What comes to mind when you think of the word “pen pal”? It may conjure up images of licked stamps and an envelope waiting in a mailbox. But teachers increasingly use online pen pal programs as one way to broaden perspectives in the classroom.
While pen pal programs for schools often offer connections to students from other countries to foster global citizenship, it can be just as important to connect students from different parts of the United States, according to Joe Troyen, the founder and CEO of one online pen pal program, PenPal Schools. The program, which is used by students in 170 countries, provides online courses about history, civics, environmental issues, and politics. Students can explore videos and information on a topic before joining several others for a question-prompted discussion of their perspectives. Students interact with the same group of pen pals for one six-week course.
Troyen believes that such efforts have been especially revealing in the current U.S. political climate. My colleague Madeline Will recently wrote about the polarizing effect of the 2016 presidential election, which unveiled vast differences of opinion across the United States. Teachers have reported signs of this divisiveness in their classroom, such as bullying and fears voiced by students from immigrant backgrounds and students of color.
To foster understanding in the months leading up to the election, PenPal Schools connected students in nearly 400 classrooms across 36 states through an election-related politics course to discuss hot-button issues such as immigration, health care, climate change, and the economy. Students in the classrooms came from a range of political perspectives and racial and religious backgrounds and from urban and rural communities. Some students from the “Rust Belt” had conversations with students from immigrant families, and the exchanges illustrated a model of respectful and open-minded dialogue, Troyen wrote in a recent blog post on PenPal Schools’ website.
“It’s important for students to learn from a young age that they should gather facts and understand others’ perspectives as they form their opinions on any topic,” Troyen wrote in an email to Education Week Teacher. “Students who approach an issue with the objective of learning—not just making others agree with them—form a more well-rounded perspective on issues.”
In order to continue dialogue on political and social issues among students, PenPal Schools has an American Perspectives course with new sessions every two weeks.
In a recent blog post on the program’s website, Victoria, a student from Connecticut, shared how important it is “to learn about the rest of the world because all we know is how we grew up, but others have lived very differently—and that’s good,” she wrote. “We should be different to make the Earth more interesting.”
In other efforts to help students understand one another, some teachers are still taking the pen-and-paper approach. WINGS for Kids, a nonprofit based in Charleston with a social-emotional focus, created the Kindred Kids pen pal program in response to tragedy, The Post and Courier recently reported. After Dylann Roof shot and killed nine people during a service at Emanuel AME Church in 2015, WINGS began pairing 4th grade students from low-income North Charleston schools, where the majority of students are black, with yearlong pen pals from mostly white and upper-middle class private schools.
The students exchange weekly letters and videos before eventually meeting in person. The goal is to teach children how to empathize with people who are different from them and fight racism to prevent more tragedy, said WINGS CEO Bridget Laird.
“Hatred is something that is learned,” Sam Duncan, a social studies and Spanish teacher at The Charleston Catholic School, told the Post. The program’s connections “can curb some of these problems by showing people that we’re all the same at a very early age.”
Teachers, how do you connect your classroom with students from other communities?
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.