Classroom pen pals are a game changer. Yes. I’m putting myself out there with such a bold statement. However, it’s spot on. Although it requires a bit of management on your part, there is NO BETTER away to provide valid friendly letter writing practice to your students.
Classroom pen pals are dynamite at ANY grade level. If your crew isn’t experienced in the letter writing department, the meaningful instruction opportunities are endless. However, just because your class is filled with seasoned writers doesn’t mean that pen pals aren’t for you. Classroom connections allow you to take writing to a whole new level in upper elementary and middle school. Now that I have drooled all over myself, let me explain my four main reasons that drive my love for pen pals in the classroom.
Writing can be a rather tricky subject to teach. Let’s face it. Writing is hard. This often translates into reluctant students within our writing block. However, with just a few tweaks, we can sell writing to our students in the form of pen pal connections. Linking students in classrooms in different towns, states, or even countries provides just the right amount of motivation. It’s this emotional response that allows us to up our direct instruction game.
How does it help up our game? Scaffolding friendly letter instruction is easy with pen pals. Teaching the process of friendly letter writing just makes sense when there is practical real-life practice waiting for you at the end. My go to friendly letter intro/review for firsties goes something like this . . .
- Parts of a Letter Introduction – build anchor chart whole group. Follow up with whole group and independent labeling and sorting activities.
- Shared Writing – write an introductory letter together on chart paper. Depending on your crew, you may choose to draft it together or provide a basic outline for them to help you complete (think cloze-style).
- Guided Writing – invite your students to write their own letters as you guide them under a document camera. Provide prompts as to what would come next and offer sentence starters throughout the process.
- Independent Writing – once you feel your crew is ready to fly, let your students attempt letters on their own. I have found that it helps to provide a series of topics and/or prompts to help jump start the process and keep the letters flowing. In addition, sharing a sample always helps students get started.
EMBED WRITING STANDARDS
Another reason I’m in love with classroom pen pals is that it provides the opportunity to embed other writing standards into the process. Once students get a few of your standard friendly letter assignments tucked tightly under their belts and start to feel that love for their pen pal, you can up the ante a bit. Instead of your standard HOW ARE YOU letter, you can ask your students to write a narrative for their pal. Simply toss out a related or seasonal topic and let them fly. But, why stop here? An opinion-based letter or a persuasive writing assignment are also “low hanging fruit.”
All you have to do is select a topic that makes sense and the writing will flow. There is just something about the EMOTIONAL connection with a pen pal that elicits the best writing from our students. They want to send their best work to their pal. They want to go above and beyond. And, the best part is that they are excited about the process. #aBIGwritingwin
If you’re looking for a ready made packet of pen pal templates that embed various writing standards, I have a best-selling pen pal collection in my TPT shop. Click on over and give it a little look-see to take much of the planning and prep out of the process.
Touching on other standards doesn’t just live in the writing block. You can use classroom pen pals to target cross-curricular concepts and standards. Here are just a handful of ideas to help you bridge your classroom pen pal connections into other content areas.
- Geography/Mapping Skills – this one is a no-brainer. Students can study their pen pal’s location, draft maps, and learn about important geographic features in the area.
- Social Studies – many upper elementary social studies concepts can be tied into pen pals. With a little research on your part, you can usually find at least one connection. From state reports and Native American tribes to important explorers and other historical events, digging something up isn’t too difficult.
- Math – math options are hiding in your connection if you just look for them. Create a word problem mini book with questions related to your pen pal classroom. Have your students write a series of math problems for their pal to solve and vice versa. Invite your students to have math chats via written letters. These are just a few of the math possibilities that are easy to implement with little prep.
- Reading – assign or allow pen pals to select the same book to study. Students can work together to answer questions, generate a book report, and more.
21st CENTURY CONNECTIONS
Snail mail doesn’t have to be the end-all pen pal process these days. Technology has opened to door to a whole new way to experience friendly letter writing. From email and Google Docs to recorded video and Google Hangouts, techy pen pals not only offer valid computer skills practice, but they also save you oodles on postage 😉
Alright, so there you have it. A post dedicated to my love affair with classroom pen pals. If you are interested in connecting your classroom this year, I host an annual Pen Pal Pair Up in late July. Simply sign up on my Google Form and I will do my best to find you the perfect connection — my 2017 pen pal sign ups are CURRENTLY CLOSED (7/24/17 – 5pm). **Thank you so much for your interest. I wish I could take on all you alls, but I hit my matching limit this year.**
If you end up missing this year’s event, not to worry (it typically closes within 24-36 hours due to the amount of sign ups that flood in). I urge you to toss up a call for classroom pen pals on your Facebook feed. Someone linked with you is bound to know a teacher who would be a great match or could help connect you with someone they know. I promise that you won’t regret giving pen pals a go this year. The proof will be in the pudding . . . just sit back and watch the writing magic unfold.