This semester my two of my classes are exchanging letters with students in Malaysia and Turkey. From the beginning (during orientation), I was hearing about ETAs hosting pen pal exchanges in their classes. I thought it was a great idea, and it was on my list of things to get around to, but I wasn’t sure how I wanted to start – and there were much more pressing matters like, how do I teach a decent lesson?
However, during winter break, there was an email sent to our listserv about Mal Pal.
The website, started by a Fulbright ETA in Malaysia, facilitates pen pal exchanges between Fulbright ETAs’ students around the world. The program not only connects classrooms around the world, but American Fulbright ETAs, who teach in over 70 countries. Here’s how it works:
For each class that you’d like to match with pen pals, you fill out a separate form. The site asks for your class size, approximate English level and mail preference (snail mail, email or flexible). Since I viewed this as a bit of an experiment, I chose to fill out forms for only two classes – my second grade, English-focus classes, one all boys and the other all girls. Since I submitted my forms during winter break (February), I was really hoping my classes would get matched early on in the school year (which began in March).
And within a week of the new semester, they were! My boys class was matched with a high school class in Raub, Malaysia, and shortly afterwards my girls class was connected to first year university students in Karabuk, Turkey. We were paired primarily by level and mail preferences, so while my girls class seemed a little intimidated that their pen pals would be university students, I reassured them that their levels were similar.
After a few emails back and forth, the Malaysia ETA and I decided on snail mail, while the ETA in Turkey opted for email. While there were a few logistics to work through and some out-of-pocket spending involved, the experience has been new and exciting for my students (and me). From the introduction lesson to our two letter-writing class periods, they were consistently elated.
I’ll admit the letter-writing days were a bit messy. Within the Korean school system, I don’t feel like I can assign homework; my students are at school until 9:30 or 10:00pm, many go to cram schools afterwards that may last until midnight, and then they’re back at school at 7:40am the next day. They study a LOT – more than I ever did in high school – but it’s mostly self-directed, rather than assigned homework. So while I could give homework, I would feel heartless and it probably wouldn’t get done anyway.
First Day – Introduction
The first day I broke the news to them and we did a very surface-level lesson on Malaysian/Turkish culture, covering basics like geography, population of their pen pals’ towns and lots of pictures from Google. Much of this first lesson was based on what the other ETA had told me about their students and country. We had exchanged emails detailing the demographics of our classes, aspects of the culture that seemed important/just interesting to know, and any sensitive topics our students might avoid in their letters. The students in their classes are Malay, Chinese, Indian, Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi; mine are…only Korean. But this allowed for some discussion on diversity, including nationality, race, and religion. I was happy that my class could be a safe space for students to be curious and openly ask questions – even if I didn’t know the answers. Some questions I encouraged students to ask their pen pals, however other topics seemed worth addressing as a class. I wasn’t quite sure where to draw the line; when students asked if their Malaysian pen pals had computers, I decided to ask the Malaysian ETA, rather than have all my students ask a potentially offensive and ignorant question. If my students were asked if they had computers, or even smart phones, some might be insulted. But then again, it wasn’t a particularly serious question. The answer was that since our Malaysian pen pals are in a fairly rural town, many of them don’t have computer access at home, but most have smart phones. Go figure.
With our Turkish pen pals, the ETA mentioned the Syrian conflict being a controversial, but unavoidable topic, given the diversity of students in her class. I in turn mentioned this to my class, but they were honest. “Teacher we know about IS, but we don’t know about Syria.” I paused. Did I even know enough? I definitely wasn’t that clear on the facts nor did I feel like I had the appropriate language to explain this complex issue to English language learners. I was honest in return and told them that I wanted to do more research so I could share an accurate version with them. And so we began the next class with a survey of the Syrian conflict. Whew! I’m not sure how much they really retained – or how much I retained – but in that moment, learning felt so authentic and purposeful – I want to reach moments like that again. Flash forward: only one pen pal even mentioned the Syrian conflict, and only in passing, but I know that at least my students have some background and (I hope) they can delve further into the topic if interested.
As for sensitive issues in Korea, I brought North Korea and reunification in my emails to the other ETAs. As Koreans have explained to me, I wrote about how the issue was complex and nuanced. Not every Korean necessarily wants reunification, and even those who do seem to agree that reunifying right now would severely hinder South Korea’s social and economic infrastructure. I realized after the fact that the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute was also worth mentioning. One student wrote in her letter “PS: Dokdo is our land!” but I don’t think her pen pal paid it any mind.
Second Day – Letter-Writing
My students jumped into writing their letters over the course of the next two class periods. I bought them letter paper for the occasion, but first required students to write drafts. I think this helped them take the writing a little more seriously…and forced them to have two drafts! Ha!
This second day, I helped students correct their drafts if they finished during class, but most did not, so at the end of class I collected their drafts, made edits/suggestions, and returned them the next period. Despite having almost the entire 50 minutes to work, some of these drafts weren’t even finished. Time efficiency is a big problem. On the positive side, I was able to give students a lot of one-on-one time.
Third Day – Revisions and Final Letters
In our last letter-writing class, students looked at my edits, made their own revisions if needed and brought their finished letters to either my coteacher or myself to scan we gave out cutesy letter paper. Unfortunately, the only people who write hand-written letter these days in Korea are couples, so I had to weed out all the paper designs that had things like “I love you” and “forever love.”
Students who finished their letters early worked on crossword puzzles. Since it was close to April Fools Day, and I didn’t expect students to finish that early, I trolled them a bit and gave out these:
First I got the reaction I’d been expecting. Ahh! What? Too difficult!
But then one students came up to me, crossword in hand. Teacher, there’s only one? as she showing me the circled Bonobo. Yes, I think there’s only one, I replied, shocked. Here, try another.
Well after that point, students began to finish them all. Luckily, I had a 50 states crossword that I had initially deemed too difficult, but was perfect for keeping students occupied while their peers finished the letters. It also gave my coteacher and I something to do while we weren’t helping students.
Despite the plethora of students who finished early, a couple in each class were still working when the bell rang. I watched, a little in awe, as they put all their concentration into furiously scribbling out the remainder of their letters. This is first time I’d seen any student willingly stayed after class. EVER. I easily switched on an enthusiastic smile and excited voice as they brought their letters to the front of the room with a triumphant grins.