A University-Public School ‘Key-Pal’ Partnership


Working in a Low-Tech Environment to Create a Local Community of Learners

There is no question that today’s students must be comfortable and fluent not only in literacy and mathematical skills, but also in their understanding and use of the computer. With an increasing emphasis on accountability and high-stakes testing since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, teachers tend to concentrate on skills limited to those that appear on the tests (Gulek 2003). When technology is used for teaching literacy in the classroom within California’s rural Imperial Valley, it is often in a form that emphasizes testing and record keeping.

A challenge for teachers is to use technology not only to encourage their students to acquire discrete skills, but also in ways that are meaningful and relevant beyond the classroom. Thoughtful teachers must find time to fit technology into their crowded schedules. One way to accomplish this task is to combine topics and subjects so that they include technology applications. Literacy, when merged with computer technology, lends itself well to this mixed approach.

One example would be combining pen pals, an old technique, with the Internet to create electronic pen pals called “key pals.” There are currently only a few key-pal Web sites available, such as Teaching.com
(online at www.teaching.com) and Kids’ Space Connection (online at www.ks-connection.org), but I was interested in doing a project in the Imperial Valley to link my university students with children in local classrooms.

San Diego State University-Imperial Valley Campus (SDSU-IVC) is a small campus of 900 students in Calexico, Calif., located seven blocks from the U.S.-Mexico border. The Imperial Valley is a largely rural agricultural area, with small towns dotted throughout 4,597 square miles. Many of the preservice teachers in my classes are first-generation college students who grew up in one of these small communities, in Mexicali or in another part of Mexico. Spanish is the first language of Calexico, and it is common to hear it spoken throughout the valley.

Project Background

Teacher Education (TE) 930: The Teaching of Language Arts, the course in which this project took place, is one of two teaching of literacy courses that teacher candidates are required to take at SDSU-IVC for initial elementary certification. When I began teaching this course, I encountered students who thought that a good way to use technology combined with literacy was the Accelerated Reader program from Renaissance Learning. This was often the one way my students observed technology combined with literacy learning in their classrooms.

Accelerated Reader uses computerized tests to place students in reading levels; each level has a selection of trade books that students choose from for individual reading. After completing a book, students take a 10-question multiple-choice test to assess their comprehension. The program then provides teachers and administrators with records of what the students read and how they are progressing through the levels. It also purports to encourage an interest in reading. Another aspect of Accelerated Reader is that competition in the number of books read or levels advanced is often encouraged between students in a class, and sometimes even between classes, depending on how the program is implemented in a school.

But I wanted my students to see that there are ways other than testing and competition to use technology with literacy in order to motivate students’ literacy acquisition. After all, I asked them, how many people in the real world use their reading and writing skills for testing or competitive purposes on a regular basis?

Project Design

In the three semesters this project has taken place, my students have written to junior high and fourth-grade students. At both levels, each university student e-mailed one or two students on a weekly basis. Due to a lack of available computers with Internet access in the public schools, we had to come up with some solutions for the return messages that the public school students sent to the university students. In both cases, my students sent their e-mail to the classroom teachers’ computers. The junior high students in Ms. Gallegos’ class responded via e-mail using her computer once they had finished their regular work. In the fourth grade, students wrote back on paper and their teacher, Mr. Montoya, dropped off the letters at my office on a weekly basis.

Once correspondence was established, the preservice teachers were able to analyze the writings of their key pals in small-group and class discussions. In addition, we talked about how this type of project might be altered to suit different situations, as well as how it could impact the public school students. Throughout the semester, I kept in contact with the classroom teachers via e-mail, phone and class visits to discuss and observe how the project was working. At the end of the semester, the university students met with their key pals. The first two semesters were done on an individual basis, but for the third semester a pizza party was arranged at the elementary school during my class time.

What We Learned

Setting up your program. Over the three semesters that my students and I have participated in this key-pal program with local public school students, there are some things which we have learned. First, clear everything with principals well in advance. You might run into a snag like I did the first semester with a principal who was leery of students having access to any form of e-mail on campus. He insisted that we get district permission, which slowed down the project. Second, get permission from parents for their children to participate. Even though my students all had background checks (required for entrance into the Teacher Education program), it is important for parents to know with whom their children are corresponding.

Working with low access to technology. Even though Imperial Valley schools are relatively low-tech, we were able to make this project work. Our main stumbling block was that students are not allowed to have access to their own e-mail addresses in the public schools. While we were able to work around this as discussed above, I had really wanted all the correspondence to be online. As things worked out, by having the fourth-graders write back on paper, we obtained good writing samples to examine in class. Mr. Montoya did not correct every letter, so my students were able to see the wide range of writing and second language abilities typically found in an Imperial Valley classroom.

A few management issues. One of the most important things that I have learned about managing this program is the importance of having a colleague in the public school system who is very interested in the program and who will work with you to implement it. Ms. Gallegos and Mr. Montoya possessed these qualities, which helped make the project work.

On the university side, I suggest waiting to assign key pals until after the university drop/add period is over. It was also helpful that there were more public school children participating than preservice teachers because it allowed for some flexibility in grouping. For instance, if a student dropped the university course or a student moved away during the project, I was able to shift partners around as the need arose.

