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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
The author, Lillie Marshall, is a 6-foot-tall National Board Certified Teacher of English, fitness fan, and mother of two who has been a public school educator since 2003. She launched Around the World “L” Travel and Life Blog in 2009, and over 4.2 million readers have now visited this site. Lillie also runs TeachingTraveling.com and DrawingsOf.com. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter, and follow @WorldLillie on social media!