Pen Pals!

As I sat in our professional development discussing College and Career Readiness standards, my mind began to drift away. I started to reflect on the curse of living in a small town.

In Clarion, the diversity is 91% Caucasian/White and 15.9% Hispanic/Latino. It is a town where everyone knows my name, and I know some of their names. Pronouns have become a regular go-to when I am in public such as, “hey you”.

When you live in a closed area, and your family has always live in a closed area, it is easy to forget the world is larger than your backyard. This is especially easy when you are a teenager. Teenagers are egotistical by nature. It is all a part of human development. It is however the role of a teacher to encourage students to branch out and think globally.

My mind drifted further… Early this fall my husband’s grandmother passed away. One of the items that was left to Sam and I was worn letter pouch with a painted image of a middle eastern woman with a dove just about to land on her finger. Below this burned on is the word “postcards”. The inside flap with impeccable penmanship it says, “To Elizabeth with love from your pen pal Irene”. Inside this pouch there are 5 stamps, one picture of young Irene dated 5/8/40, and a 5 page handwritten letter on worn manilla paper dated 6/11/41.

Grandma Elizabeth started this pen pal exchange when she was in elementary school.Her pen pal, Irene, was from Wales. Despite the challenges of life, they remained pen pals for many, many years. Their pen pal exchange was truly one in a million.

There is very little chance that I could ever replicate the bond that they had, but I wanted to replicate the exchange as best I could. In the letter, Irene shares what is happening in her own world, a ship nearby was hit with a torpedo. She also shares her culture and perspective. The last few pages of the letter is Irene teaching Elizabeth the Welsh language. This is the beauty of a pen pal exchange. I wanted my Seniors to grow from learning from others outside the bubble of Clarion.

I quickly googled school pen pals. The first thing that popped up was Pen Pal Schools : The site partners students around the world to be enrolled in a course. Every week it provides a video, a non fiction article, and a essential question. For each week, students can comment and share thought about the article and insight to the essential question as they read.

I originally wanted to enroll my student in “A Walk to Discrimination”. This course focused on where and when discrimination has happened and it makes students question why it happens. I thought this would be a powerful unit. I had so many fiction text and short stories that I could tie in…. Then I teacher failed.

Minor side note: I love Pinterest, but I love Pinterest fails more. So hopefully you enjoy my minor teacher fail.

I had all of my students signed up for the pen pal exchange. They were in the online classroom ready to go, all that needed to happen was the site to pair my student up. I opened my laptop that Monday morning, and for my 64 students. I received 6 pen pals… Teacher panic ensued.

I quickly emailed the site to find out what the problem was. The pen pal school staff is phenomenal. Within a few minutes, I had a response and a solution.

As it turns out, there were only 6 other students that enrolled in the course. The only course where there were enough students to match mine was “Protecting the Earth”.

I must admit. I was a little disappointed.

I did not let this disappointment consume my life.

Living in a farm town, my students value agriculture. Everyone in my class either is from a farming family or knows a farming family. The environment is an important issue for these students, because it is their livelihood.

In college I took a course in Environmental Literature so I had some background.


Skipping ahead to this week. We are on week 2 on the pen pal exchange. It has been a blast!

The first week was on pollinators. The essential question was “What are different reasons why people might want to protect the environment?”.

After a group conversation, the Seniors were instructed to pursue a topic sparked by the article further. They had to find 4 academic sources and present their findings in whatever way they wanted.

This is a link to one of the many wonderful presentations.

After students were finished watching presentations they had to share on flipgrid something that they learned. I really liked using flipgrid. It made for a fun exit ticket.

Week 2 has been on Coral Reef extinction. Before we started the pen pal article, we read a section of A Sand County Almanac. As you may know, prairie is the most endangered ecosystems. Before we drove into problems in other countries, I wanted students to know what is happening in their own neck of the woods.

Aldo Leopold is a beautiful writer, but his writing is not an easy read. My students were challenged by this reading. After students read through the story and annotated, we played close read basketball.

The rules were pretty simple. The reader had the ball and read until they came across an important section or anywhere that they can add meaning or ask a deeper question. If they class deemed it worthy, they could shoot for points.

Even my reluctant reader ate this up like fresh ooey gooey pizza.

When it came to reading the non fiction article on dangers facing coral reefs my students had so many meaningful connections and insights.

They are in the process of writing a short essay. Do humans have a responsibility to take care of the environment? Why or why not?

Of what I have read, they are going great! I am so excited. My teacher heart it full.
















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