Saint-Didier primary school

Cycle 3 : school correspondence

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School correspondence motivates children to write. The children with less writing ability do not feel a sense of failure: every child is capable of writing a decent letter. The activity also encourages the development of certain good habits that, most definitely, would otherwise not occur spontaneously; thus, the children read over their text several times, and/or they ask the teacher, parents or another child, to check it.

The icing on the cake is the school exchange, which involves each child living with their penpal's family for a week. Because of it, the school correspondence is infused with emotion, and makes a lasting impression on every child.

What I want is for the children to come to consider writing as something fun and adventurous.

Below, I outline the different stages of school correspondence as they occurred in 2000-2001. It is the same process every year, though each year is a unique adventure.

The letters have just been handed out (November 2002).


Finding penpals

On 22 August, I started looking for a class to correspond with by reading the ads on specialist websites and placing my own.

The difficulty is finding a colleague who accepts the school exchange. After several emails, some telephone calls and some disappointments, the class received the following message:


We are the pupils of Crehen school on the coast of Brittany.

We would like to be penpals with you.

If you want, we could visit you for 5 days and you could visit us for 5 days. We will show you many things in our village!

We are 2 girls and 13 boys.

You can go sailing with us if you want, but first you have to take a test in the swimming pool.

We are very nice.

The pupils of Crehen school

My pupils :

1. were overjoyed;

2. were disappointed that there were so many boys yet so few girls (it was the opposite for us);

3. wanted to go sailing at once.

But, first of all, they had to choose a penpal.

Choosing a penpal

My pupils asked me whether, this time, the other school could introduce themselves.

It should be realised that it is very difficult to present oneself for selection... And the children cannot get out of it. It is immediately obvious that a huge task lies ahead. Thus, quite apart from its educational value, the activity also makes the children think about the penpal they would like to have, and what their imaginary penpal would want to know about them... They imagine what their imaginary penpals would think of them: this is quite a leap of awareness of oneself and of others. This then is why this solution is preferable to matching up the children beforehand.

The teacher at Crehen school, Bernard Grandclaudon, willingly agreed. A few days later, we received a parcel of letters which I distributed around the class. Time to choose! (2)

(2) : There was one less pupil at Crehen, so Bernard had told me which of the pupils at Crehen would have two penpals at Saint-Didier.

A letter sometimes looks like a booklet.

The letters come in all shapes and sizes. The children can give free rein to their imagination.

Of course, some correspondents, especially the girls, were very popular while others were neglected.

When only one pupil from my class wanted a particular penpal, no problem: he/she could start writing their letter straight away.

If there was more than one pupil who wanted a particular penpal, I asked them to write, in their turn, a letter of introduction so that their penpal of choice could decide between them. Faced with so much uncertainty, some pupils opted to play safe, by choosing one of the remaining penpals. Others immediately put pen to paper, and attempted to write the best letter possible...they had two weeks to do so.

Some of the pupils felt dejected when they were not chosen. The final pairing up occurred quite rapidly after this and the correspondence could become a 'routine'. All the children invested a lot of efforts and energy into getting to know their penpal, and the knowledge that they would live with each other for a week spurred them on even further.

Inside page of another letter

Other pages. All letters are different. The children's dedication is enormous.

Inside pages of another letter. Generally, boys would write more 'sobre' letters, but they were just as committed as the girls.

Individual correspondence

The letters from penpals are handed out as soon as they arrive. The children keep an eye out for large parcels when I am sorting the post.

After a reading period, the children express themselves. Some of them show the letter that they have received.

It is then our turn to write. From my experience, one of the potential pitfalls of this exercise is that, if left to their own devices, the children tend to repeat the same things in all their letters. To avoid this, we all put together a 'portfolio of ideas'. We think about all new things that have happened since our last letter, in the class, in the school, in Saint-Didier, in the area, in the region, in France, and in the world. I draw several columns on the board and note down their suggestions. The children copy the suggestions that they like in their notepads. They will then add what has happened to them personally, answer their penpal's questions, and ask their own questions...

The children have one week to write their draft. They can do this in class during periods for written expression, during the personal work period, or at home. Another week is provided for correction and drawings. I only correct the drafts that are left in my pigeonhole.

On posting day, we check that we have all the letters, and that every letter has the penpal's name and has been signed. The children who are particularly proud of their letter can show it to the others or post it on the board - eventually, most pupils do this. Then either a pupil or me goes to the post office.

Collective correspondence

Collective correspondence is alternated with individual correspondence. This year, the themes were: the school, the neighbourhood and surrounding area, Lyons. As with the 'portfolio of ideas', the children brainstorm different topics, then they choose the ones that they will write about, either individually or in twos. A group of children writes the collective letter, integrating the various texts into a coherent whole. It is then submitted to the class for approval.

Living with other families

The school exchange, whereby every child lives with their penpal's family, is the pinnacle of the correspondence. It enables the children to discover another region of France and to expand their horizons. This is a real journey of discovery: the children are not mere tourists; they learn that other people's houses are not the same as theirs, and also that Brittany is not like Saint-Didier with the sea!

The families also arrange meetings and invitations of their own accord, outside of the official exchange. And, eventually, thanks to our school, real relationships are forged.

Other advantages

I will not dwell on the huge benefits that children derive from the school correspondence and the exchange: motivation, intelligence in human relations (with the penpal and their family), intelligence in one's achievements (the letters and everything produced for the penpals), and intelligence in real situations.

I also want to highlight two other non-trivial advantages for the teacher. First, costs are minimised. Second, the teachers do not have to keep an eye on the children all the time. After the school, the families take charge of the children.

The risks

Essentially, it is the exchange that carries the most risks. There are objective risks: we recognise that paedophilia, physical abuse and alcoholism exist. With regard to these risks, the parents must place their trust in the teacher at the other school, more specifically, in his/her knowledge of the host families. There is also the subjective risk related to families who refuse to entrust their child to another family. In such cases, I suggest that the exchange proceed without them; over time, the positive outcomes have reassured the parents (3).

Another problem has to do with differences in socioeconomic class. Children from well-off families may live with a poor family, and vice versa. In my opinion, this is an excellent experience, and, in all cases, the children are warmly welcomed.

Another problem is broken families or step-families. From my experience, I can say that all families try very hard to show their best side to the children, and that, when a family has severe financial difficulties, neighbouring families are more than willing to take charge of excursions in the evenings and on Wednesdays.

(3) : At Crehen, it was the parents who taught Bernard Grandclaudon about school correspondence. His successor was, in turn, also initiated by the parents! In 2002-2003, the Crehen class exchanged with a class from Eyzies.

And in other years?

In 2001-2002, we corresponded with a class in Palaiseau, south of Paris.

In 2002-2003, a new adventure with the pupils of Chaux-des-Pres, in the Jura mountains.

In 2003-2004, a wonderful exchange with children from Nothalten and Blienschwiller in the Alsace region.

In July 2004, I placed ads on some specialist sites. To no avail, unfortunately.

Remi Casteres

further reading

School correspondence for children ages 5-7

This page has been translated from French by Andreas Theodorou.




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Last Update :06/26/05