner wrote: ‘The Spanish girls are mad rude to the Asians in my school’?”

Solution: First, look over all student letters before they are sent and before the incoming letters are passed out.  Second, be poised to clearly explain any inadvertent confusions or offense that appears! And pray that the “teachable moment” leads to international understanding and not a student ripping up his or her letter in fury.

A poster from Newton, Massachusetts about their Ghana penpals!

A poster from Newton, Massachusetts about their Ghana penpals!

8. Problem: By round 2 of letters, students are just repeating the same thing over and over, not really knowing what to write about.

Solution: Teachers should discuss and establish what the goal of the penpal exchange is so that students can know which topics to cover.  Ideally, the exchange could lead to a culminating project and presentation within each school to the classmates not involved in the exchange.

9. Problem: (True story!) A teacher at one of the schools is unexpectedly fired and, in a huff, takes an entire round of letters with him, never to be seen again.

Solution: Don’t let letters out of your sight if you can help it!  It’s particularly efficient if you have most of the writing done right in front of you, either during class time or in a structured after-school Penpal Club.

Hooray for International Penpal Exchanges!

Hooray for International Penpal Exchanges!

10. Problem: Your student squeals: “Why is my penpal eight years younger than me?!  That’s so weird!”

Solution: Inter-age penpal exchanges are totally great, as long as you set up the expectations first to avoid shock. This means introducing the partnership as a “Little Brother” or “Big Sister” one, and reminding students to adjust their language and subject matter accordingly.

Cha-ching!  Now you’re poised for a fabulous International Penpal Exchange!  Despite the surprising amount of effort and confusion involved, the rewards for students and teachers alike in Penpal Exchanges are truly remarkable.

Do YOU have advice, anecdotes, or questions of your own on a Penpal Exchange you’ve done?  Share your story with us!


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  62 Responses to “How to Run a Successful International Penpal Exchange”

  1. Hi
    i run a school in my local community in Ghana and i want to expose my students to the international world.I wish for an international collaboration with another school.It has always been my desire to make my students learn other cultures and other methods of learning and teaching and partner schools also learn our local way to teaching and learning.Thank you

    • hello everyone, I’m a teacher of English from Poland and I’m looking for penfriends for my 3 fourth graders, 7 fifth graders and 5 sixth graders. We’d like to practise our English and most of all learn about other cultures. I’d love my students to make friends with their peers from around the world. We’ re a small school from a little but beatiful village in south-eastern Poland (near Cracow).

  2. It’s great how you do penpal exchanges for multiple classes so a lot of students can experience talking to people from around the world! I love this article, especially because I learned what “fufu” is.

  3. Ah, this was very interesting. Maybe one day I’ll have a pen pal in another area on earth. It would certainly be interesting, and maybe I could get extra credit for it, too.

  4. I teach at 6th grade at a small Catholic school in Wisconsin, USA. I have 9 students in my class. We are hoping to make a pen pal connection with another Catholic school possibly in another country. I would like to do snail mail so my students can practice their writing. I had pen pals through school growing up and I have a pen pal now that I email and it is a lot of fun!

  5. Dear in charge,

    Iam Shabani From DRCongo, looking for penpal for my students around the world.

  6. Hi
    i run a school in my local community in Ghana and i want to expose my students to the international world.I wish for an international collaboration with another school.It has always been my desire to make my students learn other cultures and other methods of learning and teaching and partner schools also learn our local way to teaching and learning.Thank you

    • Hi,

      I know that it’s been a year since you commented on this article. I teach 7th and 8th grade girls in the US. Would you be interested in having our students be pen pals during the 2015-2016 school year? We are located in Florida, and I am in my 2nd year of teaching, but I thought that this would be a great experience for them.

      Hope to hear back from you soon!


    • Hi Ashley,
      Good luck! Maybe Precious will still be interested, in which case I can help you exchange contact information.

    • I’m interested in having my elementary school students become penpals with an elementary school in Ghana. Please advise! Thank you!

    • Hello Ashley,
      I teach aboutn13-17years, let’s see if we can establish a penpal connection.

    • Ashley
      Am still interested if you do not mind.thanks

    • Hi precious
      I teach 6th grade at a middle school. I have 60 students- 2 different groups. I would love to get something started. Let me know. Thanks

    • Angie
      Yes we can start something.We can exchange emails and can i know your country of origin?thanks

    • Yay! I can send an email introducing you two.

  7. I have just moved to Guangzhou, China and I want to set up a writing exhange project between my 7th grade students here and my ex-colleagues 7th grade students in Virgina. Thanks for your tips. I am going to get a tutorial on google documents and see how an exchange can be organized.

    • Best of luck!

