If you follow me on instagram @Loca_language_teacher , you might have seen me post recently about the pen pal exchange I organized for my students. Since posting about the pen pals, I’ve received many questions about how I set it up. Therefore, I wanted to write this post to explain everything about the entire process and how you can do it too!
Before explaining how the exchange came into fruition, let’s talk about why you should think about setting up a pen pal exchange. For my students, they frequently complete writing tasks that ask them to “write a letter or email to a pen pal in [insert a Spanish speaking country here].” With these writing tasks, are they actually using their communication skills to speak to someone else? No… Am I the only one reading their writing? Pretty much… Having to ACTUALLY write to another person, whether it be someone from a different country or state or classroom, is putting the students into an authentic situation where they are using what they know to COMMUNICATE and not write about a topic to be corrected and graded.
I love my teacher instagram because I’ve been able to connect with other Spanish teacher from all over the world. Last year I thought about setting up pen pals for my students and reached out to a Spanish teacher I’d been following from another country. Because of bad timing, the exchange didn’t happen. I was a little disappointed, however it was a spur of the moment thought and I wasn’t really sure what it was going to entail.
How my current pen pal exchange happened!: Toward the end of this past Summer, an English teacher from Barcelona, Spain reached out to me through my teacher instagram asking about doing a possible pen pal exchange. Yes…that was really it! How did it happen? Due to a direct message via instagram!! We exchanged messages and came to the conclusion that our students and their language abilities would be compatible. I set up a google document where we made a list of our students and “matched” them, therefore, every student would have and receive their own pen pal letter. The students from Spain started the exchange by writing letters to my students, and my students just recently finished their letters back.
What has been the best parts about this exchange: The students from Spain write their letters in English to practice their English, and my students write their letters in Spanish to practice their Spanish. To me, there are two major elements of the exchange that have made it exceed my expectations. The first thing is that my students, for the first time, got to read letters from students who are learning and speaking English as a second or third language. While reading the letters they received, they observed that their English wasn’t perfect. When many students started to discuss this, I asked them “But can you understand them?” and they all made a resounding “yes.” I was then able to make a connection to their Spanish and reiterate the whole goal of the exchange: COMMUNICATION. I explained to my students that similarly to themselves, their Spanish may not be perfect, but the goal isn’t perfection, it’s communication. The most important thing is that they are able to communicate ideas, not have perfect grammar.
The second thing that has made this exchange exceed my expectations was being able to incorporate culture. Out of my 68 students involved in the exchange, not one student has ever been to Barcelona. Therefore, I first designed a lesson to incorporate geography, and as a class we looked at maps to observe exactly where Barcelona is located. In addition to discussing geography, many students received letters where their pen pal expressed that they spoke “Spanish, Catalan, and English.” Because of this, we read an article about the regional language of Catalan and its’ differences from Castilian Spanish.
Writing letter’s back: Not going to lie, it took much time and dedication to get all 68 of my students to write and hand in their return letters. I first asked my students to write and submit a draft copy. I then read and made minor corrections to the drafts. Then, we spent an entire class period, and some more time, writing the final drafts. It was a little overwhelming as many students entered extreme panic mode asking “but how do you say this…and this…and this?!?!”. They panicked that they thought they knew NOTHING! For them, this was the first time they were actually using their language skills with other students that actually spoke Spanish. I mean, definitely nerve-wracking!!! To help alleviate their doubts about their abilities, I wrote down topics on the board that they were very capable of using in their letters. This definitely helped out a lot and their letters were great!!! However, with students being absent and others not doing a draft copy to begin with…this entire process was long…but OF COURSE worth it! My suggestion would be to keep organized and keep track of the letters. I kept of list of all my students and put one check mark next to their name when I received and corrected a draft, and then another check mark when they handed in their final letter.
Parent Permission? I was very open with parents about setting up pen pals. Although I never sent out actual permission slips, I made parents aware of the exchange from which I received very positive feedback. I would suggest that you know your students and parents the best, therefore I can’t say that you need or don’t need to receive permission. I say that it doesn’t hurt to receive solidified permission. What I did, however, to moderate the exchange was read all 68 exchange letters before giving them to my students. Therefore, I would be able to control if there was anything inappropriate. Similarly, I read every return letter that my students wrote back to their pen pals to ensure that they weren’t sharing any personal information.
To summarize the above, setting up pen pals for your students can happen through a simple instagram direct message. Put yourself out there and ask someone if they would be interested. If they say no, no big deal!! If they say yes, then your students might experience something they will remember forever! Whether you connect your students with other students from another country, state, or another classroom in your building, they are still using their language skills to communicate authentically.
Leave a comment with any questions! I hope this information helps you create lifelong memories for your students!