Bilingualism, among its many other benefits, “unlocks” the world for our students. Growing up speaking both French and English, they are better able to access both anglophone and francophone countries and cultures across the globe. To take advantage of these linguistic abilities, teachers in some of our Pre-K and Kindergarten classes at our Jersey City and Englewood campuses have established written correspondences with schools in France. Through these exchanges, students learn more about daily French life, learn to talk about their own lives and cultures, and share gifts and photos with their overseas peers.
How do the pen pal programs work?
At least 3-4 times each school year, our classes send and receive collectively written letters to the schools they’ve connected with in France. (In Vanessa Detosse’s class, letters are sent via email.) Learning about letter writing and participating in collective story-telling are both important skills that are introduced in Pre-K4 and Kindergarten. The students work together to decide what information about themselves they’d like to share, dictating to the teachers. They compose questions for their correspondents and answer questions that may have been asked of them.
Introduction letters between Vanessa’s Pre-K4 and their Parisian pen pals
Sparking curiosity and raising awareness
One of the first things our teachers and their counterparts in France send is photos of the students. Teachers report that viewing these photos sparks a great deal of interest and curiosity about these children overseas. Who are these kids, and what are their lives like? There is an instant sense of connection and commonality. Likewise, the letters exchanged are rich with opportunities for class discussion. Students learn and share information about the foods they eat, activities they engage in at school, the kinds of places they live, and the sorts of things they do for fun. Exploring the differences and similarities between our lives here and those overseas helps children construct their own identities and build empathy for others.
Our pen pals exchange collectively written letters and photos, but also cultural artifacts and information about the celebrations that mark our respective school years. Learning about French traditions like la galette des rois and la Chandeleur from FAA teachers is interesting, but seeing photos of their French pen pals enjoying the celebrations adds depth and meaning to their understanding.
In French schools, students may have heard of Halloween, but the photos of our school-wide celebrations can bring it to life. Valentine’s Day, which is a romantic occasion for adults in France, is a popular children’s celebration in many American schools, so naturally our French pen pals got to receive American valentines for the first time. Students also share information about the topics they’re studying, and send examples of class project work.
Pauline’s Kindergarten working collectively to prepare a letter to send to France.
A deeper bond through shared experiences
FAA teachers and their counterparts sometimes coordinate lessons and activities so that their students enjoy the same experience. Vanessa’s class and their pen pals recently learned the story of the gingerbread man, read the same book, and prepared the same recipe to enjoy. Then, during recess, both the American gingerbread man and the one in France escaped, leaving nothing but crumbs and a note. Both groups of students had to hunt for their gingerbread men, eventually discovering that they ran away to see the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower, respectively. The students were delighted to find out that each group’s gingerbread man escaped! The same group was also able to organize a video call, during which they sang French and English songs, showed off their classrooms, and discussed differences between their school days.
Through pen pal exchanges, the francophone world opens up even more for students, as they use French to communicate in meaningful ways. Discovering other children of the same age who speak the same language sparks interest, empathy, and a desire to connect. It’s a lesson for our students that though we live across the ocean from each other, and might eat different foods and celebrate different holidays, we are more alike than we might think, and it’s a pleasure to make new friends!
This letter from France, with photos of the pen pals and their school, decorates Bénédicte’s kindergarten classroom.