Teachers' corner - July 2010

(Editor's note: Mimi Pollack, ESL teacher and Editorial Board Member of Easy English Times, sent us the story below. It also appeared in the ESL newsletter, Dialogue, of the San Diego Community College District's Continuing Education Department.)

Pen Pal Project
by Mimi Pollack

   I am a level 6 teacher and sometimes getting my students to write is like pulling teeth, so I came up with the pen pal project this semester. My students have been emailing American pen pals. For the most part, this has been a successful project.

                I started by posting on Facebook to see if any of my friends were interested in partaking in this project. I got four bites. Then, I sent an e-mail out to select people on my list, and I got three bites. Finally, I sent out a blanket e-mail to most of the people on my list, and was surprised by the people who agreed to volunteer. Lesson one: never make assumptions about people. I ended up with 22 pen pals, including fellow ESL teachers, my sister, friends of my sister, personal friends, Sara Ferguson's parents, and even an ESL teacher in France. They were from different areas. About 48 students participated.

                Next, I set up e-mail accounts for my students. I used hotmail, yahoo, and gmail because using just one overloaded it. Next I assigned partners and e-mails. I tried to match people up according to likes, etc. The first time I wrote a short introduction on the board and suggested questions to get the ball rolling. Our ESL computer lab is next door, so that also helped. I had the higher level and more computer proficient students help me with the lower level ones. We did this once a week. By the second and third week, the students were very excited to read their pen pals' answers.

                Later, I started giving the students writing assignments. They had to not only answer their pen pals, they also had to write them their assignments, and then copy and paste just the assignments to Word and print them for me, so I could correct them.

                After doing this for one semester, I can honestly say that it was mostly a positive experience. Most of the pen pals really got into it, as did their partners, and emailed faithfully. Some of them corrected the students' mistakes. Others sent pictures which delighted the students and they shared them with the class. Sara's father invited his pen pal, Rafael, to come and visit him in Colorado! It was also a bonding experience for the students.

                However, there were some students who refused to participate and I didn't push them. They wrote their assignments by hand in the classroom. Not all of the pen pals fully participated. Finally, because of the nature of our open entry/open exit program, some pen pals had several different partners, so there wasn't always consistency. Nevertheless, when it worked, it worked well, and I am glad I did it. If you have any questions, please contact me at mpollack@sdccd.edu.