Digital pen pals opens up the opportunity to connect with other students across the world which helps to increase cultural understanding. Hear how a school in Virginia used Book Creator to collaborate with a school in Guatemala.
Co-author: Christina Laprad - ELL Teacher
Christina graduated from JMU’s TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) program in 2015 and has taught K-5 for five years in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Prior to this, she taught English to adult learners in the Czech Republic, and then adult refugees in Roanoke, Virginia through her year of service with Americorp. She loves “traveling the world” through her students, and finds passion and purpose in her work.
After five years of connecting classrooms all over the world through digital pen pals, COVID moved digital pen pals sadly to the back seat of classroom activities as teachers worldwide were playing catch up with instruction.
In early 2022, Mrs. Laprad, a former digital pen pals teacher, asked if I could find an international match for her small group of Spanish speaking students. Mrs. Laprad’s instructional goal was to spark the love of writing while reviewing basic grammar and punctuation skills.
Pairing our digital pen pals classes
I traveled to Guatemala as a photographer and videographer three weeks before COVID shut the world down and returned to the Mayan villages on my honeymoon last summer.
My relationship with a non-profit in Bola de Oro, Guatemala helped find a perfect match for our students. Not only could I give personal background, including images and video, about the Mayan village, but I knew the non-profit was attempting to start solid English support classes for adults.
In the Mayan villages, wifi and devices were absent so we had to improvise our usual workflow of connecting our classrooms!
We chose Book Creator to create our individual and classroom books for many reasons. One being that Book Creator’s invite code allowed their teacher instant access to our library, as well as the published links to our books.
She had the choice to share our books on her phone or by printing them out for her students. After teaching the basic how-tos of Book Creator to our students, we created several class books, as well as individual books for our Guatemalan pen pal students.
The English learners in Guatemala were 18 to 20 years old, but our fifth grade students weren't intimidated and very eager to make connections and share their experiences. Our students not only supported grammar and punctuation for their pen pals, but after peer and teacher feedback on their own writing, benefited from the review as well.
Our finished books
We started our library by writing an “All About Me” book before adding several classroom books about our city or topics that interested students.
Over the course of our 10 weeks together, students were able to ask each other questions, giving the other class ideas for new books to share. We were excited to write and share our class book about the Super Bowl as you can see below!
One of our favorite books from our pen pals was “Volcanoes in Guatemala”. On my honeymoon we spent the day hiking Pacaya, an active volcano, and I shared images from our hike and volcanic rocks for them to hold and explore, making a deeper connection.
Another favorite book to write together was “Adjectives.” Our pen pals were learning about adjectives in their parts of speech unit and we created a book to support their learning.
Because the English classes are just beginning, there is no wifi or devices. Mrs. Laprad printed out each book sent from the village to add to her classroom library for her students to enjoy over and over again.
All the kids were so pleased at seeing the physical books from their digital pen pals and we are excited to keep the relationship going for many years to come!
Cindy Fellows is an instructional resource technology teacher in Rockingham County Public Schools (Virginia). She has spent over 5 of her 8 years in that role connecting students worldwide through digital pen pals. Before teaching instructional technology, Cindy taught reading, first grade, and kindergarten. Outside the classroom, she’s a freelance photographer and filmmaker traveling worldwide with non-profits, as well as offering social media consultation and support to small businesses through her own small business, October Grace Media.