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Starting a Pen Pal Exchange

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:

Hi [teacher],

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!

Introducing Oneself:

  • 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.


  • Weather
  • Date
  • 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.

Holiday Cards

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.

Family Photos

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)


Vocabulary Drawings

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! ❂

Is TAPIF a “real job” ?

For the past few years, April has been a grab bag of various bittersweet emotions…

In 2014, I was about a month away from graduation, in the midst of several intense theatre projects, and then was accepted to my first year of teaching English in France!
Bitter: leaving school, my friends, my family, my country. Sweet: Uhhh…France?!

In 2015, I was on the last legs of that first contract, pretty sure I wanted to stay in France, but desperately waiting for news of a contract renewal.
Bitter: saying goodbye to Chambéry, unsure about returning. Sweet: staying hopeful…

In 2016, after a year of hustling 3 part-time jobs at home, April saw yet another acceptance to TAPIF!!
Bitter: again leaving behind friends, and a taste of the “real world” Sweet: do I really need to say it?

Which brings us to 2017. After 7 amazing months working in three schools with great, supportive colleagues and funny, sweet students, I am once again preparing to say goodbye. But this time, only for a few months. Against all assumed odds, my request to renew my contract and remain for another 7 month period in the same schools has been officially accepted! I’m relieved to be returning to a job I have grown to love in a city I am still constantly surprised by and with friends I won’t live halfway around the world from!

The very first question I asked almost immediately after getting the news of renewal was: Is it embarrassing to be a language assistant three times?!

I wonder, because this job can sometimes be so laughably easy in comparison to a full teaching position that is doesn’t always feel like a “real” job. I have 12 hours of classes per week, for a 7 month contract, 8 weeks of which is paid school vacation. I am not responsible for evaluating or grading students, don’t have to deal with parents or report cards or any of the millions of other little tyrannies full-time teachers are tasked with. In some of my classes, I don’t even have to prepare anything… I literally just show up and speak English with my perfect American accent.

That being said, I worked very hard this year to be more independent – to propose activities I wanted to do and to be an active member of the schools as much as possible, rather than passively waiting for my colleagues to tell me what to do.

While I always describe myself (I think accurately) as an English teacher, my work contract and credentials still identify me only as a language assistant, a post which requires next-to-no qualifications or previous experience beyond being a native speaker, So while I definitely think I excel in my role and have used it as a learning opportunity, I’m still seen as “not a real teacher” by diploma and certification-obsessed France (And the straightforward French have had no problem telling me this either…).

So when I ask if it’s embarrassing to be an assistant three times, I think I’m really asking whether I’m wasting my time on yet another contract with very limited room for growth and advancement (in terms of career prospects) instead of seeking something with a bit more stability and potential. Whether it’s nothing but a means of putting off for yet another year “the real world”.

But then I remember that it also means another year in France, and for the first time –EVER– continuity. In my adult life, never have I ever worked in the same place for more than one school year. Never have I ever lived at the same address for more than a year. Never have I ever had the opportunity to expand on a base of work I’ve already begun with the same network of co-workers who helped me begin it.

So this April, I prepare to say goodbye to friends, colleagues and students but only for four short months. Before I know it, I’ll be back in Marseille — the perfect amount of time to enjoy home, work a little and refresh, more ready than ever to turn my “Fake” job into my own “Real” world!
Bitter?? Maybe a little, but from where I stand today, I think I’ve got a pretty Sweet deal! ❂

27 mars – clues

Today I had a lot of different slices in my head, but I can’t seem to get any of them out today because I’m excited about something else.

Three of my fifth grade classes have been working on rooms in the house, hobbies, and family. vocabulary in English. These classes are really motivated and their classroom teachers do a lot of reinforcement of my activities on days when I’m not there, so their level is really high. I decided to try an activity that is a bit more difficult than our standard fare of flashcard games and charades.

Tomorrow we are playing CLUE! It was always one of my favorite board games growing up, enamored of Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown as I was. I always wanted to play be Professor Plum. My sister was usually Madam Scarlet, and if I remember correctly, I believe my dad often played as Colonel Mustard.

Tomorrow, we won’t have the same colorful characters. I’ve modified the game to include the vocabulary we’ve been working on all year long. Instead of wondering if Mrs. White killed Mr. Body in the Ballroom with the Lead Pipe, we will ask if Grandmother is dancing in the living room or if Brother is playing football in the bedroom.

I’m really looking forward to trying out this more complex game tomorrow. My students worked hard the past few weeks to learn more grammar than I thought they’d be capable of in elementary school. My goal for this quarter has been to work towards longer term projects rather than simply teaching vocab, playing hangman and telephone, and then moving on to the next subject. This game definitely fits the bill. As simple as it is, it’s stretched both me and my students. I’ve created my own game board, my own cards, everything! All that’s left is to print and laminate tomorrow morning, and then PLAY!!!

If you’d like to play too, check out my materials here!  ❂



Slice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

24 mars – my day in stairs and hills

7:48      Slam the door, run down two flights : 40 stairs

7:49     Down the hill to the metro

7:53     Down three flights to the platform : 82 stairs

8:12     Down the escalator to the bus stop : 26 stairs

8: 29    Up the hill to the school gate

8:32     Up the stairs to the second floor (the third floor by U.S. standards) : 32 stairs

10:15    Down to the teachers lounge for recess : 32 stairs

10:33    Back up to the second floor : 32 stairs

11:30    Back down for lunch : 32 stairs

1:35      And up again for afternoon classes : 32 stairs

3:00    And down again for afternoon recess : 32 stairs

3:15     Class on the first floor this time, last class of the day : 16 stairs

3:45     Back down the stairs, down the hill, into the bus, up to the Metro platform

4:37     Up the long elevator to the street … just kidding I’ll ride this one up.

4:38     Up to the second floor : 40 stairs

4:38:001     And a big PLOP onto the couch. ❂



Slice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.