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E-Palling Around

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A student-only e-mail service is providing academic benefits and opportunities for cultural exchange for kids from all over the world.

E-Palling AroundJIM MORRISON OF THE DOORS SANG, "People are strange when you're a stranger." If the logic of Morrison's lyric is true, then it could also be said that once people are no longer strangers-- once a personal connection is made-- that initial strangeness transforms into understanding. Teachers across America are proving as much with their adoption of SchoolMail, an application from ePals that connects US students with pen pals on almost every continent, preparing them for an ever-global society in which cultural understanding and fluency will give them an edge.

Founded in 1996, ePals is a pioneer of student e-mail services. With SchoolMail, the company currently reaches about 13 million teachers and students across 200 countries and territories. Confined to and tailored specifically for student use, SchoolMail complies with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, the Children's Internet Protection Act, and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act standards. Through partnerships with organizations and businesses like the National Geographic Society and Intel, ePals is able to offer the application for free. Unlike general, advertiser-supported free e-mail services, though, ads from the company's partners never appear in students' e-mails. Tim DiScipio, ePals' co-founder, realizes the importance of reducing students' exposure to advertisements and carefully selecting the company's partners. "We've talked to teachers whose students access educational websites that feature candy bar ads," he says. "That's not where we're going. We're looking for educationally relevant sponsors and foundations."

Designed for K-12 students from the moment they can type and spell until the time they graduate from high school, SchoolMail operates in the same way and has the same interface as any ordinary e-mail service. Its uniqueness is in the control it provides educators, who can adjust protections and access settings according to the different needs and ages of their students. Teachers can monitor all incoming and outgoing e-mail; block or regulate attachments; limit correspondence to certain classrooms or students; or, if administering the application to a particularly responsible group of older high school students, remove all safeguards so that it can be used like standard e-mail.

Candace Pauchnick has found SchoolMail to be an indispensable tool in teaching her sociology students at San Diego's Patrick Henry High School about other cultures. For the past four years, Pauchnick, who also teaches English and psychology, and Yaodong Chen, a professor at Guangxi University of Technology in Liuzhou, China, whom Pauchnick met through the ePals' website forum, have teamed up to connect their students via e-mail exchanges, giving both groups firsthand knowledge of each other's culture.

Pauchnick says that the effect of writing to students whose knowledge of English is limited has provided the additional benefit of improving her students' writing skills. She sets their accounts up so that their emails are routed through her, so she can ensure that the content of each message is appropriate and coherent before it is sent. Pauchnick insists her students write with correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation, and forbids the use of texting slang. "These students in other countries are learning English, so my students essentially become teachers of English," she says. "That, coupled with the fact that they're writing to a peer and not a teacher, makes the impact so much more potent."

To demonstrate how corresponding via e-mail with their peers worldwide can broaden students culturally, Pauchnick spent a semester with one sociology class communicating with Chen's students via SchoolMail, while a second sociology class used library and internet materials to learn about Chinese culture. After surveying both classes, Pauchnick found that "the students who had used ePals became more 'ethno-relative,' meaning they saw a lot of value in other cultures, whereas the other students kept themselves more ethnocentric-- [believing] their culture is the superior culture."

Even though they used approved websites and sources for their research, the students who did not gain direct knowledge of the topic through e-mail correspondence reported many myths and misunderstandings about Chinese culture as fact. Meanwhile, some of the SchoolMail students who were at first apprehensive about communicating with students in a communist country quickly gained a new perspective. "Once they started getting letters back from their pen pals," Pauchnick says, "they realized that they have more in common than not in common. And then they started noticing things about their culture that they wish were present in our country."

She says the students who only researched Chinese culture didn't have the same interest in the subject as the students who used ePals because they lacked a personal connection to it. They didn't seem to care about the information as much. The students who gained knowledge of the culture through e-mailing became attached to their Chinese pen pals and grew much more interested in what they were learning.

"The biggest advantage here is the contact with other ways of thinking. This experience goes way beyond practicing the language."

Pauchnick and Chen use ePals' companion to SchoolMail-- SchoolBlog-- to create a forum for their students to converse as a group, rather than one-on-one. Both teachers encourage their students to post questions to the blog, answer other students' questions, and share ideas. The forum has sparked cross-class discussions on subjects as diverse as religion, fashion, women's rights, and tattoos and piercings.

Cultural exchange has also been French teacher Bruce Leslie's purpose in using SchoolMail for the past 10 years to connect his secondary students at Riverdale Country School in Riverdale, NY, with students in France and Quebec, as well as French-speaking students in Belgium, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Russia. "I'm specifically interested in breaking down barriers as much as I am language, which is why I reach out to non-Francophone countries," he says.

Leslie has his students write their initial e-mails in French. Once they've established a relationship, he encourages them to continue writing on routine topics in French while sharing more personal experiences in English. "The biggest advantage here is the contact with other ways of thinking," Leslie says. "This experience goes way beyond practicing the language."

SchoolMail can work with younger students as well. Second-grade teacher Kate Ryder came across the application while looking for a project that would fulfill the Louisiana Region V Teaching, Learning, and Technology Center's Making Collaborative Connections program, designed to expose elementary school students to students in other local schools, counties, and states. Ryder and her fellow second-grade teachers at LeBleu Settlement Elementary in Lake Charles, LA, went further and used SchoolMail to link their second-graders with kids at Pomphlett Primary School in the UK. Ryder introduced her students to cyber etiquette and the various parts of an e-mail (subject line, address, etc.), and had them send e-mail back and forth with their classmates. Even for technology novices, it was a snap. "It didn't take them long at all," she says.

Ryder observed that her students' enthusiasm for the project leaped once they started receiving replies from the Pomphlett students. "They couldn't believe that they were really communicating with students on the other side of the world. They loved it."

Even though both classes spoke English as their native language, the differences between American and British English became apparent through the correspondences. Ryder and her British counterpart, Jo Churchill, set up the students' ePals accounts so that the messages would be sent to the teachers' inboxes first, allowing them to read the e-mails and clear up any terms that might confuse their counterparts across the pond. Says Ryder, "Churchill would send me a note with their e-mails that said, 'In this batch they say "football," but that's soccer. When they say "confections," they mean candy.' I'd do the same for her."

Even in second grade, not all of Ryder's students were new to e-mail. However, those students who already had internet access and e-mail accounts at home began logging in to their SchoolMail accounts with their username and password outside school to e-mail their British pen pals.

"Some of the kids had Yahoo! accounts and things like that, but they're so full of ads," Ryder says. "It's hard to navigate for them. SchoolMail is so easy for them because there are no extra ads and there's no extra stuff on the screen. They can focus on their e-mail."

Jennifer Demski is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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