Breaking Down the Walls: Global Pen Pals

by Julie Vincentsen, Principal, Ruggles Lane School, Quabbin Regional School DistrictWalls

“We have drastically underestimated what elementary kids can do.” This one phrase has haunted me since Alan November’s keynote at MESPA’s Fall Conference this year. More importantly though, it has inspired me to action. During his keynote, November spoke about the power of the times we are living in currently. He implored all of us to take advantage of the times instead of being complacent and teaching the way we always have. 

He spoke about how social media platforms and blogging can easily break down the walls of our classrooms and open a world of possibilities for our students. “You can learn so much from kids outside of your school,” he said. Using Ms. Cassidy’s first grade learners in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada as an example, November showed how her students are using an authentic purpose for their writing and sharing their knowledge through Twitter and their classroom blog. At the same time, they are connecting with classes across the world through those they are following on Twitter. 


Speaking to a group of over 100 administrators from the Commonwealth that consistently ranks at the top of any education rankings in the United States and around the world, he asked us to raise our hands if we had classrooms connected in this way. Less than five people raised their hand. November then asked a powerful question: “How can you possibly be world class if you are not connected to the world?”

As a result of his keynote, the Global Pen Pal Project was born. At our school, we are fortunate to have a daily 30 minute Response to Intervention period for each grade. The WINN block, which stands for What I Need Now, is a 30 minute, daily block during which all students K-6 are working in small groups based on individual needs. Some students are working on reinforcing skills, others are practicing new skills while others are working to extend new skills. Groups are flexible depending on the needs at that time in the school year.

rlscomputerchips-064I am fortunate to be able to teach a 6th grade extension group that focuses on using technology to connect with others. My first group of students named themselves the Computer Chips. This group learned to blog, to use social media responsibly by taking over our school’s Facebook and Istagram accounts, to Mystery Skype with Kansas, and to use green screen technology. Many of these skills we learned together as I had never Mystery Skyped before or used green screen technology. It was an extremely powerful experience to learn alongside these students and to break down the walls of our school community in rural, central Massachusetts!

These are the Gobal Pen Pal Project students from Barre, MA. They wanted to send this picture to their pen pals to show them how big the mound of snow is in our parking lot before the April 1st snowfall!

As we switched groups mid-year, I reviewed the notes from November’s keynote and decided to focus my work with this next group of students on his question – “How can you possibly be world class if you are not connected to the world?” At our first meeting, we talked about what we could learn by connecting with classrooms across the world. I planted a tiny seed and they ran with it! Their enthusiasm, drive and dedication was so exciting to watch! Initially, each of our five partnerships chose a continent and the goal was to connect with five schools world-wide. As our high school has an International Baccalaureate diploma program we chose to narrow our search by connecting with IB primary schools (students 3-12). We made a valiant effort emailing multiple schools across the world in the hopes of connecting. In the end, we were able to partner with one school in Bogota, Colombia – Colegio Buckingham. We have made our initial introductions and are off and running. Now that we have learned about their favorite foods and sports, I am excited to find out what our children will want to learn from each other from 2620 miles apart. The possibilities are endless now that we broke down the walls that confined us to our school house. Check out our blog – I know the kids would love to hear your thoughts on our project!

NewProfileJulie currently works as a K-6 Principal for the Quabbin Regional School District in MA. She has been a school administrator for ten years and a connected educator since 2010. She is the Chair of MESPA’s Professional Development Committee and a Board Member. You can connect with Julie on Twitter @jvincentsen or on Voxer @jvince9309. She is the moderator of the MESPAChat on Voxer – if you are interested in learning more about this engaging collaboration tool, send her an email

Are you interested in sharing your ideas, insights and questions? If so, click here to sign up for a post. Are you interested but nervous because you’ve never blogged before and don’t know where to begin? Don’t worry – as long as you know how to use Microsoft Word you will be up to this challenge. We write for our communities all the time – this just changes your audience. You probably could even take a current newsletter you’ve written and re-purpose it for your colleagues!


2 thoughts on “Breaking Down the Walls: Global Pen Pals

  1. Hello Julie, Get in touch with me at alan@novemberlearning.coom and I will try to get you in touch with IB schools around the world. I am keynoting the North American IB conference this summer and there will be schools from all over the world. We also have many IB schools who attend my summer conference in Boston in July.
    By the way, it is very impressive that you were able to inspire your students to take the lead on global connections….well done…. Alan

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Alan! I appreciate the outreach. I will send you an email this afternoon. And thank you for the positive feedback!


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