    • Hi there! I am a high school student and I want to start a Pen Pal organization at my school. However when I Proposed the idea to the authority who can ultimately decide weather to approve the club or not, it was shot down due to safety concerns. My main question is,How can I ensure that in there will be communication between pals will be not only safe but remain appropriate? I do not think I should read the letters that will be exchanged due to the fact that I am not a teacher but a high school student like the people who are part of the organization will be.

    • Hi Fatima,
      How impressive that you want to launch this project! You ask a good question. I do think what you need is an adult ally who can help look over letters. Is there any adult in your school who might? If not in your school, perhaps you can do this through a local organization? Best of luck! You will find a way!

  8. Thank you for this. I’m setting a scheme up with a school in Rwanda, now I can structure my plans.

    • Wonderful! Best of luck and keep us posted!

    • It has run for 18 months or so now. The children who did it are leaving school soon. The plan is to get them to carry it on. The big mistake I made was to try and do it via the internet. I assumed the Rwandan school had a decent service when in fact they have an intermittent one.

      I visited the school in Rwanda in February, they have one PC with internet and the service is unreliable. They made a mistake on the address line to me in October and all contact dried up. I was waiting for emails from them, they were waiting for me. None of us knew the chain had been broken.

      I am tempted to do this by snail mail. A lot of my kids will drop out, such is life. I met the Rwandan kids which was a great joy.

    • Very useful insights! Despite the snags, though, it seems that the benefits were huge. We live and learn!

  9. So happy I stumbled on this. I’m volunteering in rural Tanzania with a group of girls who failed their high school exams and are training for vocational jobs i.e hairdressers, secretaries, cooks etc. Most of these girls have never seen outside their home villages and hometowns so they pretty have this limited view on life and I was hoping to start a pen pal program for our English class just to expose them a bit to other cultures and lifestyles. I was wondering if there’s a website for something like that or if I should go through an NGO. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks.

    • What a wonderful thing you are doing! A penpal program would be a great match. I cannot recommend any specific programs as I simply went through contacts (online networks, friends who are teachers or knew them, or friends with kids who had good relationships with their teachers), but if you search around, I’m sure many new free programs and networks have sprung up. Best of luck and keep us posted!

  10. Wow – you have hit the mark – we just started an international penpal program, and after our first go (last fall), we encountered ALL of these problems – wished we had come across this sooner! We are posting this on our site for sure – thanks! Spafford Ackerly, Program Director, Himalayan Connections,
    PS. The exchange is part of our gap year program – it’s great! We love it! We are looking for anyone help – we need it!

  11. I was wondering if you could help me. I teach 6th grade English and History and would love to set up a pen pal project with other kids similar age from another country preferably Asia or Africa. I don’t know how to go about it. Please help Thanks

    • Hi Angie,
      Thanks for your email. There are quite a few places online to find penpal partners. They include: The Global Education Conference, e-pals, Couchsurfing groups (there are ones for teachers), Facebook groups, and more. Best of luck!

    • Hello Angie,
      I’m Jinjiwa, from Ghana. I teach History and Government as part of my national service and currently planning to enroll in my MPhil in African Studies (History and Policies). It would be a pleasure for me to assist if you are interested in starting something up in Ghana.

    • I would love to get it started. What grade do you teach? I need help getting it started. My students will be thrilled. Let me know. Thanks again

    • Hello Angie, lets discuss it over on skype: my id is:
      ( jinjiwampact )
      and my email address is:
      ( )

      hoping to hearing from you.

    • I teach, Junior High School, form 1 and 2 and also teach Senior High School in a different school, also form 1 and 2.
      the average age in the Junior High School is between 12/15 and that of the Senior High School is college equivalent in the America system

  12. Thank you, thank you, thank you!! Very useful information!

  13. Thank you so much for your great advice! Also, thank you for serving humanity and touching lives sister!

  14. Thanks for those solutions to the problems. Those students look like they put so much effort in their work and are hardworking. I think I should be more like them, because I always procrastinate.

  15. Great article Lillie, Thank You for taking the time to put it together.

    I came across your article when researching ways to expand a very limited letter exchange I have been nurturing here in rural Guatemala and had a tip for those with the technological challenges mentioned in Problem #1.

    If you have any internet access at all (mine is through a cellular connection, or faster in town at a “cafe” with WiFi) and the speeds are good enough to upload pictures of reduced size (80-100KB or less), you can take a picture of the hand written letter, making sure it will be readable when reprinted and send that on to the other teacher. Then, the receiving teacher can print it out (Black and White or Greyscale) to share with the pen pal.

    This can also open up other ways for the kids to share things like drawings or art made for each other. As well, if one has access to the type of connection I mention (sometimes one might need to travel once a week or so to a nearby town where access is available), audio recordings can be shared also, songs being sung, local nature sounds, popular music etc…

    Good Luck and Have Fun!

