AUSTIN - It continues to get easier and easier for people to communicate and work with people across the globe, and one Austin-based company is expanding that connection into our schools.
PenPal Schools is an Austin business that offers its services for schools around the country and allows students to work on coursework with other kids around the world. Teachers are provided with projects that teachers in other countries are provided with, then students are matched up with other students who become their pen pals. These students will spend about a semester getting to know their pen pals while also doing assignments with them as well.
Jessica Altonian, community manager for PenPal Schools, has been working with the business for a couple years. She said PenPal Schools' main objective from early on hasn't changed much through the years.
"It started based on the idea of connecting kids to one another," Altonian said. "We want them to talk to each other about the things that they're learning and build knowledge together."
These classes are offered for students from ages 8-18, including some Austin third graders who are taking advantage of these online courses. Gary Kolenbrander -- or more commonly known as Mr. K by his kids -- has been teaching for almost 20 years, including right now at the Not Your Ordinary School Charter School in Austin. He has a background filled with a lot of travel and appreciation for other cultures.
"I actually taught in South Korea for 12 years," Kolenbrander said. "I taught English as a second language. I learned to adapt and adjust to new places and things. That was something that I grew to love. Traveling is a way I think to broaden your soul and your mind."
While Kolenbrander's kids can't physically travel around the globe, his third graders' pen pal classes offer a unique outlet to let them, in a way, travel through conversation.
"Early exposure to this sort of thinking is going to have benefits down the road, Kolenbrander said. "It helps them grow in those domains that we see as being so important to emotional maturity."
Altonian sees this type of expanded communication as something that will eventually become more normal than most people realize.
"This is the world that they're already in and that they're already engaging in," Altonian said. "Talking to people in Turkey, Argentina, Canada or wherever these students' pen pals are from creates authentic engagement. We don't just learn about business happening around the world. We partner with them, work with them and create something together. These kids are getting a glimpse of that."
As of June, PenPal Schools has connected more than 100,000 students in 170 countries. All the courses available as of now are free for teachers to use. Beginning this summer, though, there will also be premium classes that allow teachers and students to take advantage of even more content. To learn more about PenPal Schools, you can visit their website at penpalschools.com.
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