This week I am featuring a great teacher and friend of mine, Christopher Combs. He teaches a Digital Communications class at one of the middle schools that I work with. He uses ePals with his classes and I asked him to share what he did and how he used it with his students. In this article he does an excellent job of what a teacher needs to do in order to get their classes up and running with ePals.
In 2012 I started teaching the Digital Communications class at Helfrich Park STEM Academy. Our Principal, Mr. McIntosh had recently returned from a trip to China where he visited our sister school. I wanted to capitalize on the connections Mr. McIntosh had made while on his visit to China, so we worked on starting an electronic pen-pal program with that school. After having little success with consistent communications between our students and the school in China, I decided to check out a program called e-Pals that was mentioned at the 2012 e-Revolution Conference.
During my research, I gained valuable information on how to get the program started in our school. First, you have to join the e-Pals Global Community (http://www.epals.com/). This is a fairly short and entirely free process. The website will need some basic information about your class such as the number of students in your class, their ages, and a brief description of your goals for this program. The next step in the process is to simply wait to have your group membership approved. Once you are approved, it is time to start looking for other classes in the U.S. or abroad that match your needs. There are over 130,000 classrooms in the database, so you will need to narrow your search parameters by language, age, key word, region or country, numbers of students, and method of contact. Once you have selected a class, you will contact the teacher through email to see if he/she is interested in your project. It is at that time that you can begin to work out the fine details with the other teacher.
Communication for the e-pal program is almost entirely through email. E-pals can provide up to 100 email accounts for your students that a teacher can monitor. I, however, decided to use the email that the EVSC provides for our students instead. I have each student write an initial letter to a non-specific person that I keep on file. Once arrangements have been made with another classroom, I forward the letters and email addresses to the corresponding teacher. This is when the fun begins. The students are free to email back and forth as they have time. About every 10-15 days, I give my students extra class time to respond to their e-pals. I instruct the students to copy me as well as the other teacher on all communication. Our students are required to have a signed parent permission form stating that they are allowed to send pictures and/or Skype their e-pal. We have not utilized Skype yet due to the time differences between our school and our partnering school. This is a program that utilizes self-motivation in our students. Honestly, the students will get out of it what they put into it. I am finding that some students will write a half a page response to their e-pal while others are doing the bare minimum of three sentences.
We currently have e-pals in Colorado, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Italy, Romania, and Uganda. Many of our e-pals from foreign countries are in the process of learning English as a second language. It shows our students a little piece of the world right in our own classroom.
While I could go on and on about how fantastic this program has been, I wanted you to be able to hear from the students themselves. I have included comments from a few of my students regarding the e-pal program. As you will see, it is something the students are growing to love.
Here are some comments from students that were in my first semester class this year.
Dear Mr. Mac,
i want you to know how much i like the pen-pal project. I like it so much because we confined kids get to connect the world out side of Indiana and make even more new friend from Africa to Denver,Colorado.
Jakob Z. 7th Grader
I like to do this because it is fun so i can meat new people and learn about them.
Montana D. 7th Grader
Dear Mr. Mac,
This project is so amazing! I really like it! I like it, because people get to know knew people from around the world. In this program, it is possible find out other cultures, or different things they do, rather than here. People get to learn new things also, such as the person’s favorite foods, what the person likes to do, what he or she does on their free time, or if they have any siblings. People can learn new things on this program, and it is really fun. I personally enjoy this program, because it’s fun. I like to meet new people, even if it’s on the computer, you still get to meet new people. It’s a different way to meet new people, and it is fun. In this program you have different opportunities, such as different places. The letter that the person makes goes out to whoever the teacher sends it too, and then you can meet several different people all at once. I enjoy typing back and forth to learn about different cultures or different people in general. I think it’s cool, but that’s my opinion.
In general, you get to meet new people. You get the chance to talk about other people in a more formal way or professional way. You get to have fun, and it’s just an easy way to get to know someone. Other people don’t have this chance, like us, to meet new people on the computer. I think we are lucky to be able to do this. It’s fun, entertaining, awesome, fantastic, and just simply amazing! I think everyone should get the chance to do this amazing program. It’s actually really. All you really have to do is type a letter about yourself, and then answer questions that you are asks by whoever it is sent to. I think you would very much enjoy this program too!
Concluding with what was said above, it’s awesome! I have met several people on this program. They’re really nice, and I have learned so much about new people, and what they like. I’m sure you would like this program too. It’s a way to meet new people without all the hassle! I don’t really like to tell people about myself or even talk to new people on the computer, because I would rather talk in person, but I enjoy it on this program. It’s so amazing and fantastic. I like the people I have met, and I have learned so much about different people and how they live. Some live the exact same way we do today, but others, not so much. I have met people from Colorado to New Hampshire, and they both live totally different. It’s cool to learn about. You would most definitely enjoy this program, so try it out. It’s awesome, amazing, fantastic, marvelous, spectacular, and terrific!
Maddix M. 7th Grader
Dear Mr. Macintosh,
The pen pal writing program was a good use of time in the school. It has let us learn about people from around the world. Three pen pals have been exported to each 9th period student in Mr. Comb’s class. This program has allowed are class to learn about locations and the people living there through series of messages. We have received pen pals from Colorado, New Hampshire, and Uganda. Colorado and New Hampshire have many things that are alike to us. They aren’t very different than us. Uganda has many different cultures and beliefs than us. They have different sports, games and foods, along with items we would consider strange. They are different in many ways but, we have not had a chance to reply back to them. Overall, I believe that the time and effort the school and the teachers put into this project were worth it. This project has been a fun experience.
Tanner B. 7th Grader
Digital Communications is a great class to participate in, and now it has just gotten better. By emailing people who are across the country or even a couple states away can be very exciting. The pen pal program gives us a chance to see what it’s like in places besides our neighborhood. To be able to communicate with kids our age is so much fun, because it allows us to experience what their lives are like, and how different they are from ours. Pen pals can also influence us in a good way. This program is lots of fun to do, because it’s very exciting to see what your pen pal will respond or even tell you!
Carlie H. 7th Grader
I really like the pen pal program because, we get to communicate with others from different places. I like being able to meet new people. The pen pal program is also a great program, because we get to learn about people we have never met before. The pen pal program gives kids that might not have many friends, and get to talk to others. The pen pal program shouldn’t be something that you participate in for just a week, and then never talk to the person again, people should continue on with pen pals for a longer time. Pen pals give positive influences to everyone. Pen pals are a lot of fun!
Alaina F. 7th Grader
I love E-Pals, because its fun to get to know people from around the world. I like it, because you can see how they live in their culture. Its very interesting to see if you and your pen pal have the same hobbies. But to me its teaches that you can compare and contrast! For example you compare and contrast what you do or like maybe, you like something and they don't. Also you learn about different personalities in the student, and just their normal background!
Caitlyn J. 7th Grader