I have a confession. Very few of my middle school French students are excited to write for me. I get it - that’s what they do in every class, all day long. And I try not to take it personally – I’m just not an enticing audience to them. But what if they were writing to a peer in a French-speaking country? I have been astonished to observe some of my reluctant writers, as well as students who rarely complete work outside of class, rally to communicate with their ePals. If you’ve heard Laura Terrill’s adage that the most successful students on a language exchange are those C students who aren’t afraid to make mistakes, extend that logic to an ePals exchange. Sure, it’s not as grand as a two-week trip to Paris, but ePals have allowed my students to play video games against one another across the Atlantic, chat weekly on Instagram, and even try to meet up while traveling abroad. ePals are a relatively straightforward route to authentic communication, with an authentic audience, for an authentic purpose. Here are some basics if you're considering a communication exchange in the future, or if want to enhance the one you've already got in place.
How do I get started?
ePals is a free website where teachers can find collaborating teachers with whom they’d like to plan a communication exchange or other project. For my situation, I sought out English teachers in France who had similar numbers and ages of students. If you’re familiar with Facebook, the interface is similar: you create a basic profile about your teaching setting, “friend” the teachers you want to connect with, reach out to them via a messaging function on the platform, and wait to hear back. It took me less than a week in late August to find two teachers who were ready to embark on a year-long communication exchange with my 5 sections of French 7 and 8 students. As long as you sync your search with the school calendar of teachers in the target culture, it should be easy to find partners.
Don’t be afraid to be picky. My first year, I agreed to have my 8th graders exchange with a younger class because I was so relieved to find an interested collaborating teacher. BIG mistake. Writing to 11-year olds was not cool enough for them, and their pop culture preferences were mismatched. I would have done better to wait for Monsieur or Madame Right before committing to an exchange. Also, if you’re bent on using tech, make sure you mention that when reaching out. Most French classes can only access technology by visiting a computer lab, so communicating exclusively via Internet will limit the frequency of your exchanges. Committing to an all-snail mail exchange, on the other hand, will be slower and costly. I suggest doing at least one round of old-fashioned letters so that students can compare handwriting and experience the excitement of a package arriving via the post The rest of the time, if you can get your collaborating school up to speed with the tech, save time and money with online communication.
Initially, I ran my exchange separately from the thematic units that we were studying in class. Then I got an idea for how to use ePals to deepen a unit theme from Natalia DeLaat on #langchat. She had her U.S. students describe how they celebrate Thanksgiving by posting short videos on a Padlet. French students watched the videos and posted their questions about this cultural practice. It is so powerful and motivating to build on course themes via authentic communication! Natalia's example inspired me to weave ePals more tightly into my curriculum. This past year, for example, my students polled their ePals and their classmates about their style preferences and spending money, and then analyzed and compared their findings as part of a unit on shopping and money. They shared their winter holiday traditions and learned about those of their ePals (see below). Their ePals wrote to them about “mystery” remarkable women from around the world, and my students tried to guess who they were (see below). Each of these exchanges gave students the chance to communicate with an authentic audience, and thereby to engage in intercultural communication via interaction.
Above, examples of Google Forms data generated from a student-written poll about shopping and spending money. Below, examples of Padlet communications. Below left, French students described remarkable women for my students to guess. Below right, my students described how they celebrated the winter holidays and French students responded with questions about their practices.
Google Docs (for sharing letters), Google Forms (for polling) and Padlet (for posting anything where we wanted a response) were our principle tech tools for the exchange, and next year I hope to take advantage of Flipgrid now that it’s free of cost, too.
For today’s students, I found it important that there be a strong visual component to any online exchange. Just looking at a block of text left students a bit cold, as compared with times where they could see photos/video of their ePal.
Why should I try it?
When I made the switch from traditional assessments to performance assessments, I felt most comfortable with assessments in the presentational mode because they were the most familiar to me. Although I’d been giving publisher-written unit tests for at least a decade, my students had also done plenty of projects: a fashion show, a famous French person cocktail party, a poster about one’s favorite sport, baking Alsatian bredele from French metric recipes, etc.
Then I heard a question (likely from Thomas Sauer at MaFLA Proficiency Academy) that made me stop in my tracks: “Who gets to see your students’ work besides you?”
Well…no one! I mean, sure, students did a little peer reviewing before submitting their final projects, but basically every project was for my eyes only. And while I often subjected students to listening to every classmate’s presentation (with apologies to my middle school students 1998-2013), they didn’t really need to do anything with what they heard – other than take notes on a grid. Which was basically a classroom management tool to keep them quiet while their classmates droned on and on. What was I thinking!?
To sum up, my old projects shared the same weaknesses:
• Lack of authentic audience
• Lack of audience purpose
While there are many ways to infuse presentational tasks with authenticity, and I hope to learn more ways this summer when I attend the Buck Institute for Education’s PBL (Project-Based Learning) training, I suggest trying ePals as a relatively simple way to add authentic audience and purpose to every presentational task you do throughout the school year. Why bother to describe your home? Why say how you spent February vacation? Why explain how much allowance you get? One compelling answer can be to share personal experiences with French students, and to learn about French perspectives from actual peers today! This learning can then be extended into a follow-up interpersonal task, or an authentic video/reading on the theme, etc.
What else do I need to know?
• Each school system has its own policy about communication exchanges, so you’ll need to work with your administration and/or technology department to devise an appropriate permission slip. In my district, for example, we made it clear that we were not responsible for communication that took place outside established channels (eg via social media), and that families needed to decide if they would allow their children to share their social media handles with their ePals.
• French schools have an elaborate calendar of many long vacations, so time your communications to avoid extended wait times between exchanges whenever possible. October, December, February, and April are particularly challenging for this reason. Think about using French vacation periods to have your students create something to share – and letting the French students generate their work during the months when they are mostly in school.
• Be ready for some bumps along the road. Everything takes longer than you think it will, and while you’re waiting on those two last posts from students who’ve been out sick, time will pass. Sharing permissions on tech tools and different file formats can be tricky across continents. At times you will need to be tenacious in reaching out to your collaborating teacher in order to make the next exchange happen. And at times, you may drop the ball and will receive a nudge from him/her. All in all, though, I hope you will find that ePals gives your students a powerful reason to produce language for peer consumption.
For those of you already engaged in communication exchanges, what are your tips and tricks for success? Please share them below in the comments section!