Pen Pal Project Sparks Next Level Spanish Learning

A handmade blue mailbox was stuffed to the brim with letters postmarked for Mexico City in the Lower School Spanish classroom. The destination? Instituto Miguel Angel, a private school in Mexico City that Ellis girls had begun correspondence with, thanks to Lower School Spanish Teacher Brenda Martinez. 
After connecting with her former alma mater and their Head of School, Ms. Martinez instituted a project between Ellis and Instituto Miguel Angel as a way for students to acquire real-world communication skills and an enhanced cultural perspective of the language. A dynamic and creative way for Ellis girls to sharpen their Spanish writing and translation skills, grade 3 and 4 students dove into the project with excitement and enthusiasm.

To begin, students wrote their first letters titled, “Conóceme” or “Know Me,” using a template. Students wrote in English to fill in the blanks on their favorite school subjects, foods, places, and pastimes. They then brainstormed questions together as a class that they could include in their letters for their pen pals to answer. Questions like, “what is your favorite holiday?” or “what do you do for fun?” acted as prompts for their letters and opened up conversations for future ones. Students also learned how to properly fold a letter, put it in an envelope, add a stamp, and address it—not to mention they even learned a thing or two about shipping and processing!  

“My students would come in every day and ask me if their letters had arrived yet after we mailed our first batch,” shared Ms. Martinez. “I had to explain to them that it would take over a month for our letters to arrive in Mexico! The girls were shocked but so excited—they couldn't wait to get their next letters.”

But little did Ellis students know that after sending and receiving their initial letters, things would become a bit more complicated with their next ones. Their pen pals in Mexico City had sent their second letters in March 2020, at the initial height of the COVID-19 crisis, and the letters got stuck in the mail. Because of this, Ms. Martinez and her partner-teacher decided to pause the pen-pal project and begin again once students returned to school in the fall. Saddened by the change of events but ever-adaptable and flexible, Ellis girls patiently waited until Fall 2020 to continue their pen-pal relationships. And while Ms. Martinez had to move to scanning and emailing the handwritten letters instead of mailing them as the students in Mexico City are still learning remotely, that didn’t stop the rekindling of friendships on either end.

Ellis students received letters from Instituto Miguel Angel students about their country, school community, and daily life during COVID, then spent time translating them to English. They then wrote back in Spanish about their own experiences during the pandemic, what it’s like to live in the United States, and the different cultural traditions they follow. One of the similarities that rang true for students on both sides of the border throughout the letters was a love of sweets. When Ellis students received their letters about life in Mexico City, many of their pen-pals had written about recent holidays in Mexico and the treats they enjoy during them. Ms. Martinez recognized the connection as a learning opportunity and spent a class period teaching Ellis girls about Mexican candies, the way they’re opened and enjoyed, and the cultural connections of different foods. 

An engaging and interactive way to learn sentence structure and conjugation, students practiced their Spanish writing and translation skills while gaining insights into how much they had in common with their Mexican friends. A creative opportunity to break down classroom walls during a time when travel and trips were put on hold, the project also offered a unique chance for students to develop empathy through interaction. 

“This project taught students a group of skills. It wasn’t just about learning Spanish, it was about learning about different ways to reach people,” said Ms. Martinez. “Students learned differences between their schools and countries and found plenty of similarities as well. They realized that they had a lot in common with their new friends even though they come from a different place.”

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