How to Make the Most of the Stanford Penpal Program. A Teacher’s Perspective

August 14, 2020

 

 

The author, Angie Walker, works as a teacher in a Title I High School on the edge of the Navajo Nation. This is her third year partnering with the Stanford Penpal Program (some students have had the same penpals all three years!!). Over the past three years, she has watched her students develop their understanding of what science is and how they can be part of the scientific community beyond their high school. Please feel free to reach out to Angie at walka@centralschools.org with any questions about the penpal program from a teacher’s perspective.

 

Here are six suggestions for making the most of the Stanford Penpals Program: 

 

1. Try one of the penpals lesson plans

These are great lessons to do at the beginning of the year, the day before a break, or in-between units. Not only will the lessons increase your students’ understanding of the diversity within  the scientific community, the lessons will also help your students deepen their connections with their penpals. My students were shocked that so many of the penpals had received a “C” in a science class before-- I think my students had previously thought that their penpals were “perfect”. Also, the lesson plan provided will probably inspire you to develop your own, additional “diversity in science” lessons.

2. Try to send as many packages of letters as you can in a year

The more your students hear from and write to their penpals, the stronger their penpal connection will be. Here are a couple of suggestions to make sure penpals are communicating as frequently as possible:

  • Make letter writing fun! The Stanford Penpals will send you stickers and colored pencils with your first package. Set aside some time (even if it’s only 10-15 minutes to get them started) where students can write their letters in class. 

  • In order to get your students to write their replies promptly, it’s a good idea to make the penpal letters a for-credit (graded for completion) assignment (see #5). My first year, I did not count the letters as a grade, and I found that students prioritized other, graded assignments instead.

  • Don’t worry if a few letters are sent late. When I first started the program, I set a due date for students to turn in their letters, but inevitably, some were turned in late. I waited and waited for every single straggler letter before I sent the package of letters to Stanford. This meant that all of the letters arrived at Stanford late, even the letters that were written on time.  Now I make sure to send the letter package as soon as I have about 90% of the letters. I scan and email the last few letters that come in late. 

3. Share the context of your community with the science penpals from the start.

Of course, your students will share details about their lives with their penpals on their own, but it’s also a good idea to send a detailed description of your community (just a few paragraphs and maybe some helpful news articles or websites) to the  penpals as soon as you sign your classes up. This way, the penpals can be better informed about how to bridge connections with your students. 

4. If possible, allow students to continue writing their same penpal over multiple years.

Disclaimer: make sure that if you don’t have students in your class anymore that you have some way to track them down. I have had a couple students write to their penpals for two-three years and it is beautiful to watch their penpal connections deepen. As with any relationship, getting to know a penpal takes time. 

5. Make the penpal letters a for-credit assignment and make an alternate assignment for any students who have opted out of the program. 

I found that I got replies from students more quickly when I counted the letters as a grade. I suggest that you make the grade a for-completion grade. You wouldn’t want students to feel discouraged by getting a “C” on their penpal letter.  My students have the option of opting out of the program, and I give those students an alternate assignment. The alternate assignment is a one page reflection on a topic of my choice. For example, “Write your personal science history”,  “What is a career in science that interests you?”, “What is your favorite assignment you have ever received in a science class and why?”. Usually, the students who originally opted out of the penpals program realize writing a penpal letter is more fun than a one page essay, and they may end up joining the program eventually. 

6. Read all of the letters.

When I receive a package of letters from Stanford, I skim-read them to make sure they are appropriate. I have hardly had any issues at all. The only times I’ve had to edit content are when the letter content is unintentionally not culturally responsive. For example, most of my students are Diné (Navajo) and one letter included a picture of the solar eclipse. Traditional Diné culture prohibits viewing eclipses, so I made sure to ask the student if they wanted me to edit the letter before giving it to them.

 

I also read the letters that my students write. It takes me a solid chunk of time to read the letters, but I don’t skip it, because it’s important to make sure their content is appropriate and also it is another way to get to know your students.  I of course tell my students that I am going to be reading their letters. Sometimes students try to share private information, like their instagram handles, so if this happens, I tell students that they can either cross out the private information or re-write that section of the letter. 


 

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