Common Sense Review
Updated May 2017

PenPal Schools

Collaborative lessons connect students across the globe
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Common Sense Rating 4
  • Get matched with pen pals from around the world through compelling, standards-aligned lessons.
  • An example timeline
  • Each lesson includes an overview of what students will learn as well as what to expect.
  • Course include videos and texts students engage with and discuss.
  • A syllabus gives a week-by-week overview.
  • A view from the teacher's dashboard
  • A map of PenPal classrooms around the world
Pros
Projects fuse ELA and social studies while helping students make real-world connections.
Cons
You'll need to sync up with the timelines of the courses. Rubrics are limited.
Bottom Line
A thoughtful, ready-to-go platform that builds global awareness and collaboration skills by facilitating authentic, cross-cultural PBL experiences.
Stephanie Trautman
Common Sense Reviewer
Classroom teacher
Common Sense Rating 4
Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return? 5

Geography, global issues, and ELA collide in this pen pal program. Students connect with students from around the world to explore culture and think through big ideas with the help of engaging videos, stellar articles, and discussion.

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer? 4

Students gain global awareness through videos, articles, and discussions on issues such as poverty, tech, and politics. Students get exposed to pen pals from different background. Teachers can't set ability levels for students.

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students? 4

The helpful hints for students on being a good pen pal and dealing with conflicting opinions support productive student communication. Demo courses and on-site chat help teachers. Rubrics are customizable but a bit simplistic.

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How Can Teachers Use It?

Teachers can use PenPal Schools to foster global awareness and cultural understanding, practice reading and writing skills, promote a sense of digital literacy, and gain better social and emotional learning (SEL) skills. Teachers also can assess student learning in multiple ways; they have the ability to see what students are writing to their pen pals, as well as to assess their work on projects and assignments using the teacher dashboard and provided rubrics (although you'll likely want to modify these). PenPal Schools can be used alongside regular classwork as a project-based learning experience. Each project has a timeline to follow (one to six weeks) and a set of associated materials students will watch or read and then discuss weekly with their pen pals. Through these experiences, students connect with and better understand others around the world while co-learning about topics such as immigration, the environment, mythology, and more. At the end of the project, the pen pals collaborate on a reflective assignment that demonstrates what they've learned. These capstone assignments are perfect for sharing with peers and family and could, themselves, spawn extended solo (or small-group) research projects.

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What's It Like?

PenPal Schools is a global, online learning community where students age 8 and up can connect with others to collaborate on online projects. PenPal Schools connects over 100,000 students in 170 countries to learn together, discovering cultures and exploring lessons on the environment, science, math, and more. Students do all the work through the PenPal Schools site and begin projects at the same time as their pen pals, so teachers will need to check out upcoming course schedules and plan accordingly. Students write to each other while exploring the learning material and collaborating on assignments. The units range from one to six weeks and come with a schedule and course materials. The lessons are typically 30 minutes long, and a useful teacher dashboard allows teachers to provide feedback and see what students are writing to their pen pals.

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Is It Good For Learning?

PenPal Schools strives to create authentic learning opportunities for students that effectively blend timely and topical content learning with deep SEL and skills building, including collaboration, empathy, and global awareness, to name a few. To aid collaboration, students are matched with like-minded pen pals via a short assessment. As pen pals write to one another and work together on assignments, they learn to think critically about the world around them or a world they may be unfamiliar with. Best of all: When they put their heads -- and experiences -- together, the hope is that the true authentic, spontaneous learning occurs. Of course, best-laid plans can break down in practice; teachers may need to help hold some students accountable for their work in writing their pen pal or might find that a pen pal isn't as deeply engaged as your student. Additionally, the rubrics, while customizable (teachers can select areas of focus), are a bit simplistic, and the ability levels for course content aren't individualized. On the other hand, the data shown in the teacher dashboard is outstanding, allowing teachers to compare their students with those in the program around the globe. Ultimately, PenPal Schools offers a pen pal learning experience that feels fresh, and students will enjoy connecting, communicating, and creating with a peer from a culture and geographic landscape unlike their own.

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See how teachers are using PenPal Schools