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How to Run a Successful International Penpal Exchange

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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Kate Gerrard

Wednesday 21st of June 2017

Hi,

I'm a teacher in Birmingham, England and from September hope to run a penpal scheme for a group of 15-20 students for a cycle of 9 weeks (when I will get a new group of students - 4 x cycles in the academic year). Students will be 11-13 years old. I'd prefer handwritten snail mail as I will probably also ask students to craft their own cards. Would anyone abroad be interested in collaborating? Even if you had the same group of students all year it could work - they'd just get 'fresh meat' every 9 weeks to repractice writing about themselves!

Email me/comment back if interested.

Elvis darko

Friday 10th of November 2017

Ji Kate Great idea indeed. I would be happy to get inlvoved. I am Living in Northampton from Ghana,most of my siblings(inluding cousins are teachers) so how could they get their students to join please.

Jennifer

Friday 25th of August 2017

Hi,

My name is Jennifer and I am from the US. I am 16 years old and I want to do pen pal with people from England and the Britain area. I would love to start a pen pal letter with one of your students.

Angie

Tuesday 27th of June 2017

Hello. I'm a teacher at a middle school and teach 6th grade (ages 11-12) and one 7th grade class (ages 12-13). I would be interested in collaborating with my 7th grade class since it tends to be smaller than my sixth grade class. I love the idea of snail mail. My email is apr0624@lausd.net.

Precious senafiawo

Friday 1st of April 2016

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

Joanna

Monday 5th of December 2016

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).

Sarah A

Tuesday 17th of November 2015

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.

Palma K.

Monday 16th of November 2015

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.

Emily Wyss

Thursday 3rd of September 2015

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!

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