2019 Pen-Pals From Sarawak With Love (And One Nightmare!)

My students with the pen-pal letters they received from SMK Takis Papar, Sabah.
As a teacher, what would you do when you find out that a staggering majority of your students lack basic writing skills & would rather copy from their friends who have copied some random essay in the textbook? Do you, (1) call them names & blame them/their circumstances/their grandfathers, or (2) figure out how to make writing more relevant to their lives? The answer is kind of obvious, right?

In this day & age, what kind of long-form writing do people still perform? For most people, it’s emails. I could do an email exchange program for my students, but I don’t like how I’m unable to vet every reply to ensure that (1) respect was shown to the recipient, (2) effort was put into the reply, and (3) content is appropriate. The best equivalent to emails is snail mail letters. Since this was my first year at the school, I did a pilot program to see how pen-pal exchanges would work in my current context, since it worked spectacularly for my previous school in rural Sarawak.

Siti Nordiana was one of the students who put in a lot of extra effort to make their letters presentable.
So, I begun to pitch my idea to each class at school. Not surprisingly, I found out first hand that, if participation were entirely voluntary, I’d have less than 20 highly-motivated students participating. These were the handful of "pandai" students at my sports school. So, I decided to call up all of the anak-anak cikgus at school & “persuade” them to participate. In the end, 81 students from across Forms 1-5 agreed to participate in this English language program. With proficiency levels from all across the spectrum, I’d be able to observe & take note of how different students would respond to the program… & to this very demanding teacher.

Selecting an exchange partner is very important, they have to be strict with their students to ensure that the students meet the monthly deadlines, & vet every letter to ensure its quality & worthiness to bear the school name. I’m doing that myself & I do reject sub-standard submissions from my students, so I expect my partners to do the same. In that regard, Cikgu Adelyn Chin at SMK Takis Papar, Sabah, did an excellent job. Her students were of a higher proficiency level than mine, but she soothed their complaints about my students’ letters & coaxed them into writing according to their level instead of my students' & to treat this program like a writing practice.

Just like Aedelica Averil's work, I recognized my student's effort by taking a picture of them with their work & posting it with praise in the school's WhatsApp group. I promoted the kind of work that I wanted to see more of.
However, my second partner was the worst I’ve ever worked with & the first teacher to have failed the program since I started doing this in 2010. This was the first time I’ve worked with a teacher from a private institution & it’ll definitely be the last time. I don’t know the exact circumstances around the abysmal performance of the teacher & the students at Oxburgh Academy, Kuala Lumpur, but I only ever got 1 batch of letters from them. We were supposed to do 1 letter every month, but when the 2nd batch never arrived, I decided to give up on them.

That’s not the worst part, the sole batch of letters from Oxburgh were so bad, it was painfully embarrassing for me to present it to my students after enthusiastically selling them the pen pal program. Why? (1) the letters we received didn’t indicate who the recipients were, (2) participants were changed without my knowledge, (3) there was a shortage of letters, (4) students weren't keen & that was reflected in the quality of the letters, & (5) a few copied from each other. It was obvious that the teacher did not do his part in checking his students’ work, or even something as basic as ensuring that every one of my students got a letter. Honestly, it was so professionally offensive to receive such shoddy work. The biggest losers were my 40 students who missed out on a great year-long writing activity.

Jessie & Filipi made some beautiful letters too!
For those who were able to complete the program, I could see their letters increasing in length & depth, while several got really close with their partners. I will most definitely run this program again next year. But, I'll only run it for the classes I'm teaching, as it was very time-consuming for me to collect & provide feedback to students across differing classes like I did this year. I'll invite the English teachers of other classes to participate, but, even though I'm head of the English panel, I won't make it compulsory for them as they might have other engagements or commitments. Should they decide to sign their classes up for the program, I'll help them find a partner from outside of Sarawak & prepare all of the paperwork. All they have to do is make sure their students meet the monthly deadlines & produce quality work which will cause SMK Tabuan Jaya to be looked upon with high regard.

Have you run a pen pal program? Would you like to partner with me next year? Let me know in the comments!

View all photos here:  https://www.facebook.com/pg/jarodyjk/photos/?tab=album&album_id=2293555897440476

Every one of the participants from SMK Takis Papar got a certificate from my school & vice versa.


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