Written by Sarah Zbornick, DCSD Instructional Coach
When I discovered that Lisa Witzke was doing pen pals with her 6th graders, I was excited to see how it worked. In the 1980s, I had a pen pal. With a #2 pencil (although sometimes I cheated and used a pen) and paper in hand, I wrote about my life in Iowa. Then I’d anxiously await a week or two to hear back. I don’t remember her name anymore, but I do remember that she was from Georgia and how exotic that was. And it was only Georgia the state, not the country. Ms. Witzke hasn’t been doing it since the 1980s, but she does start the process with paper and pencil. She began about six or seven years ago, working diligently to find reliable schools, teachers, and students from countries studied in sixth grade. Now she has connections with schools in China, Greece, Italy, and India. Iraq and Egypt are also studied in sixth grade, but consistent partnerships with schools in these countries proved difficult to establish.
With technology available in today’s classrooms, students experience pen pals on steroids. While nothing can replace the excitement of actually receiving a letter in the mail, Ms. Witzke further develops the relationship between pen pals with face-to face interaction. Not only have the students written to students and in Greece and China, they have also had the opportunity to skype with them. Once the letters are written, then a skype session is in place. This can be a bit cumbersome due to time zones and scheduling, but hearing the students’ comments makes it worth it. I was able to watch a skype session. I could feel the excitement (often displayed through smiling nervousness) as each 6th grader took the microphone to visit with his/her pen pal. They questioned each other and chatted about typical 6th grade conversation, such as What’s your favorite food? and What do you do for fun?
Pen pals give our students a chance to see the world outside of their own. It gives Ms. Witzke’s students an authentic audience, and they also become an authentic audience. This gives purpose to their writing. They can connect with students their own age to see that they are quite similar and yet individual.
What ways do you connect your class to the world?
Global Read Aloud project can write letters to each other about their reaction to the same book. Students can share narratives about their lives, and then compare and contrast with the lives of their pen pals. The possibilities are endless!
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