How I Use It
I have used Pen Pal Schools in several different ways and for several different levels of students within one classroom setting. The high-level, interesting text really grabs the interests of the students and allows them to gain either new knowledge or build on previous knowledge.
Pen Pal School provides high-level questions related to the text that push the thinking of my students. Even if the pen pal my student was paired with did not respond at the same level, my students and I were able to have discussions about how we might "help" that student improve their response IF we were in a setting to do so. This also gave me the opportunity and lead in to teach digital citizenship and help my students understand that we all make mistakes when answering questions and it is not our responsibility to edit another students work. It was, however, a great visual for them to see what other student models looked like. Some of the pen pal work was phenomenal! The work provided outstanding models for my students. Some work helped show my students that proofreading is important. Either way, I wanted to ensure that we made good use of our time everytime we logged on to Pen Pal Schools.
I recommend using this as a teaching tool and having the students read the text and answer the questions on paper first. After my students answered the questions on paper, or in their journal, I had them peer read them for editing and revising before they could type their answer in for their Pen Pal.
I could always tell which Pen Pals had teachers that just assigned the work and never checked in on them because the students had poorly constructed answers. This is often disappointing to the students who are often very critical of each other's work. I LOVE Pen Pal Schools and so do my students. I found that giving them some choice in the final project will also allow them the ability to be creative and use their voice.
Pen Pal Schools as a teaching tool is as rigorous as you make it and can be as in-depth as the one teaching it allows it to be. I had students who wanted to do additional research on some of the topics and one of my students even created her own holiday in our community. Her desire to create this holiday was spurred on by a Pen Pal Schools Project. It started small and with a few questions and it grew from there.
If you are looking for a purposeful and rigorous project that can be adapted to meet the learning needs of varying levels and styles within a classroom, you need to check out Pen Pal Schools. I know you will glad you did and so will your students.