High Tech Pen Pals and Student Writing

High Tech Pen Pals
Writing Across Content Areas
What’s a Wiki?

High Tech Pen Pals

Geography comes alive when students are partnered with a “high tech pen pal.”  The first curriculum unit begins with mapping lessons so that students know where their school is located in relation to their watershed.  This is the perfect opportunity for students to introduce themselves and talk about what it’s like where they live.  While the re-stating of facts is important, teachers should challenge their students to make comparisons by asking questions.  Does it snow where you live?  How much precipitation do you get?  What is the name of your river?  Can you swim in it?  Do boats travel on it?  What kinds of pollution are in your river? It’s easy for students to stay motivated when they ask questions and get answers from their pen pal!

Partner classes come from all over the U.S. as well as several other countries.  As you can imagine, the different climates and ecosystems provide an incredible opportunity for research and comparison.  If you’re not from New Mexico, we’ve included a few quick facts about New Mexico’s geography, climate and our largest river, the Rio Grande.

Writing Across the Content Areas

Writing in the content areas has been a very hot topic recently, because it is a powerful tool to reinforce learning. We know that it is practically impossible to cover all the curriculum standards without integrating them somehow, and writing about science or social studies concepts is a great way to do this! We will provide writing prompts and assignment ideas for each RiverXchange activity, to help you address specific language arts standards and writing formats such as the friendly letter, the narrative, the persuasive essay, and RACE paragraphs.

The pen pal component of the project creates an “audience” which motivates students because they know their partners will be reading what they write, and they are eager to read and comment on their partners’ pages. After each guest speaker visits the classroom, students are expected to synthesize their learning into an explanation for their pen pals. Presenters notice that RiverXchange students pay close attention because they know they’ll need to use the information later! Writing about the lessons requires students not only to recall but to make connections and think in-depth about the information presented. The classes that have the most fun are the ones that write often – making a connection and comparing issues with their pen pals in a faraway place really adds to the learning experience.

As teacher Jody Schneider of Puesta del Sol Elementary says, “Writing is typically an area where most 5th graders struggle. By having an opportunity to, again, use skills in authentic situations through the use of wikis to share information with pen pals, it makes the learning process more meaningful.” Ingrid Fason of Maggie Cordova Elementary believes the project will have a lasting impact, because “My students are retaining the information they are learning about because they have the opportunity to re-learn or re-teach every time they post on their wikis.”

Our overarching goal for the program is that students understand and be able to formulate reasoned answers to The Big Water Questions – such as What is a watershed? Who are the other water users in our society? and How can I protect our water?

Check out what RiverXchange students are writing about their water resources!

What’s a Wiki?

In addition to the curriculum and coordination of guest speakers and a field trip, RiverXchange integrates a technology known as a “wiki.”  The word “wiki” is a Hawaiian word meaning “fast,” but it also refers to one or more web pages that can be modified by anyone who has permission to access the page(s).  A wiki is simply a collection of pages known as a “workspace” or “website” that can be public or private.  A well known public wiki is the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.  A wiki provides a way for multiple users to create and edit one or more pages.  In other words, information can be written and compiled collaboratively, which is an attractive feature for internal communication for many organizations.

There are important differences between a wiki and a traditional public website.  The wiki format is very simple and does not require special knowledge of HTML or website code.  The wiki administrator is able to set the level of privacy so that it affects the entire wiki, or by individual page or user.  The wiki also contains a blogging feature on each page.  A “blog” is short for “web log” and refers to a type of website or a part of a website.  The wiki blogging feature provides a way for viewers to comment on the information on a particular page.

As RiverXchange wiki administrators, we do not allow the public to access the wikis — ever!  Access is limited to teachers and students.  Teachers and students are allowed to edit individual wiki pages and blog, but they do not have administrative privileges to alter major wiki website components.

Prior to the mandatory RiverXchange teacher training in September, we will create one wiki for each class that contains a home page and individual student pages (about 30 pages total).  See sample screen shot to the left.

We will then allow each class to view its partner’s wiki.  This means all students (and their teacher) in one class will be able to read and comment on all pages of their partner’s wiki; however, we partner students one-to-one so that they will focus their attention on their own page and their pen pal’s page.  In other words, the students’ job is to write about their experiences on their own student page, and then read/comment on their pen pal’s page.

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