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Five Tips for Teachers in Implementing the Penpal Program

The list below reflects some guiding principles to help streamline implementation of the Stanford Penpal Program.

The author, Erika Hesterberg, worked as a teacher in a Title I school on the edge of the Navajo Nation. In her time teaching, she partnered with the Stanford Penpal Program for three semesters and saw palpable results for students. She is currently taking a break from the classroom to attend the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Please feel free to reach out to her at for any questions related to weaving the program into a classroom.

1. Seek administrative support

Depending on your administration, this might feel like a mountain or a molehill. Regardless, prepare yourself with a myriad of reasons regarding how this penpal program will….enhance student outcomes, foster investment in learning, inspire students, cultivate literacy skills, support interdisciplinary practice, build a network between your school and a top-tier university….Whatever your rationale for participating in the program, arm yourself with your very best negotiating skills prior to seeking administrative support (The Stanford penpal program can provide you with some data to support this endeavour). Having unwavering administrative buy-in can go a long way in programmatic implementation.

2. Cohesively integrate the program with your course-long outcomes

Be creative and bold in how this program can meet your curriculum standards. Consider examining unit, district, state, and national standards to get some ideas. Ultimately, you’re working to ascertain: how does this program support or enhance student outcomes?

3. Build student investment

Be intentional in how you pitch this opportunity to students. It is beneficial for them to be genuinely intrinsically motivated to participate. Consider framing it as a unique opportunity, explaining the background of Stanford, and give them the pros/cons of participating in the program. Allow them to independently arrive at a decision regarding their personal participation in the program. Remember, there are many viable alternative assignments for non-participating students.

4. Obtain guardian consent

While it may seem trivial, including the broader community in the program may support you in a few ways. It allows you to cross your Ts and dot your Is in the eyes of your district, therein increasing the chances for administrative support. More importantly, however, it cultivates community investment in the project. The more united you can be with community members regarding the utility of the program, the better the chance of students staying invested.

5. Make the letter writing process accessible to students

Provide time, materials, and support to students in class to complete their letters. Whenever a round of letters arrives, structure a few hours into your class for dedicated “letter time”. Add a little zest to your class to enhance the experience. This could range from providing colored paper, stickers, markers, (dare I say glitter?), to playing music in class to utilizing whatever reward system is already established in your classroom. If you see students struggling to write letters, it may be beneficial to scaffold the process; provide a formal letter-writing lesson, graphic organizers, or sentence stems to support students.

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