Connecting Learning to the Real World – Part 3

In this article, we will explore one of the most timeless methods of achieving this, through “pen pals”.

Best Practices May 9, 2024

In an increasingly interconnected world, fostering meaningful connections between students across borders can be an enriching experience for both teachers and students. In this article, we will explore one of the most timeless methods of achieving this, through “pen pals”.  The concept of pen pals has been around for almost a century, and essentially consists of individuals corresponding with each other through letters. In the past, pen pals exchanged letters through mail, though today, many people communicate through email, messaging apps, or other platforms. Despite the shift to digital communication, the idea of connecting with someone from a different part of the country or world remains popular as it allows students to learn about different cultures, languages, and perspectives outside of their own community.

Over the years as a classroom teacher, I have coordinated various pen pal exchanges with my students and other classes, regardless of grade levels. Even young students can write simple letters to new friends. We have corresponded using both traditional mail and e-mail. Though email communication is quick and efficient, there is something exciting about anticipating and receiving a hand-written letter or package in the mail.

From my experience, here are some steps on how to facilitate a pen pal exchange with another class.

1. Parent permission/support: Write a letter to your parents about your pen pal project and assure them that you will monitor and put steps in place to ensure there is safe and appropriate correspondence. Encourage them to ask their child about their pen pal experience.

2.  Search for a partner classroom: Begin by identifying a suitable partner classroom for your pen pal exchange. One place to look is on Adventist Teacher Connect. Registered Adventist teachers have joined this platform for the purpose of connecting. Browse the database and identify a few potential teachers, as not all of them end up working out or being a good match. Look for teachers who teach your same grade level.

3.  Contact the teacher: Reach out to the teacher of the potential partner classroom to express your interest in initiating a pen pal exchange. Introduce yourself, provide details about your own classroom, including grade level, number of students, and any specific goals you have for the exchange. Be open to incorporating the other teacher’s expectations as well.

4.  Determine communication format, frequency of correspondence, and duration: Once you’ve connected with a partner classroom, together, decide what format students are going to use to correspond, how often they will communicate, and the duration of the exchange. Make sure you both agree and are committed. For example, students can mail or email letters every 2 weeks for a total of three months. This decision is important, as it can be frustrating for students to write letters to a partner classroom and not receive a response in a timely manner or not receive a response at all.  

5.  Exchange class lists and match students: Email your partner teacher and ask him/her to send you their list of names of students in their classroom along with a short description of each student (age, hobbies, interests, etc.). You should also send them a list of your students and ask your students to write their descriptions. Match your students to the list and have them choose a pen pal that has similar interests as they do. If the other class has a different number of students, two students can have the same pen pal, or one student can have two pen pals. The goals is for every student to have a pen pal. Once you have matched students, send the list of matched students’ names and descriptions to your partner teacher. Both classrooms are then ready to write the introductory letters.

As you consider the method of correspondence, here are some tips for both traditional mail and email:

  • a) Traditional Mail: Students handwrite letters to their pen pals. Determine the due date (based on the frequency that you agreed on with your partner teacher) and collect all the student letters and mail them in one envelope to your partner school. Once your students get to know their pen pals, they may want to send pictures, postcards, and small items such as bookmarks or keychains. If so, check with your post office and consider a small box for a flat rate.
  • b) Email: Student safety is imperative, especially with digital communication. I would recommend email for older students. Students should use school email addresses, not personal ones. There are free online platforms for pen pals that allow teachers to approve emails before they are sent to student inboxes. “Epals” by Cricket Media is a web-based program I have used successfully for this purpose. If you have already found an Adventist school on Adventist Teacher Connect, both you and your partner teacher can create free accounts on Epals and invite each other to create a match. On your collaborations page, add your students and then match them with your partner teacher’s students by following the prompts. In your inbox, you will approve all emails that are sent or received. Once you approve an email, it will be delivered to your student’s inbox on epals (not gmail or any other email client). Instructions can be found on Cricket Media.

6. Introductory letter: Students write an introductory letter to their pen pals. They should include basic information such as their name, age, interests, and cultural backgrounds. Encourage students to ask questions and express curiosity about their pen pals’ lives and cultures.

7.   Monitor Progress: Whether handwritten letters or emails, ensure communication is flowing smoothly and that students are benefiting from the experience. Ensure students are respectful. Check in with both students and your partner teacher regularly to address any challenges or concerns that may arise. Provide support and guidance to students as needed.

8. Share and celebrate: Invite students to showcase their letters with the class and share about their pen pal experiences. Recognize students’ efforts in building friendships, improving language skills, and gaining cultural insights.

Regardless of the format, there is something special about connecting with a new friend who lives in a different community or culture. Encouraging students to share their experiences, traditions, and perspectives through letters offers valuable opportunities for cross-cultural learning and meaningful connections among students. It is also a unique way for them to practice their writing skills and language skills. Coordinating a pen pal exchange for your students can be a rewarding endeavor that enriches their learning experiences, fosters friendships, and expands their global perspectives.


Paola Oudri

Paola Franco-Oudri, MAT, is Associate Director for the Adventist Learning Community of the North American Division. She has worked as an elementary teacher and has a passion for Adventist Education. Her goal is to inspire a love for learning and a love for Jesus in young people.

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