Having a pen pal in school can break down the walls of our classrooms and connect us with others outside of our local communities. It is exciting to build relationships with new friends and hear about their lives and experiences. However, traditional mail makes it challenging to establish and sustain these connections.
Fortunately, technology has revolutionized the pen pal experience. Teachers can now more easily reach out to colleagues around the world via social media to connect their students with other classrooms. There is also a growing number of online sites available to support these connections. With available digital channels, students no longer need to wait weeks for correspondence. Instead, they can quickly connect via Skype, Microsoft Teams, Loom, or Google Meet. Although videoconferencing tools have been around for over a decade, it is only recently—with remote learning and shifting teaching practices due to the pandemic—that educators and students have had convenient access to these tools. One of the silver linings of the pandemic-impacted school year is that teachers and students have gained the necessary skills and confidence to successfully integrate these videoconferencing experiences.
Technology has made connecting and collaborating with peers around the world much more available and easier than ever. In fact, we can leverage these connections to go beyond the simple pen pal experience of students sharing their stories; we can create connections that allow students to learn with and from their peers by collaboratively engaging in relevant, authentic project-based and inquiry-based learning. Through these experiences, students can positively impact the world around them.
“Research shows that educational experiences that are active, social, contextual, engaging, and student-owned lead to deeper learning.”
Not only are connections beyond the classroom increasingly possible, they are also more necessary than ever. Because we live in a global society, there is a growing need for our students to develop skills as global collaborators and citizens. In fact, as our students grow older, they will likely be engaging with others around the world both personally and professionally. We also face global issues that require problem-solvers and leaders who can effectively collaborate with others around the world in order to address them.
When we connect our students to others, we expose them to new ideas and help them foster a greater and broader perspective about the people and places all around the world. Rich experiences with different cultures can help students appreciate how we are more similar than different. This improved understanding of each other can also help raise awareness and respect for our uniqueness and diversity. Even further, this deeper connection can help with fostering greater social and emotional skills, such as self-awareness, social awareness, and relationship skills.
Make Global Connections
In order to realize the benefits of connecting our students with those beyond our classroom walls, we must first find and establish these connections. To get started, explore the following resources. While it is impossible to provide a completely comprehensive list, this collection of resources provides some excellent places to get you started with connecting your classroom to students from around the world.
- Biblionasium (Ages 6–13) is a social reading community for teachers, students, and parents. Create bookshelves, log reading time, find recommendations, create reviews, suggest books, create challenges, and more. This free site is teacher- and parent-moderated.
- Empatico (Ages 6–11) is a free elementary resource that helps you connect your classroom with elementary classrooms from over 150 countries. Using their platform, your students can “explore the world through experiences that spark curiosity, kindness, and empathy.” You start by choosing a partner class and connecting with your partner teacher to schedule opportunities for your classes to connect. Empatico provides research-based activities to engage and connect students with one another.
- ePals Global Community (Ages 3–19) helps connect teachers from around the world. Once you sign up, you can search for classrooms by language, age, subject, and interest. Learning experiences are provided by various partners, such as the Smithsonian Institute.
- Flat Connections (Grades K–12) flattens “the disconnected classroom to become a global learning environment” by providing global collaborative projects for students in grades K–12. Projects include building bridges for tomorrow for grades K–2; intercultural pen pals, endangered animals, and poetry performances for grades 3–6; exploring global topics in grades 5–8; global youth debates for grades 5–12; and many more. This site also provides online courses for educators to learn more about global teaching and learning.
- Flipgrid GridPals (Grades K–12) is a video discussion platform that you can also use to connect with other classrooms. When you activate the GridPals feature, you can search for other educators who are interested in creating a shared Flipgrid discussion that you can use to connect your classes. See Flipgrid’s Let’s Be GridPals blog post for more details.
- The Global Read Aloud (Elementary Grades) selects one book that everyone around the world reads in common during a 6-week period in October through November. As students read the book, teachers can use the Twitter hashtag #GRA+year (for example, #GRA21 for 2021) or join the Facebook group to connect with other teachers and make arrangements for their students to connect via a tool of their choice, such as Skype, Flipgrid, Twitter, or Padlet.
