Mathematical penpals…anyone interested?

I had this crazy idea the other day: mathematical penpals. Yeah, like old-school, pen-and-paper, drop-it-in-the-mailbox penpals. It’s a lost art that I think is worth reviving with our students.

The idea triggered many questions for me. Like, what would it actually be like for my students to be mathematical penpals with a group of students from another school — and possibly another city or country? What would it be like for students to write mathematically-themed letters to one another for an entire school year? Could it happen on a monthly or even semimonthly basis? In addition to some get-to-know-you stuff, what engaging and open-ended math prompts could the other teacher(s) and I come up with to ignite our students writing? How can we help elicit racial and social justice in their writing?

In addition to questions, I began thinking about the possibilities of an activity like this. I got even more excited. For starters, this penpal idea lifts up the frequently dismissed notion of formal writing in math class, humanizes it, and makes it a more interactive experience. Last year I created a book using my students’ math writings and I feel that some of these penpal letters would be great to feature in next year’s edition. Because the letters would be handwritten and delivered via snailmail, they would also add a suspenseful, yet fun, element to the class. When will the letters arrive? How will my penpal respond to what I wrote? What will they write? What did I learn about them this month?

All this, I think, also helps build connection and community across schools — especially if those schools are located in different cities or countries. The students will go from being complete strangers in September to using many personalized letters to get to know one another by June. Having a relationship evolve in that way is unique — and that’s not even considering the fact that we’re in the middle of a pandemic. Giving the historic circumstances that the Covid-19 pandemic presents us with, penpaling could provide our students a memorable way of documenting their school year. And what if we paired students of different races with each other? How could we use their letters to invite dialogue around racial justice? Maybe all their letters lead up to a big hoorah in June where we Zoom with each another and connect live for the first time. After receiving all these letters from someone you’ve never actually spoke to, what a magical moment that would be.

I’m dreaming here, I know. Sorry. But, worst case scenario, I think that having fun, one-on-one communications with a penpal might be a great way to relieve the mounds of anxiety that we all feel right now — teachers included. Plus, it’s socially distant by nature!

From a logistical standpoint, I don’t think it would take a lot of legwork to get going or maintain. The letters could be done outside of class or in a 20-minute block every two weeks or so. The students could (and should) help develop the math themes for each round of letters. Besides, they are the ones writing! And although we’d be physically mailing the letters, our schools would be paying for the postage. (This last point assumes that we are back in our buildings at least partially. If we aren’t, maybe there’s an alternative we can brainstorm.)

I know I probably sound desperate, but there’s got to be SOMEONE out there in the world of education who wants to do this with me. Despite all the uncertainty around the upcoming school year, if you’re interested and happen to read this, complete this form and let’s see if we can make math penpaling happen.


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