I haven’t thought much about pen pals since elementary school when there was a sense of mystery and excitement associated with receiving a letter from a faraway friend. Using pen pals in AP Literature has captured a bit of that fun and whimsy, all in the context of literary analysis.
Here’s how it happened: As I was planning lessons for our first novel (Purple Hibiscus, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), I knew that I wanted students to write informal responses while reading–to develop ideas, share insights, and ask questions. I also knew that I did not want to add to my always-overwhelming stack of papers to grade. Emboldened by Kelly Gallagher’s assertion that “students should be writing way more than a teacher can grade,” I decided that this work would not be handed in. And yet, my students needed to have an audience for this piece. That’s when I remembered pen pals.
I randomly assigned each person a partner to whom they would write. At three checkpoints throughout our reading of the novel, students responded to the text in a letter written to their pen pal, and we exchanged the letters in class on each of the due dates. I gave students the following guidelines:
I wasn’t sure how students would perceive the assignment. For one thing, I worried they might think it too juvenile to have “pen pal”. But after we finished the unit, I asked how many would like to write the letters again for our next novel. Not only did most–if not all–hands go up in the air, but a spirited discussion followed. This is why the students (and I) enjoyed the letter format:
- Students are focused on the process rather than the grade: “I like how it allowed for me to freely develop my own understanding of the novel, without any pressures of having to respond in a certain way for a grade.”
- Students are motivated to complete the assignment because they know their partner is waiting for their letter: “I liked that I could share my thoughts with a peer in a more intimate way and that we were able to have a rich discussion.”
- The writing can be informal; the focus is on the ideas rather than the structure. (One student even facetiously commented that he enjoyed using the Comic Sans font.)
- Students are learning from each other: “I liked how informal it was, and the fact that I was given someone else’s insight into symbolism that I missed when I read the book.”
- It creates a sense of community: “It was fun and I felt like I both interpreted more and remembered more.”
Here’s when I knew that the assignment had worked even better than I anticipated: on one of our last days with the novel, when the class participated in a Harkness-style discussion of the text, several students mentioned points that were raised by their partners in the letters.They had already been participating in a vibrant discussion around the novel, even before we sat down together to discuss.
Beth Nakamura teaches AP Literature, 12th grade English, and Journalism at Leigh High School, in San Jose, CA. She is beginning her 14th year as an educator. Her other passions include family time, monthly dinners with book club friends, and chocolate.