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Cultivating Cultural Exchange with an International Pen Pal Programme

It’s the start of term for Chatteris tutors, a time for finding your feet in the classroom, forging relationships with students, and starting exciting new schemes in your placement school. Today we’re looking at an exciting way to bring authentic English communication into your classroom.

[This article by Anna Marsland was originally posted on March 1, 2020.]

Chatteris aims to promote cultural exchange and provide opportunities for as many students as possible, regardless of their circumstances. I saw no reason why this couldn’t be extended to create involvement for UK students too. Several email exchanges, a complex Google Sheet of student volunteers, and a trip to a stationery shop later, and the Tack Ching Girls’ Secondary School Pen Pal Programme was born!

The students in Hong Kong preparing letters to send to their UK pen pals | Image by Anna Marsland

I recruited two sets of students to participate: my English Society members and a form 6 class. Directed to hand-write their letters, the Tack Ching students produced some beautifully written (and illustrated) work, which I then mailed to the two participating UK schools.

The letters themselves demonstrated a striking level of sincere curiosity about the unfamiliar students they were writing to. Generic questions of ‘What do you do at school?’ and ‘What is Darlington like?’ were outnumbered by personal enquiries about students’ tastes (musical and culinary), dreams, and culture. 

Chatteris aims to promote cultural exchange | Image by Anna Marsland

Intercultural exchanges have the capacity to open a young person’s eyes to the world around them, inspiring them to direct their curiosity towards customs and traditions other than their own.

Whilst it may be impossibly easy nowadays to discover every minute detail about another country online, this return to written communication afforded a more intimate insight into the lived experience of another student of the same age.

Comparing tastes in YouTubers and sharing the joy of K-Pop artists proved to be a more engaging way of bridging the gap between the UK and Hong Kong than anything I could achieve in my usual lessons. 

The two participating schools from the UK represent two fundamentally different types of school. One is a private school in the seaside town of Lytham St Anne’s in Lancashire and the other is a state-funded school in the large market town of Darlington, County Durham. This nuance was intentional – whilst I wanted to connect with students at my former school, the connection with the generally less privileged students aligned with the work we do at Chatteris.

Sandy with her completed letter to send to Lucy, her pen pal in the UK | Image by Anna Marsland

As such, although the pen pal programme was primarily sold on the premise of increased English exposure for the Hong Kong students, it serves as a mutually beneficial cultural exchange.

The vast majority of the participating students have never visited their pen pal’s continent, meaning their knowledge and awareness of the foreign culture they were now exploring was largely limited to parental anecdotes or news stories.

No topic was off-limits, so everything seemed to be covered – book tastes, the miserable UK weather, memes, Brexit and everything in between. The UK students also posed important questions such as ‘What is cheese ice cream?’, something that I myself have yet to get to the bottom of!

The students in Hong Kong made sure their letters were as beautiful as they were interesting | Image by Anna Marsland

The scheme was not without its logistical difficulties. Coordinating 50 students of varying degrees of language proficiency to write letters, alongside their already very demanding homework schedules, pushed back deadlines somewhat.

Some of the Tack Ching students agonised over the content of their letters, wanting to make a good first impression on their pen pals. In return, some of the UK students asked how on earth they were supposed to produce coherent letters in Cantonese.

The 2-3 week delays of airmail also meant my being greeted in the corridor once or twice a day by shy students wondering if the letters had arrived yet. 

The students in Hong Kong even included some drawings in their letters | Image by Anna Marsland

The programme so far has been well-received on both ends. As letter-writing is somewhat of an anachronism nowadays, the novelty of posting mail to the other side of the world seems to maintain a level of excitement. Since the first sets of letters were sent, my students have sent video messages to their UK counterparts and many have connected on social media. Hopefully, the addition of modern technology will help the programme establish long-lasting intercontinental friendships.

Want to foster cultural exchange like Anna? Click here to find out how you could join our team as a tutor.

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