Mentors Log On To Help Students Make the Grade
A revolution is afoot in the way some Americans volunteer - and Russell Smith is in the vanguard.Skip to next paragraph
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After a full day working as an educational consultant, the west Texas resident flops into his favorite recliner and logs onto the Internet. Soon Mr. Smith is busy commenting on the latest English assignments posted on the Web sites of the 25 New York City high schoolers he advises.
Call it armchair mentoring. A growing number of Americans are exploiting the 24-hour flexibility of e-mail to fit mentorships into busy lives. A software engineer in Colorado persuades a North Carolina teen to pursue math. A famous photographer in California shares his vision with an aspiring shutterbug in Alaska.
Sometimes, the students are just a town away. But mentors also cast a wide net, touching the lives of young people from inner cities to remote rural areas. All that's needed is "an e-mail address and a big heart for kids," says one convert.
Consider these examples:
* At the Murry Bergtraum High School in New York, English teacher Ted Nellen has his students put their papers on the Internet. Many long-lasting mentor relationships have sprung up as people like Mr. Smith comment on the assignments (www.bergtraum.k12.ny. us/work/html).
* 1,500 Hewlett Packard employees volunteer as e-mail mentors. The firm, which has set up a Web site to connect employees with teachers, gives them an hour a week to contribute. Many donate personal time too (www.mentor. external.hp.com).
* The Science, Engineering, and Math mentor program at the University of Delaware, matches disabled students with professionals who encourage the kids to pursue science careers (www.asel.udel. edu/sem).
The arrangements often evolve informally. Teachers and volunteers typically find each other on mentor-oriented Web sites. Many applicants are screened, although it varies from site to site. At the Electronic Emissary site (www.tapr. org/emissary), for example, interested students and adults fill out forms and are matched by site administrators at the University of Texas at Austin.
Linking children with unseen adults can raise concerns about inappropriate contacts. But Mr. Nellen, who has never had any trouble, asserts that e-mail mentorships are safer than face-to-face encounters. "Kids can simply hit the delete key" and erase the e-mail, he says. He monitors communications, and counsels the kids not to give out personal information. He steps in quickly if needed.
Nellen calls Internet mentoring "a powerful tool in education" because each of the 34 kids in his class can get personal attention. And, he says, the kids often pay more attention to their mentors than to him. These "outsiders" provide a real-world "authenticity." Besides, he quips, "Who listens to English teachers?"
Extra effort for mentors
In fact, it's quite typical for students to work harder with mentors, including those on the Internet. "The kids have a sense that it isn't just a school task," explains Janet Schofield, a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh who is studying Internet mentor programs. "It's not just something the teacher is making them do."
Few question that technology holds promise in bringing students and mentors together. But as with any exclusively e-mail encounter, the first steps can be awkward.