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