Educator Spotlight: Protecting the Planet with Global PenPals

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This post was written by Jessica Altounian, community manager at PenPal Schools. PenPal Schools connects students around the world to learn together through free collaborative online projects. To learn more, visit their website or check out Protecting the Planet and other PenPal Schools projects here.

Student Map of PenPals
A New Zealand student finds her PenPals on a map. Photo courtesy Liz Bailey

Who is responsible for protecting the environment? Are they doing enough to ensure that the next generation has a healthy planet? These are the questions that students explore with global pen pals in Protecting the Planet, a PenPal Schools project created in partnership with TIME for Kids.

PenPal Schools recently spoke with two teachers whose students participated in this project to learn more about how global education impacted their students. Liz Bailey (left) teaches 5th and 6th year students in New Zealand. She teaches all subjects and uses PenPal Schools for science, social studies, reading, and writing. Jill Kull (right) is a 6th grade language arts teacher in the United States.

Why do you want to connect your students with other students around the world to learn about the environment?

Liz: We’re doing a schoolwide inquiry project, and we want our kids to pick a species that is going extinct and find solutions for what they can do; to not just raise awareness, but do something. I taught for five years in the United States, and I think it’s so important for my kids to understand that there is a world outside of New Zealand. They learn to be tolerant. Even noticing things like words that are spelled differently helps them become more aware of others. I hope that some of them can make a connection and continue it past their project.

Jill: I believe connecting my students to other students around the world shows them that protecting the environment is a global responsibility and should not fall on just a few countries or areas. The value of this particular PenPal project has allowed my students to learn about the environment and then discuss topics with a real-world global audience. This not only gives them an opportunity to collaborate with students around the world, but also allows a way to teach topics in an innovative, engaging way.

New Zealand Students
Students in New Zealand chat with their pen pals while learning about the environment. Photo courtesy Liz Bailey

How has the experience of learning with pen pals impacted your students?

Liz: I couldn’t be prouder of the growth that they have made. When we had a conversation about reefs dying, they were like, “Okay, what can we do? What is our government doing?” New Zealand has elections in September, and my students can’t believe that there’s been nothing in the news about the reefs dying. I’m finding their questioning skills and their depth of understanding improved throughout the project. It’s changed the conversations that they’re having at home as well. The more I expose them to, the more they want to know. The idea of scientists and STEM ideas is becoming clearer to them. I tell them that we need scientists and ask: could you be the scientist that figures it out?

Jill: Here are some comments from my students, which support the impact that learning with pen pals is having on my students:

“I enjoy PenPal Schools because I like seeing other people’s perspectives on certain situations. I enjoy finding out what people from other countries think about issues going on in the world. I like how all of the pen pals can equally contribute ideas about topics. I like being able to interact with people from out of the state/country.”
–Jessi Y.

“I think that pen pals are interesting because you get to learn about different people around the world. I also think that is a good way to learn because there are people around the world telling you facts about them so in the future if you need that fact(s) you can use it/them. I like using pen pals not just to learn fun facts but to also meet new people around the world or even in the United States.”
–Makiya H.

United States Students
Students in the United States discuss the weekly lesson with their PenPals. Photo courtesy Jill Kull

What has surprised or impressed you about your students’ reaction to their PenPal experiences?

Jill: The excitement displayed by students when they find common interests with other students across the world has been extremely impressive. Too often I see students at the middle school level viewing the world only as focused on themselves and what they physically see in their everyday lives.

Liz: I’m impressed by their excitement and how much they want to know. Some of my kids had pen pals from France. That was bragging rights for them—they were so excited. They love to compare where their pen pals are from, and it’s improving their understanding of geography. They go to write and they have all of this rich new vocabulary. One student, I can barely get him to write three sentences usually, and he’s writing half pages about pollinators! I’m so proud of them.

PenPal Schools connects students around the world to learn together through free collaborative online projects. Check out Protecting the Planet and other PenPal Schools projects here.

blue nominateDo you know a great educator who teaches about our world? Nominate a colleague or yourself as the next Educator of the Week!

The Educator Spotlight series features inspiring activities and lessons that educators are implementing with their students that connect them to the world in bold and exciting ways.

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