For what is now the third year in a row, a colleague across town and I partnered our students in a pen pal exchange. You read that right – good old-fashioned, hand-written letters from one teenager to another. As this became an iterative process, I’ve started to nail down the aspects supported through this instructional practice. What started off as a fun way for students headed to the same high school to jump start camaraderie became a means for students to communicate about science, express goals for the future, and possibly meet a new friend. At the same time, we as teachers gained insight into our learners through what became very powerful formative assessments.
My colleague and I begin the process in late-September, give or take a week. We want some time to get to know our students and earn a little trust required to pull off such a seemingly new-fangled idea. To start, we assign each class a category; this year my classes were cookies, spices, and insects, while the other school had Pokémon, famous dogs, and flowers. Then, each student chooses a corresponding code name. For example, Katie in my class of cookies became “Snickerdoodle” in her letters.
Assigning code names accomplishes two important things. First, using class categories helps us quickly sort and account for letters. Second, using an alias helps teens become conversational, drives interest in waiting for letters, and otherwise disrupts the pattern of instant gratification (and sometimes dismissal) that comes from the accustomed, immediate, social media connections.
With their nom de plume at the ready, students begin writing. After the first letter of general introduction, the remaining months follow a pattern:
1) Share what you accomplished in science this week.
2) Share how your thinking in science changed.
1) Ask them how they’ve been.
2) Answer their questions.
3) Follow a prompt*
4) Ask them new questions.
5) Tell them your life story, etc.
They send letters, we send letters back. Many students often choose to go above and beyond, sending holiday cards, birthday greetings, and otherwise reaching out to their semi-mysterious new friend. We repeat the process throughout the year, and in final letters, allow students to share permitted contact information. If the stars align we Skype, and one year we hosted a field trip in which students met and completed a field study in multi-school teams. While not all students end up with a best friend for life, the majority love this process, eagerly awaiting each delivery and each opportunity to respond. Engagement is sky-high.
When I asked my colleague to join me in this adventure, my initial goal was to engage students in conversation about their science learning. I wanted a means to collect formative assessment material that didn’t seem like an additional chore for students or myself. With some students reluctant to share their thinking, others needing practice in written coherence, and many unsure of an audience for science writing, I thought sharing with a peer might be the answer. It was! Not only did we glean content learning from students’ letters, we learned how they made and shared meaning of their science experiences. In these reflections, we ask students to :
-write for an authentic audience,
-consider how purpose shapes content and style of a letter,
-support claims using evidence,
-write narratives, and
-improve the grammar and mechanics of their writing.
These pieces became an interdisciplinary activity, providing instructional opportunities encompassing College and Career Readiness Standards and Common Core expectations for student communication. The letters provided relevant means outside our daily classwork to teach these practices. Students became stronger communicators as we became better teachers of communication.
I’d be remiss to leave out the additional benefits this instructional practice brought to our classrooms. The list is long, so here are highlights:
Students developed compassion and caring for others. Many of these students shared deeply of their cultures, values, hopes and dreams, also respecting what was shared with them. These youth sent positive messages to someone about whom they knew relatively little other than shared time in their lives.
Students built a stronger classroom culture. Students would share letters with each other, converse with each other about how their pen pals are doing, and get their friends to preview responses as they wrote. This was student-orchestrated peer-editing at its finest.
Students developed curiosity about how peers experiences mirror (or not) their own. Comparing schools, social lives, musical interests, and all manner of teenage life allowed students to consider what exactly it feels like to be a young person in the world. This often spurred inquiry into learning experiences across the planet, and inquiries into global pen pals.
Students learned patience. I’m going to bring up delayed gratification again because it was absolutely a benefit to participate in iterations of a couple weeks. While each manila envelope delivery was highly anticipated, students learned that writing effective letters takes time.
Students made friends. In a world awash with perceived stress and pressure of adolescence, so many students shared that they appreciated meeting someone great, and many remain friends after the year is over.
I hope to continue this tradition so long as I have a class full of students willing to take on a moniker such as “Tennessee” or “Oboe” and a teacher friend willing to do the same. Throughout the year I not only learn how students are interpreting their work in science, I get to know them better as writers and young people wanting to be read.
*Prompts can be just about anything that will spark conversation. Tell them what five things you’d take to a deserted island and why. What’s your perfect lunch? Walk them through your neighborhood. Dissect exactly why your favorite song is the best. For some great letter writing prompts, visit thinkwritten.
** One student from our first year still goes by “Pancake” – true story.