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COMMENTARY: Pen-pal program brings teachers, students together

Updated April 24, 2021 - 9:00 pm

“It never ceases to amaze me that no matter how much you have on your plate, your students are at the forefront of all that you do. I’m honored to help in any way I can to make the virtual world of teaching and learning easier to navigate. My pen pal is the real MVP,” Clarissa wrote.

Clarissa is not only a student in our high school, but she’s also my pen pal.

Last September, I had many conversations with my colleagues about supporting our students emotionally during distance learning. As I considered how best to do this, my thoughts turned to the social-emotional well-being of my colleagues. I knew I would struggle to develop the connections with students that I naturally cultivate in a face-to-face environment. I also wanted to help teachers feel connected, valued and cared for in the new virtual medium. What better way to support students and teachers than by leveraging the relationships between the two?

This was the genesis of the National Honor Society Teacher Pen Pals.

My honor society students were eager to help build the pen pal program to support their teachers. As the NHS adviser, I worked with colleagues to match students with teachers for the upcoming school year. A team of us then coached students on how to contact and communicate with teachers, while students helped teachers such as me learn how to navigate technology challenges. With Clarissa’s guidance, I practiced setting up Google Meet breakout rooms and soon felt like I had been using this feature for years. As the year progressed, I received Clarissa’s emails supporting me, letting me know when she was available to assist within the virtual classroom and reminding me that my hard work didn’t go unnoticed.

The NHS Teacher Pen Pal program has resulted in genuine connections between teachers and students, creating a meaningful learning experience for everyone at our school. The student pen pals developed increased agency and voice. They helped teachers reflect upon lesson ideas, supported us with technology issues and reminded teachers that they appreciate the effort we make to ensure that teaching and learning remain meaningful during distance and hybrid schooling.

Students are often shy to speak up during live virtual sessions, but the student pen pals helped facilitate connections that stemmed from genuine care. For teachers, the pen pals’ engagement was invaluable to help them feel more valued and connected. Here are a few recommendations to get started on designing a student-teacher pen pal program at a school.

Identify students and teachers who can help design, implement and support a pen pal program that fosters meaningful student-teacher connections and addresses the social and emotional concerns that persist during the pandemic. Create templates that student pen pals can use to connect and engage with their assigned teacher via email. Present and explain the program’s purpose and intent during a staff meeting to address concerns and answer questions. Encourage weekly engagement of the pen pals with one another and provide examples of ways to support each other.

Our pen pal program has been effective for both students and teachers, forging authentic connections and helping us all attend to our collective social-emotional concerns and our school community’s well-being.

— Laura Jeanne Penrod is an 11th-grade English teacher at Southwest Career and Technical Academy, National Honor Society adviser and a senior teaching policy fellow with Teach Plus Nevada.

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