Teachers looking to go beyond think-pair-share and jigsaw readings for student collaboration can try PenPal Schools projects and connect students with same-age 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 sociocultural and global citizenship skills, as an option for learners needing a change of pace or a 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-age 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 ask for only a 30- to 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, so 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. As with 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 Brother-y, it's won't be if it's done well; it'll be more like keeping an eye on a social media feed to look for opportunities to help students improve their digital citizenship skills. To help, there are 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 his or her part. Additionally, it's possible you'll sign up your class and not get matched.
Teachers have the option to modify 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.
Key Standards Supported
Use knowledge of language and its conventions when writing, speaking, reading, or listening.
Choose language that expresses ideas precisely and concisely, recognizing and eliminating wordiness and redundancy.*
Reading Informational Text
Draw on information from multiple print or digital sources, demonstrating the ability to locate an answer to a question quickly or to solve a problem efficiently.
By the end of the year, read and comprehend informational texts, including history/social studies, science, and technical texts, at the high end of the grades 4–5 text complexity band independently and proficiently.