The first step to using epals is to create your own account as a teacher or parent at http://www.epals.com/index.tpl. You will create a profile of grade levels, ways you would like to communicate, countries and languages you’d prefer, etc. Epals will verify that you are who you say you are and you will get an approval email a few days later. Then you are free to search the profiles and forums to find your way around the site.
Last year I began using epals.com with one 3rd grade class whose teacher came to the computer lab with the kids. Between her insisting that all emails began with “Dear Thomas, (return) How are you? I am fine, thank you.” etc and me not realizing how much needed to be taught ahead of time, the project was a disaster. The simplest thing, like the ‘@’ symbol, would throw some of the kids into next week. Eventually, I got the hang of things and we limped along until the end of the year. One good thing was I had chosen a class from England so there was no language barrier.
This year, I decided to use epals with 4th and 5th grade. I sent home permission slips and received all but one back. It was very easy to create epal accounts. You have a choice of using a name that they will create your accounts from, or you can let them make the name. I chose to use the classroom teacher’s name, which in hindsight means I have to change that next year. I need to rethink what I will do, but it will probably be along the lines of their first names combined with numbers.
I searched through many many schools and countries to find the ones I wanted the kids to correspond with. I chose criteria that the students must speak English, or at least try, and about the same age level. We have emailed Turkey, Spain, Guadalupe, Mexico, Brazil, New Zealand, and many others.
When you find a school that you would like to email, there is a contact person, much like yourself, with whom you will correspond. This was key! The better established you are with your foreign counterpart, the more successful your kids’ experience will be. Let me explain…
Some of the places that I was trying to have the kids connect with had very little buy-in. It seems that the teachers had heard of epals and decided to give it a whirl, not thinking how much their epals were counting on those return emails. Many was the week or month that no email was returned from our overseas epals. Hence, the reason that all those other countries I had to contact to try to keep the original enthusiasm alive.
My most successful epal experience was with a class in Sweden. The reason we are doing as well as we are is that the classroom teacher and I became friends! It happened in an odd way; while we were setting up our kids and their epals, one of us messed up and assigned some of them incorrectly. Well, the other teacher and I ended up comparing notes about how screwy things can get, and we are now in daily communication on our own private message board. We also talk on IM all the time…so when her students owe mine some email, it’s very easy to say, “Can you get on Henrik to send Ann an email, please? She’s been waiting a long time!” and she passes along the message. I am afraid that many of the teachers, once they set up their students’ accounts, stop checking their email. This is not a good thing…
Every single email that comes into my school or goes out to the other school has to be read by the teacher. It has to be approved before it is sent on. This is VERY time consuming. I happen to enjoy sitting at my computer all night long so for me it is not such a problem, but for people with busy lives, I can see why every week might even be difficult to keep up with.
Finally, if there are inappropriate things in the emails, that needs to also be dealt with. If students move away, epals need to be reassigned, which can be sort of sad for both parties.
Will I do this again next year? Absolutely. But I will try to find out what kind of commitment the other teacher is willing to make. Also, if you choose a country without modern infrastructure, remember that dial up, slow modems, stolen equipment, etc. all combine to make some some very long stretches of time between emails.
One more thing: Other countries have very different vacation schedules than we do. They may have two weeks off when we have one. Many factors will affect the timeliness of your epal relationships.
I would suggest starting off by allowing your students to email each other. Then branch out to other classes in your school or a school nearby . Make sure the kids know their user names and passwords, although a printout of that info is easily obtained.
I’d be happy to try to answer any questions regarding epals. And if you have a 4th or 5th grade class next year that you’d like to have email Portsmouth, New Hampshire in the US, please give me a tweet or a ping!