In my two years of language assistant-ing one of my favorite activities has been establishing pen pal correspondences between my classes and American students. Having worked for a year in an American elementary school, I had pretty easy access to teachers interested in participating, and this past year, I managed to hook up no less than six of my classes up with a U.S. counterpart! In primary schools, the concern is often that the students don’t know enough English to truly exchange with a native speaker, but I want to assure you against this idea completely! It’s not always simple, but my students have managed to communicate a lot to their pen pals, and I have never seen them SO excited to read new English words as when they received letters back.
That being said, you do have to be strategic about the kinds of correspondence you propose in order to maximize success for all of your students! Luckily, basic things like telling your name and age and describing your family and physical appearance are right in the wheelhouse of 4th and 5th grade English! Here’s my How To on setting up a correspondence, and ideas for what you can send to your new pen pals!
1) Early in the year, or even before you leave home, you should reach out to anyone you know working in a school to gauge their interest in participating. My mom is a teacher, and I worked in a school, so I had plenty of contacts already, but if you don’t know many teachers, consider reaching out to family/friends with school age children: see if they will reach out to their child’s teachers on your behalf. Write the principal of your old elementary school, write to your old fifth grade teacher, hit up the colleagues of friends who work in schools, etc. Trust me, everyone will be THRILLED to hear that you will soon be teaching in France.
2) Once you’ve arrived in France, pitch the idea to your colleagues. A few weeks into my contract, I sent the following email to all of my colleagues:
Bonjour les collègues !
Comme vous le savez peut-être déjà, je suis en relation avec plusieurs écoles aux USA (principalement à Washington et Massachusetts). Je voudrais donc vous proposer la possibilité de lancer un correspondance (Pen Pals or Pen Friends) avec vos classes en anglais. Je serais heureuse de vous relier avec un instituteur américain, et vous aider à gérer le projet. Je connais déjà plusieurs instits (y compris ma mère!) qui sont très enthousiastes à l’idée. Je connais aussi une professeur de français des sixièmes/cinquièmes et quelques instits à une école d’immersion en français si vous préférez corresponder plutôt en français. N’hésitez pas à me recontacter si cela vous intéresse pour qu’on puisse en discuter davantage!
Passez une bonne journée!
3) Once I knew how many of my colleagues were interested, I began to pair them off with the American teachers I had signed on. I tried to match grade level as much as possible — pairing 3rd grade classes with CE2, 4th with CM1 and 5th with CM2 — so the kids would be writing to students around the same age as them. I also wanted to prepare the American classes a little and let them know a bit about my students in France before launching directly into letter writing. I sent each American teacher the following email:
Thanks so much for agreeing to be pen pals with my students in Marseille, France !!!
I have paired your class with [teacher’s name], a [grade level] teacher at the school [name of school]. She is really motivated to do pen pals, and we started today writing holiday cards for your class! So far, the cards are not specific to any one student. Later, I think it would be great to pair off the students and have them write to a specific pen pal. I can try to get you a class list to facilitate this.
We can discuss snail mail vs email, but know that technology at this school is fairly limited. They are working on installing video projectors in the classrooms, so that may be a possibility later in the year, but otherwise it’s a very low-tech, blackboard and chalk environment.
Just so you know, these are students in their first or second year of English classes, and they only receive about 90 mins of instruction per week, so their knowledge is fairly limited…they are probably capable of speaking as much English as your class can speak Spanish (i.e. very simple basics)
I’ve included a list of things they will probably be able to understand, to help guide your class when writing back!
- My name is…
- I’m (age)
- I live in…
- My favorite (color, animal, sport, pokemon, etc.) is…
- My nationality is…
- My birthday is…
- We haven’t done this really in depth yet, but they will probably recognize things like, “do you have brothers and sisters?” or “My sister’s name is Bridgit.”
- Same for pets.
- Feelings (how are you? I’m fine/happy/sad/etc)
We’ve also worked on vocabulary relating to Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
One thing your students will definitely notice is the kids’ handwriting! You might want to share with them that French children start learning cursive in first grade, and almost always only write in cursive at school! I’ve also attached a photo of the school for you to show them if you’d like, and the address is [school address] which may be fun to check out in Google Maps!
Thanks again! Let me know if you have any questions. I’ll see if I can get you a class list ASAP.