  16. I reread this article and, loved it. The tips you gave on solving problems are specific and greatly explained.

  17. Hello,
    I am an English teacher in Virginia, US. I have students who desire to speak with other students in English in order for them to learn about another student’s culture. The students they converse with should be efficient in English, not exactly perfect but speak pretty well. I have middle schoolers so they are about 13-14 and I have around 25 of them. Students that are their penpals need to converse almost daily to twice a week. If this situation works for you, please let me know because I would like to begin this process as soon as possible. You can reach me at

  18. Dear Ms. Marshall ,
    I read this article and I really liked it. I especially love the tips you gave when talking about the technology and solving problems. Another thing I liked about this article are the photographs. They really show how the students are learning. I believe this helped me appreciate the things and opportunities I have living here in the USA.
    – Naomi Pierre

  19. Great article – but need to find “more” and better resources for teachers i work with – legitimate educationally endorsed and approved pen-pal groups that are free (due to budget constraints in our US schools) and that teachers can easily and effortlessly utilize for their classrooms who are using our books and supporting our project.

    Please advise – as we will be revamping our website..
    Thank you

    Warmest Regards,

    • Leslye, all I can advise you on is the makeshift scheme I patched together, described in the description above, but I know more organized exchanges exist. Keep us posted on what you find!

  20. I’ve always wanted to have a pen pal. This article reminds me of a episode of Drake&Josh. When Josh has a pen pal and obsesses over it about how fun and cool it is, so ever since that day I have always wanted one.

    • I am Mrs Louisa a citizen of Hungary.but presently living United Kingdom l Am very kind,lovely,love to share and learn,I am interested to know you let get to know each other and share more (

  21. This is so cool! I would like to see you explain to them our American idols and singers! If I had a Pen pal from another country, I wouldn’t know how to explain to them who Madonna is or Jay-Z. I think that our school should have a Pen pal program too!

  22. Sushi, Skiing, and Justin Bieber? I have always wanted a pen pal seems cool to learn about a place straight from a person who lives there.

  23. Thats true technology will kick you in the face at the last moment. In Boston everyone has technology but in some place there might not even be internet or cell phone perhaps in the place you are volunteering in, Ms. Marshall. How did you explain what is technology and Lady Gaga. I am really curious who is his teacher that got fires with a round of letter with him/her.

  24. I really liked this article. I remember when I did pen pals in the fifth grade. I went to a Catholic school and a priest from Ghana had us write pen pal letters to the students there. It was a lot of fun because I got to learn all about them. They told me about their likes, dislikes, and I learned some of their customs as well. I kept in touch with my pen pal to the beginning of seventh grade. I don’t know why we stopped but we did. I wish we hadn’t, though. I miss talking with them about all different sorts of stuff. Ms. Marshall, do you think we could do pen pal letters in your class this year?

  25. this sounds like a lot of fun and work, am amazed you were able to pull it of

  26. Thanks for doing this… Back when I was in elementary and junior high, I had a couple of pen pals. The first couple only exchanged one or two letters. In Junior High, needing to write to someone for a scout project, I met a missionary to Japan and he set me up with a Japanese girl and we wrote back and forth for several years. After college, I was in Japan for several weeks and got to meet him. We lost touch over the years, but I am thankful for those letters (this was all pre-internet days)

  27. This is a nice program.

  28. How did you explain Lady Gaga to the students? I really think we should do something like that in our ELA class. I think it would help us learn more about what it’s like to be a student from another country. We’ll be able to be more open minded too. There would be difficulties, but we should try!

  29. I bet having a penpal is really fun!

  30. What great tips, Lillie! I’m sure this will be a useful post for teachers and students all around the world. 🙂

  31. When I was in elementary school I did a penpal program with kids from Ireland. It was a lot of fun because I am Irish and a lot of my family lives there! I learned a lot of things about sports and their schools. I thInk BLA should have a penpal program!

  32. Ms. Marshall, in elementary school, our 4th grade teacher made us write to pen pals in DR as well, but it was really hard communicating with them because of the language difference, so we stopped. I think your 10-steps might work though 🙂

  33. I think our school should have some sort of penpal program. I had a penpal in second grade he was in jail. We had to be penpals with people in jail so we could “learn from their mistakes” but it did not really work. I learned how to make a knife out of a toothbrush though. I’m just kidding I learned a lot from my penpal and I think we should have something like that at our school.

  34. It sounds like you had a lot of difficulties but you learned a lot at the same time! The dog in the classroom seems very CUTE!

  35. Am I the first person to comment on this? Reading this I was thinking about the time when I had a penpal in elementary school and 6th grade. It was so fun! Do you think we would be able to do something like that Ms.Marshall?

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