Connecting with French Language & Culture through Pen Pals

Holly Caldwell
For anyone who is new to learning a different language, hearing it spoken by a native speaker at a normal cadence might seem intimidating at first. To help assuage their fears, Madame Julie Reil guides her sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students through this process by putting their language skills to use in real world situations.
Through the pen pal program with Collège Henri Sellier located on the outskirts of Paris, students communicate via platforms such as Google Docs, where they write messages and share photos and videos of their favorite songs. To make the relationships as meaningful and individualized as possible, students are encouraged to talk about what’s going on in their lives. For example, American students described activities they did over Halloween and Thanksgiving while their French counterparts shared the details of their first extended break, which occurs annually each fall.
This program, which Madame Reil began a decade ago and has since introduced to her students at Shipley, gives students an opportunity to practice their language skills while they develop a deeper understanding of French culture that they might not otherwise learn from reading a textbook. Earlier this year, both groups shipped care packages to their pen pals on the other side of the Atlantic. Shipley students took delight in the treasures they received, like authentic French treats, cards, and tiny Eiffel Towers. And thanks to them, their French friends indulged in American classics like mac and cheese, goldfish crackers, and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.
In January, students recorded video messages describing how they spent their winter breaks. This activity not only served to expand their cultural fluency and practice using the past tense in a natural way, but it also gave Shipley students a unique opportunity to hear their French friends speak in a rapid-fire cadence, often typical of many teenagers. What seemed daunting at first was broken up into manageable chunks, as Madame Reil encouraged students to jot down only five words at a time. Bit by bit, they deconstructed the message’s main idea. Madame Reil stresses that the point of the exercise, “is not about translation, but rather, learning the fundamental tools for communicating. If they were to travel tomorrow, they could easily have a conversation with someone, in say, Tunisia.”
The pen pal program is not unique to Middle School French classes. In Middle and Upper School Spanish classes, students have been corresponding with peers from with Colegio Santa Ana, a school in Zaragoza, Spain. Middle School Mandarin students have made connections with students from No. 7 Middle School in Qingdao, China. And Shipley’s youngest Spanish learners in the Lower School will soon “meet” their pen pals from Mexico.

As students begin to develop their sense of self, they contribute to Shipley’s mission of becoming responsible global citizens by expanding their curiosity about different cultures. By forging bonds and relationships with their newfound friends, students can find commonalities with others who live an ocean away, all the while challenging themselves to put their knowledge of the target language to the test in the real world.
The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.