I sent a similar email to my French colleagues to let them know which class they were paired with and the address of the school.
Concernant la correspondance avec une classe américaine, je t’ai jumelé avec une classe de 4th grade (CM1) dans l’école ou j’ai travaillé l’année dernière. La maîtresse s’appelle […], et elle a [##] élèves. Je mets en fichier joint la liste d’élèves.
Laisse-moi savoir si tu veux commencer à rédiger les premières letters (peut-être en forme de “Christmas Card”) en classe cette semaine. Sinon, on peut commencer après les vacances!
L’adresse de l’école est suivant:
By the time this process finished up, we were pretty close to the December vacation, so I started en vigueur with most classes in January.
Then, it was time to start writing!!!
Some of my colleagues were more enthusiastic about preparing pen pal activities than others, and so I had to do a little more active organizing in some classes, while others I was more of a facilitator/contact person. Overall, most classes managed to exchange 2 or 3 letters, and while I’d have loved to do more, it is time consuming and there are only so many hours in the day Here are some of the types of letters we exchanged:
Basic Introductory letters with questions
This was the way we opened our correspondence in nearly every single class. It’s the perfect way to practice and reinforce basic statements and questions like “My name is…” “I am … years old.” “I live in…” “I like….” which we’d been practicing since the beginning of the school year. It can be fun to encourage your kids to decorate their letters, send a photo or other small item, etc. You’ll be surprised at how much work they’ll put into. One of my lowest classes wrote absolutely incredible pen pal letters because they were so excited!
An alternative to this that I did with my younger classes (CE2), was to fill out a carte d’identité or an “All About Me” graphic organizer.
Writing holiday cards is a great way to share culture and civilization alongside practicing English! You can explain the Anglo-Saxon tradition of Christmas card giving to your French students, or share the Gallic New Year card sending tradition with your American counter parts! Valentine’s Day is a great time to practice constructions with “I like…” and “I love…” and cards for May Day decorated with lilies of the valley and wishes for happiness is a fun French tradition that will probably be new to American students.
Guess Who Game
This idea was originally proposed by one of my colleagues and I in turn did it with almost all of my classes! The idea is to create a sort of Guess Who game using physical descriptions and clothing vocabulary.
Each student writes a description of themselves based on a class photo or drawing of themselves. (“I am tall. I’ve got long, curly, brown hair. I’ve got brown eyes. I’ve got a red t-shirt and a brown sweater and black jeans.”) Some schools have strict rules about sending photos of students, so make sure to get permission, or have the kids simply draw pictures of themselves instead. Then, number the photos and send them with the descriptions, along with an answer key. Your pen pals will have to read and match the description to the pictures! You can even play the game in class before sending it. I sent scans of the descriptions/pictures via email which was quick and cost effective.
One of our American classes sent back a similar game where each student was also holding something. So their descriptions were along the lines of “I have blonde hair. I am holding a Rubik’s Cube.” “I have short black hair and glasses. I have a blue pencil.” which was a really awesome way to introduce new vocabulary in context.
Send pictures (or drawings) of your family along with a description. Great practice for “His/her name is… He/she is … years old.” which is difficult for kids to master.
Plus sometimes they go a little above and beyond with their translations…. (this is from my friend who taught collège)
This is something I asked my American contacts to do before I left for France. I was able to give a really short presentation about where I was going in France and what I would be doing to the classes and then asked them to draw some pictures and label them with the English words. I explained that my students would be learning similar things in English that they learn in their Spanish class: colors, days of the week, animals, weather, feelings, American holidays etc. I got back some really awesome drawings that I could then share with my French classes when I arrived and hung up in some of the classrooms. My students liked it so much that some of them made their own French versions for their pen pals!!!
Slideshow of Photos
One of our Pen Pal classes sent a slideshow of photos that the teacher made for Back to School Night. It showed the kids working, at recess, doing all kinds of different activities around the school and my students had TONS of questions about it! I wanted to make a similar one to send back, but never had the time. Maybe next year…
Another thing I would really like to do, but haven’t yet, is send postcards. Either use actual postcards from Marseille, or have the kids draw their own. I know I love collecting postcards, so I can only imagine that a postcard from your pen pal in France or the USA would be a treasured item for many years!
What have you sent to your pen pals?! Happy writing! ❂