A large manila envelope arrives in my classroom about once a quarter. Even though it is addressed to me, my students know that stuffed inside are handwritten letters just for them. The letters are from a classroom in another part of the country from kids they’ve never met in person.
Pen pal writing is one of my favorite writing exercises for my classroom. Students are engaged in reading and understanding, they are motivated to write a response letter, and they have fun while learning. Not only are they learning how to format a friendly letter, they are also learning about another place and another culture. A new element I’ve added to pen pals this year is video. Videos are easy to send via email, teacher to teacher.
I teach fourth and fifth graders in Washington state. We have mild weather, but we get a lot of rain. We have mountains, rivers, and lush, green forests. In my area, American football is the sport to be excited about. Most of my students are Caucasian and have English as their first and only language. Some of my students have visited other states nearby. A few have even visited Canada.
2,000 miles away in Texas, a group of third and fourth graders write letters to my students. These students are used to lots of sunshine, gentle rolling hills dotted with old oak trees, and swimming pools in every neighborhood. Soccer is easily the favorite sport. The majority of students at that school are Hispanic and most are bilingual. Many students have not visited other states, but they have visited relatives in Mexico or Central America.
Although it would be ideal for students to write to children in other countries, students can learn a lot from students in other parts of their own country. The minute we receive their letters, my classroom comes alive with questions:
“Do they have electricity in Texas?”
“My pen pal doesn’t watch football! Can we still be friends?”
“What’s a quinceanera?”
Students are pleasantly surprised to discover similarities with each other, and sometimes frustrated or confused by their differences. In person, learning about a difference can sometimes spoil a potential friendship, but writing letters is a safe way to continue learning about each other. It allows a certain degree of anonymity. Students don’t know if their pen pal is rich, poor, popular, shy, disabled, or how they fix their hair. It is refreshing to have a relationship without superficial judgments.
Pen pal letters are easily the favorite writing assignment for my students and myself. My students are motivated to write, enjoy the process, and have the opportunity to make friends with children they are unlikely to ever meet. As a teacher, I enjoy reading the letters to their pen pals and helping them come up with things to talk about or discuss. They learn so much more than grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Pen pal writing allows my students a window into someone else’s life. They have a chance to see the world a little bit differently, and all through the excitement of receiving a letter in the mail.
Note: Article written and posted in English