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Internet Keypals
Eight girls from New Jersey have experienced the trials and triumphs of doing Internet keypals, and have some good advice to offer the rest of us!
By Alicia M. Bartol


Even to the preteens of "Generation Tech," crossing through cyberspace to learn about geography is a fantastic experience. In the past year, nine classes from Strathmore Elementary in Aberdeen, New Jersey have learned world geography, earth science, history, and culture through interactive learning using the Internet. The students have accomplished this by participating in national and international keypal exchanges.
     Keypals are the modern e-mail version of traditional penpals. Not only do students learn together about each others' cultures and lands, but they also make faraway friends, creating an exciting new reason to read and write. The possibilities and uses for keypals depend upon the creativity and the flexibility of collaborating teachers. There is a wealth of human resources at your fingertips in the form of collaborating classrooms here and abroad.
Amanda and Rinku
Amanda and Rinku, from Strathmore Elementary.
This month, KidSpeak interviewed eight students from Strathmore to find out exactly what was so exciting about keypals. The students--Amanda, Meghan, Lauren, Rinku, Amy, Christie, Megan, and Hana--range from ages 10 to 12 and are in grades four and six. They have had experience with both penpals and keypals, and they all agree that keypals are far better than traditional penpals. As Lauren says, "I like keypals better because they get your letters faster, and it's easier to correspond. If anything happens [in the news], it doesn't take a week to get your letter, so it's neat."
The others agree. Some have written to penpals in previous years, and they can feel the difference the Internet makes. Regarding penpals, Amanda says, "Sometimes it took forever. We didn't get a letter back for two weeks and it was old news!" Speed is essential to the success of their correspondence. In addition, flexibility and planning are important.
     One aspect of this planning is timing. As experienced teachers and students can attest, it's easiest to find keypals at the beginning of the school year, or at the start of the quarter. The trick is to find out if your school begins at the same time that schools elsewhere start. For interstate or Canada-US exchanges, this is not usually a problem. However, international exchanges often need more forethought. In looking for keypals, find out more than just the school year of the exchanging school. Inquire about the entire calendar, vacations and all. Conflicting school schedules can make keypals as slow as penpals at times.
Megan and Amy
Megan and Amy had keypals in Australia!
For example, some of the Strathmore students exchanged e-mail with Palmerston School in Canberra, Australia. Canberra schools use a year-round schedule, which is different from the traditional nine-month calendar used in the United States. Year-round schedules often use a system of weeks on and weeks off, so that students may attend for a certain number of weeks and then have a two or three week vacation. Many different schedules exist around the world. Some children go to school on Saturdays; others may not attend on Fridays. All of these seemingly little details can affect the keypal exchange if the teachers don't plan for them. Many of the girls at Strathmore experienced timing-related troubles at least once in their exchange. Amanda explained that, "because they had the whole-year school, they would be on their vacation, and we would have to wait until they came back."
Once the logistics are out of the way, the excitement of meeting new friends will take over the classroom. The girls like it because "it's different," says Christie. "It's kind of weird because I'm writing to someone all the way across the world!" It's important to plan wisely so that the students can spend a little time getting to know one another.
     Amy says, "I expected to find out how their school was, if their lives were pretty similar to ours because they're a long distance away, and we'd talk about our family, our pets, if we had dogs or cats, or what sports they like to play." In fact, most of the girls wanted to know quite a lot about their new keypals. Megan wanted to know about her Australian keypal's family, and about Australian animals, while Hana wanted to know what her Inuit keypal did for fun, and what kind of games they play in the Arctic. These get-to-know-you e-mail sessions will lead to bigger and better things. Hana ended up learning about dog sledding, and the races that they do every winter in Rankin Inlet, Canada. Amanda and Meghan discovered that Canberra was not the clean, flower-covered paradise they had envisioned, and that it actually had a pollution problem.
Hana and Christie
Hana and Christie had keypals from Canada and Australia respectively.
Teachers can build on keypal relationships to suit their core curriculum by facilitating the explanation of seasonal and climate differences, time zones, political geography, the physical environment, home languages, traditional stories, music, folk art, foods, architecture, and lifestyles of the students at the collaborating school. Lauren, who had a keypal from Rankin Inlet's Leo Ussak School, learned how the Inuit deal with the harsh Canadian winter. "Sometimes, the snow gets so high that they have to use special kinds of shoes; they look like tennis rackets underneath the shoes ... and they would use dog sleds to get to school instead of buses."
The students can also investigate their own language, and learn about the languages of other regions. Meghan thought one of the biggest differences she noticed between New Jersey and Australia was that the English language is very different, even when written. Likewise, Lauren was impressed that Leo Ussak School taught Inuit as a second language, and that their Web site could be accessed in both English and Inuit. In her own words, "It was pretty neat."
Meghan had a keypal in Australia.
In fact, the Strathmore students' overall reaction to keypals was that it was very cool. Even with the normal glitches that happen when doing projects for the first time, the girls resoundingly answered "Yes!" when asked if they would like to do keypals again. Internet keypals offer students more than just an interesting break from the daily grind; they offer the possibility for cross-cultural exchange and a refreshing way to learn.