How I Use It
I used this is a variety of settings--with both middle school and high school students in tech, social studies, and communications classes. My younger students (grades 6 & 7) were more engaged for the duration because they were not regular users of social media so it offered them an opportunity to practice communicating with peers across the globe. This was particularly exciting as we participated in the World Discovery course and it was fun to not only learn about specific locations, but about the regions their pen pals were from. My 12 grade communications class had a bit of a challenge not being "too cool" to participate since most of their pals were younger. However, once they got over that hump, they were very engaged and participated in thoughtful, provocative discussions.
A side note--since my classes are English-based (not social studies based), I showed the penpalschools site to my older classes in advance (and sent them the link) so they could look over the options first. The next day we narrowed our choices based on timing and length, then took an in-class vote on which course to participate in. The seniors choice the media literacy option: Facts, Opinions, & Fake News--I loved handing over ownership to them!
I really love using pen pal schools! This will be my 3rd year with them and what I like (besides the obvious breaking down the classroom walls and extending learning globally) is that they are constantly striving to make a better product. Over the time I've participated, I've seen them work to expand their topics and incorporate teacher feedback as they refine their lessons. It's great for social studies, obviously, but it also crosses the curriculum to include English, Science, Communications, etc. It's an excellent springboard from which to launch other projects. We've been able to take topics from the weekly lessons and turn them into writing prompts, class discussions, etc.--to seize the teachable moment--and it's great! It takes something that may, at the moment be teacher-led and flips it into a student-led activity.
Additionally, I like that we can either work on our lesson in class or the kids can do it at home--and that, from my teacher dashboard, I can see whether they have completed the lesson (and to what extent) or need a reminder.