Also, make sure you keep track of who is writing. This is important because the participants on both sides get very impatient if they don’t get their mail each week. Both Ms. Gallegos and Mr. Montoya were very good about letting me know who missed sending e-mail to the public school students. As part of the project, my students were required to turn in all their e-mail and their key pal’s responses in a binder at the end of the semester. By requiring a minimum amount of e-mail to be sent out as part of their project grade, students were more likely to take the project seriously.

Finally, include a face-to-face meeting with key pals in your project design. In our situation, the pizza party with the fourth-graders worked best. We were able to do it because the university class started at 4:10 p.m., so Mr. Montoya and I scheduled a party to start at that time at the elementary school. Several of his students stayed after school (with permission), while the others came back at 4:15 p.m.; a number of them with their parents. The excitement from both the elementary and the university students was great to observe. The children and adult students were shy at first, but once key pals found each other, I had a hard time wrapping things up when it was time to go back to class at the university.

Project Reflections

During the first semester, when the future teachers were writing to junior high school students, we had difficulty implementing the program. With only one functioning computer in the class and periods lasting 40 minutes, students couldn’t send e-mail to the SDSU-IVC students every week. Despite these problems, the university students from that first semester found the project worthwhile.

Setting up a key-pal collaboration with an elementary class worked better for a number of reasons. Most importantly, because Mr. Montoya taught his fourth-graders for a majority of the day, he was able to find time for his students to read and respond to my students’ e-mail more easily than Ms. Gallegos had been able to do with 40-minute periods. And since the correspondence was regular, the university students who wrote to Mr. Montoya’s class had an even more positive experience. These students saw the value of the project for a number of reasons, and thought about how they might implement a key-pal project in their own classrooms.

We have decided to continue working together on this project, refining it as we go along. Next year, we are thinking about adding a field trip to the university campus, keyboarding skills, and at least a few electronic exchanges from the fourth-graders.


The lack of ideal technology resources in a community should not deter educators from promoting the use of informational technologies for real-world purposes. The writing partnership between the students of a language arts teacher preparation course and local public school students provided a forum in which to examine children’s writing. It also promoted connections between the university and the public school communities. Judging from the university students’ reactions, a successful aspect of the project was that it spurred the future teachers’ interest in using reading and writing with technology for a real purpose. Exchanging e-mail with young students enabled the university students to not only obtain firsthand experience with real student writing, but to also experience a way to use a common form of technology for a meaningful literacy activity in the classroom.


Gulek, C. 2003. “Preparing for High-Stakes Testing.” Theory into Practice 42 (1): 42-50.

Key-Pal Testimonials

The following our insightful comments for students who participated in the key-pal program. All of the students’ names listed below have been changed for reasons of privacy.

Victoria: “I wrote to both H. and I. on a regular basis, at least once a week. … Although this assignment did not work out as great as I had anticipated, I do see how it can work in the upper grade levels. I would definitely like to use it in my future classroom. … Students would read and see good spelling, grammar and punctuation … students can also ask college students questions about college, maybe even about college life.”

Maria: “When I went to visit them … M. and F. told me that they were the kids that the school wants to kick out, the slow learners, the students who did poorly on the tests. … At this point, I was pretty upset and many thoughts came to my mind. When I left the classroom, I realized that I am very happy for pursuing a credential in special ed. Overall, this was a great experience. It reminded me of my teenage years and how I have changed. Hopefully, I will be able to do this key-pal project when I become a teacher and have my own classroom.”

Juan, who worked at the junior high where the project was implemented the first semester, said: “I can see that the students’ writing abilities needed some practice, and this was an excellent way to get the students to practice putting their thoughts down. … I have a sense of what kind of curriculum these students have to deal with. They are constantly drilled with repetitive routines that consist of worksheets, grammar books and boring spelling lessons. … What made this program so effective is that it gave students an opportunity to use technology. E-mailing is something that is going to be mandatory in their futures, whether they are e-mailing their friends, teachers or employers.”

Denise: “All in all, I would do this again, and I look forward to instigating something like this between peers in my own classroom. I feel it will be beneficial because it will help to take the mystery out of writing.”

Nikki: “I learned a lot from my key pals. This was an excellent assignment that allowed students to practice their writing skills. My key pals had pretty good skills considering that they are second language learners … spelling words how they sound is a natural thing that happens with second language learners. Hopefully, they learned something from reading my e-mails. … I would really enjoy trying this in my classroom. I think this has been an enjoyable assignment. It has given me the opportunity to reflect on students’ actual work.”

Claudia: “I have benefited tremendously from the key-pal assignment. I have become comfortable sending and receiving e-mail. I think the concept behind the key-pal assignment can be used as a very effective teaching strategy. Reading the e-mails from my key pal has taught me a lot about his writing, what his strengths and weaknesses are.”

At the end of the semester, when Mr. Montoya and I were discussing the program he told me: “It’s working really well. I think the students like doing it because they know they are writing to San Diego State University students and they think it’s cool. Also, they like the idea of writing to people who are going to be teachers. Every week they get really anxious to get their e-mails.”

— Dr. Cecile M. Arquette

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.