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A few tips for effective pen pal exchanges

Kirstin Benish pen pal program

Feel Connected

One of the things I enjoy most about the pen pal exchange at the primary school I work at in Botswana is knowing exactly where the letters are going after I lick a couple of stamps and toss the letters in the mailbox. I can picture the classrooms and the kids opening the letters in their desks back in the states, because not too long ago I was sitting in those exact desks too. 

I decided to reach out to teachers at my old elementary school — the one I attended in my hometown. I can imagine how excited I would have been to receive a letter addressed to my school in a small southeastern Minnesota town and written to me from across the world. Some of the teachers who taught me are still at the school teaching today, and that made this project even sweeter. Pieces of home are sent in the form of 90 letters every couple months. How can that not make you smile?

Kirstin Benish pen pal program
This project has the potential to broaden students' worldview and allows them to look beyond their village in Botswana.

Less Is More

During the planning stage, I decided on doing all of Standard 6, which has 90 students. In hindsight, all classes of Grade 4 in the states and all Standard 6 in Botswana got to participate, so it worked out quite well numbers wise, but after receiving our first letters, it was a much bigger task reading, comprehending and replying than writing the first initial letter. 

English is not my students’ first or even second language (although in Botswana they’re tested entirely in English), so giving individual kids my much-needed attention was — as we say in Setswana — a mathata (problem) with 90 of them. The teachers also got antsy and thought the letters were taking up too much time during the school day. Ninety has worked successfully after begging on my hands and knees for more time with the kids, but I think working with a smaller number of kids would ensure that the students are really understanding what they’re reading and how they want to reply. It’d overall be more successful and less overwhelming.

Incorporate Letters Into the Curriculum

The students at the primary school I work at are tested on letter writing, so it was easy to incorporate these pen pal letters into the curriculum they already have. Writing, in general, is something at my school that wasn’t practiced enough, so the teachers were 100 percent on board. You want to make this project advantageous for everyone by keep the teachers happy through explaining its relevance within the syllabi and letting the students have fun with it while absorbing more English (which is beneficial for the increase of test scores) and learning about other cultures.

Create a Lesson

Another good thing about having the letters come from your hometown is that you already have the background knowledge. Like in Botswana, regions and towns differ greatly in the United States; instead of giving a generalized, widespread scope of the U.S., explain to the students what make the place these kids are writing from unique. Don’t just jump right into the writing: bring in maps and pictures, and build a whole lesson around your town/city, state and country. Many of my students have never stepped foot out of the village, let alone the region or country. This project has the potential to broaden their worldview and allows them to look beyond their village in Botswana. Let the students ask questions and get them excited to be a part of it.

Stay Organized

Whether you have 90 letters or 20, make it easy on the teachers who are receiving the letters and organize the letters for them before sending. I created an Excel document of all the students’ names, their ages, whether they are a boy or girl and their pen pal’s information. I divided my students up for them prior to sending, and it was then easy to keep track of the pen pal pairs and ensure that the teachers in the U.S. don’t have extra work to do.

Go Beyond the Letters: Use Technology & Art!

 There are so many different ways one could go about making this project more engaging! Create a video: include your students working on the letters, what the school looks like, pictures of your village, or even your students saying hello individually to their pen pals and introducing themselves like my friend and fellow Volunteer did with her students. Put the video on a USB stick and send it with the letters. 

Bring in some markers or crayons and let the kids draw pictures on the letters. 

Set up a Skype call (if you can get ahold of airtime/internet) with the teachers and students in the U.S. and let it be a question/answer session. 

The possibilities are endless.