Your New American Friends – Pen Pals
With limited resources at their teaching sites, WorldTeach volunteers come up with creative ways to teach their students and create a positive learning environment. Read on to hear how WorldTeach volunteer Kate Piniewski is using a pen pal program to help her students practice English and foster cultural exchange…
I’ve mentioned that my Grade 9s are a little lost. Their English is all over the place; their grammar is appalling at best, but their vocabulary is strong. Some could pass their exams right now; some won’t pass them in December. Some are halfway through their notebook; some have not passed page three. But whatever their level, this was their golden week. Each and every one of them far exceeded my expectations and showed more enthusiasm than I could have even tried to predict.
We started writing to our new pen pals at People’s Academy in Morrisville, Vermont. Just before I left for Namibia, my roommate Alex, who teaches 6th grade at People’s, and I briefly talked about the idea that we could have our students write letters back and forth. It seemed like the perfect project, but I was unsure of the resources at my school, the English level of my students, and the number of learners I would have. Well it turns out we have very few resources and their English proficiency is low, but I definitely have more than enough learners. And then sometime in February we decided to bring this to fruition, unaware of what we were really in for. But we were going to try, try, try again. She sent me the list of her classes, as one cannot identify the gender of the majority of my learner’s names. I paired students one-to-one—well I have three or four learners writing to two Americans, but that is pretty darn close.
Luckily for me, I was easily able to incorporate this into work required by the Ministry of Education’s national syllabus, as an informal letter is a component of end-of-year exams. Grade 9A and 9B each spent one class period learning the letter format, brainstorming (a vocabulary word this week) important details to share in the first letter, and thinking of questions to ask someone who lives in a place you know little about.
The logistics were tricky during our test run and we have some problem solving to do. Her students all have iPads. Many of mine just used a computer for the first time last week. On a good day all of my learners have a pen. On a bad day, most of them don’t. So all 70 of her learners are going to email me their letters, which I will have to go to town to print. And after two hours at a questionable print shop all 70 of my student’s letter were scanned to a USB and then I emailed them all to Alex. And by I emailed them, I mean my Internet was not strong enough to send the attachments so when I returned to the village Alex received a random email from Patrick, who graciously helped with this final step. Perhaps we will try snail mail in the future, but I did not want to see their excitement die for this project as we each waited six weeks for the letters to arrive.
But no matter the logistical issues of starting a pen pal program in a developing country, these letters were worth every second of extra work and extra stress.
Now we patiently wait. And by patiently I mean my learners ask me every day when we are going to America to get our letters.
We also took class photos to send with the first letters. I am thankful for 10-second timers. Props to whoever invented that part of the camera.