Review by Vanessa Aranda, Common Sense Education | Updated June 2018

PenPal Schools

Give students global perspective with pen pal projects in any subject

Subjects & skills
Subjects
  • Social Studies

Skills
  • Communication & Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking
Grades This grade range is a recommendation by Common Sense Education and not the developer/publisher.
3–12
Common Sense says (See details)
Teachers say (6 Reviews)

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Pros: Provides unique collaborative opportunities for students and offers teachers high-interest lessons that fuse subject skills with global connections.

Cons: The limited availability of projects per subject/age group and restrictive match dates can make it tough to get students paired up with pals.

Bottom Line: A thoughtful, ready-to-go platform that facilitates authentic, cross-cultural collaboration.

Teachers looking to go beyond think-pair-share and jigsaw readings for student collaboration can try PenPal Schools projects and connect students with same-aged-students from around the world.  With over 25 constantly updated pre-made projects available at any given time, it's highly likely that teachers will find one that meets their content needs. Project topics can be entirely content-driven such as "A World of Geometry" and "Multiplication and Division," or NGSS topics like "Plants and Animals," "Robotics," and "Meteorology and Weather," or more provocative and timely topics, such as "Race in America," "The Power of Art," "Joining Forces for the Environment," "Immigration in the 21st Century," and "Facts, Opinions, and Fake News." Whichever route teachers take, PenPal projects can always be modified within each classroom to meet the needs of teachers and learners. For time-crunched teachers, the lessons, activities, and evaluation tools are all there and ready to use, with no additional preparation required.  PenPal projects can be used to supplement various units, as an opportunity to embed socio-cultural and global citizenship skills, as an option for learners needing a chance of pace or challenge, or as a springboard into deeper content or discussions.

 

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PenPal Schools is a website that allows classrooms and students around the world to work together on collaborative projects that connect to every school subject. The site boasts that it has connected over 250,000 students in 140 countries. PenPal projects link classes with like-aged peers across the globe. Teachers browse the home page of constantly-updated projects available, and filter for age, time commitment (one to six weeks), and subject. A four or six week project may sound intimidating, but most projects only ask for a 30-45 minute lesson per week, and instructions and resources to guide students step-by-step are provided. Surprisingly, it's not the time commitment that proves challenging, but the calendaring. Each project has specific "match dates" when projects must be started, meaning if you miss the date, you may be out of luck, or conversely, an eager class of prospective pen pals in a neighboring country may be out of luck. When match dates align, students complete the project tasks and collaborate with their scholarly pen pals directly on the site. While connecting students with peers outside of the classroom may challenge some teachers' comfort zones, a helpful dashboard offers visibility into all student work and communication, as well as customizable feedback and assessment tools. There's also helpful support chat available and teacher forums. 

Students can gain a valuable perspective on curriculum and their lives when they do so with peers from different backgrounds. The global approach to learning that guides PenPal Schools is admirable, and arguably in line with where learning needs to go. The project-based pen pal model supports students' writing skills while also building content knowledge and social and emotional learning skills. Like any lesson, teachers must review student work for task completion and quality, but with these projects teachers must also monitor communications with pen pals. While this might sound big-brothery, it's won't be if done well; it'll be more about keeping an eye on a social media feed to look for opportunities to help students improve their digital citizenship skills. To help, there's customizable rubrics with over 40 skill-based criteria options and user-friendly feedback tools. However, there's always the possibility that the kid sitting in the desk 2,000 miles away might not be doing their part. Additionally, it's possible you'll sign up your class and not get matched.

Teachers have the option of modifying the class ability level to beginning, intermediate, or advanced, which helps in scaffolding or upping the rigor, but individualized differentiation rests solely on the teacher. And while the advanced ability level helps, the work wouldn't be considered very rigorous for most high schoolers. Nevertheless, the global citizenship skills that students emerge with are invaluable, and this is something any age group can benefit from.

Overall Rating

Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return?

A unique approach to connecting students with content and the world. Relevant lesson projects using multiple modalities give students opportunities to create and communicate in a way that traditional lessons cannot.

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

Students gain content and skills via collaboration in video and reading-based lessons. Lessons have three class ability levels and note English Learner emphasis, but lack individual differentiation.

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

Plentiful teacher support in the form of pre-made lessons, resources, demo courses, customizable rubrics, teacher forums, and on-site chat help.  


Common Sense Reviewer
Vanessa Aranda Classroom teacher

Teacher Reviews

(See all 6 reviews) (6 reviews) Write a review
Featured review by
Carli M. , Other
Other
Fantastic cooperative and enlightening learning opportunities for students!
On paper, this seems like an excellent way for students to learn about the world and interact with other children from different cultures...as long as the students themselves get engaged in the topic and connect with their pen pals. Some of the comments in the teacher forum seem to indicate that the mechanics of the projects are a little confusing, but overall, the website seems well-constructed. I am excited to have the opportunity to use this in my classroom and will add a new review once I have.
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