Educator of the Week Shares Pen Pal Programming Activity

green educator

Teacher with students
Photograph by Erik Keithley

Sarah Venkatesh is a technology integration specialist at a K-8 independent school  in Austin, Texas. One class she currently teaches is Global Citizens, a required 5th grade class that is a fusion of study skills, current events, and technology and enhances curriculum from math, science, and global studies classes.

Activity: Programming Interactive Cultural Greeting Cards
Grade Level: 5th
Time Commitment: Several weeks for the whole unit

My fifth grade students programmed interactive cultural greeting cards designed to introduce a “player” (anywhere in the world) to elements of the creator’s local culture, such as religion, education, food, transportation, and recreation. This project was an offshoot of a handwritten pen pal exchange with school children in Malawi, Africa. That experience taught our students that, even though there are stark contrasts in infrastructural resources between our countries, school children across an ocean share fundamental things in common: favorite subjects in school, strong ties to family, and hopes for good health.

Students research, write, and deliver “Biome TV” newscast reports aimed at encouraging the audience to think about the human impact on natural habitats. Photograph by Erik Keithley

Using Tynker, a kid-friendly and visually appealing game programming software, students were able to place iconic visual elements—like a train to represent transportation—onto photographs of our region. They added blocks of code instructions to play a sound file or broadcast a message upon clicking. The intended audience for these informational greeting cards was any global pen pal with internet access.

I worked closely with my school’s library media specialist, Susan Gaultney, and global studies teacher, Cat Cook, to design this activity to help our students identify local natural and man-made resources. Knowing about their own region helped students gain confidence in asking clarifying questions about life in another part of the world.

Boys making donation boxes
Students make malaria-prevention donation boxes. Photograph by Erik Keithley

The game programming portion of the project took 2 weeks, but the whole project involved a letter writing unit and a literary unit in the English and global studies classes. Students read Shana Burg’s Laugh at the Moon and drew parallels between themselves and the American middle school girl in the book who struggles to transition to life in rural Malawi. As they read, students learned about rural communities lacking resources to protect themselves from infectious diseases like malaria. After our cultural greeting cards project, we did a research-intensive unit on malaria, how it is spread, and ways to prevent it, which culminated in a student-led school-wide campaign to raise money for bed nets.

How did this activity impact your students? Did students change an aspect of their behavior or way of thinking?

Not only did students love being able to program an interactive game that someone, anywhere, would actually play, but they were speaking a new vocabulary and constantly identifying “elements of culture” in our community and drawing comparisons to other cultures. This kind of interconnected thinking has taken off in new units with other teachers, in other subjects. The study of critical water resources was our transition to our current unit on natural biomes, in collaboration with the science teachers. Weaving together themes from different classes has been effortless for our Global Citizens students with the help of digital tools and their mindset that everything they pick up along this winding journey is valuable and may someday be woven into an interesting interactive story in Tynker. The big takeaway from the programming unit was about interconnectivity of people and ideas.

How does teaching with a global perspective impact your students?

They feel it’s relevant because they see themselves as future travelers and global workers one day. I think students can honestly see the possibilities of this knowledge being applied directly in their lives someday—certainly far more than I could at their age, when the gratification of asking questions was delayed and ideas weren’t truly synthesized until college. Students can do all that now—ask, imagine, create—and this process places them right there in the subjects they’re learning. They are part of the global narrative, and I think they really do believe that.

Students stock concessions while preparing for a school-wide “spirit night” fundraiser to raise money for insecticide-treated mosquito nets for Nets for Life, an organization working to prevent the spread of malaria in Sub-Saharan Africa. Photograph by Erik Keithley

What advice do you have for teachers who want to get more involved with teaching students about the world across disciplines?

Harness any research and media engine that can bring students the sights and sounds of a culture. Support student agency by having them harvest information on a subject instead of you doing all that background research and presenting it to them to digest. Take every opportunity you can to express interest in what other teachers are doing and allow yourself to think out of the silo of your specialty and imagine ways to make connections between the “big ideas” of different classes or subjects. The best thing that’s happened in my career as a technology integration specialist was retiring the idea of a “technology class” and merging with the current events and studies skills classes to create a far more meaningful global citizens class.

What is one simple activity that any educator could do with their students to get them thinking about the world?

Take a “trip” with Google Maps, or National Geographic’s MapMaker Interactive, and view locations through the various base maps, like satellite and street view. Students can calculate travel distances and times, providing context for current events. They can also  identify historical landmarks and natural biomes. Have them make custom maps by placing “pins” with pictures and text on them and then screencasting themselves clicking through the pins while narrating why the pins are significant or related.

Do you have a favorite book or blog that inspires your teaching?

Ken Robinson’s book Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative

Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you in your personal life or in your teaching?

“You have a blue guitar. You do not play things as they are.” – Wallace Stevens (excerpt from The Man with a Blue Guitar)

3 thoughts on “Educator of the Week Shares Pen Pal Programming Activity

  1. I am intrigued and as a teacher in North West Nigeria, I’d like to know how I can harness this to improve on my lessons.

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