High Tech Pen Pals
Writing Across Content Areas
How Do Student Communicate?

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 is a very hot topic, 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!

How Do RiverXchange Students Communicate?

Each class has its own private website where multiple users can create and edit pages and post videos as well as other files such as PowerPoint or Prezi presentations. The format is very simple and does not require special knowledge of HTML or website code.   Access is limited to participating teachers and students, providing a safe environment for students to practice internet safety skills and etiquette.

Each class is partnered with a class in another region of the US or world, so that students get the experience of writing to a specific audience. Students write about their experiences on their own website, and then read/comment on their pen pals’ website. Each class is also able to see all other participating classes’ websites.

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