- GLOBE “works to build a collaborative, worldwide community of students, teachers, scientists, and citizens to conduct real-world research.” Community members collect data, which helps “researchers gain invaluable insight into local environments around the globe and more of the world is able to significantly contribute to scientific discovery.”
- iEARN (Grades K–12) is a nonprofit that helps connect over 2 million students from over 30,000 schools in 140 countries to work collaboratively on over 100 authentic, global projects.
- Narrative 4 is a nonprofit dedicated to building global connections for students to share their stories. Their mission is to harness “the power of the story exchange to equip and embolden young adults to improve their lives, their communities, and the world.”
- PenPal Schools (Ages 10–18) connects students from 150 countries to collaborate on original projects from over 50 topics. Standards-aligned lessons are available for art, English language arts, math, science, social studies, and more.
- Seesaw Connected Blogs is a freemium online student portfolio where students can use photos, drawings, and recordings to process, demonstrate, and share their learning. Teachers can set up “connected blogs,” where students can share and collaborate with other classrooms.
- TIGed helps connect over 17,000 educators from 6,500 schools in 160 countries. You can search the database of over 650 projects to connect your classroom with other students to work collaboratively on real-world, problem-solving projects.
- Traveling Teddy (Primary Grades) is created for younger learners. You can sign up for a stuffed bear to visit your classroom. The bear comes with a passport that your students can scan to see the bear’s experiences before arriving at your classroom. You can even arrange a virtual visit with other classrooms that the bear has visited. Before sending the bear along to the next travel destination, your class will add to the passport and community blog by including information, videos, and pictures.
- Write About provides “authentic and safe publishing” for students to share and receive feedback from peers on their writing. They offer a free classroom trial.
Strategies for Facilitating These Global Connections
It’s not enough to simply connect your students to people beyond your classroom. For these connections to become rich and meaningful learning experiences, you will need to carefully structure the experience and consider the skills that your students will need to communicate and collaborate effectively. Explore the links below for resources to help you facilitate various forms of digital communication and collaboration that your students might use as they connect with others.
- Videoconferencing: For resources and ideas on how to manage technical logistics, spark student interest, set protocols and expectations, identify roles and responsibilities, engage students during the virtual visit, and help students demonstrate and reflect on the learning that they gained from the experience, see the AVID Open Access article, Invite Virtual Guest Speakers to Engage and Inspire Students.
- Blogs and Online Discussions: For specific strategies that your students can use to power up their posts and ramp up their responses, see the AVID Open Access article, Foster Substantive and Respectful Online Discussions.
- Email: For tips that your students can use to effectively compose a proper email and manage emails, see the AVID Open Access article, Manage Your Communication: Emails and Notifications.
- Digital Collaboration Skills and Tools: For ideas and resources to empower students as digital collaborators, to teach them digital collaboration skills, to design collaborative, tech-empowered lessons, and to choose the right digital collaboration tool to meet their learning needs, see the AVID Open Access article collection, Foster Student Collaboration in a Tech-Empowered Classroom.
Maintain and Model a Growth Mindset
Maintaining a growth mindset is always key when preparing yourself and your students for new learning experiences. For your first experience with connecting your students to other classrooms, keep it low stakes. Consider connecting to another class in your building or district, where it’s easier to meet with the other teacher to work out the logistics and address any unexpected hurdles that your students may encounter. You can use this closer-to-home experience to experiment and learn how connecting classrooms can work. Starting local is also an opportunity to scaffold the experience and build your students’ essential skills before they go global.
This is also an excellent and authentic opportunity to model that we all learn by trying. It’s good to let students know that it’s the first time you are doing this—you prepared well and are hoping for the best. Let them know that if things don’t work out as expected, you will try again using what you learned from this first experience. If things do turn out well with few or no hiccups, celebrate your success and begin making plans to broaden the connection to classrooms outside your school or district, starting within your state, the nation, and eventually globally. It is powerful to model for your students that new learning is often messy. Your vulnerability will help foster a safe learning space for your students to take the risks necessary for them to learn and grow, too.
Extend Your Learning
- How to Encourage a Global Perspective in Your Classroom (WeAreTeachers)
- Children Must Be Taught to Collaborate, Studies Say (Education Week)
- 5 Ways Students Benefit From Global Collaboration (ISTE)
- How to Support Global Collaboration Through Project Based Learning (PenPal Schools)