A revolution is afoot in the way some Americans volunteer - and Russell Smith is in the vanguard.
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.
Take Tati Diaz, a bright, ebullient 12th-grader in the New York high school. Her mentor, Donald DeMan, is a real-estate appraiser in Melbourne, Fla. Mr. DeMan, whom Nellen recruited on the Internet, was eager to help, because he says he's "appalled at the state of education in this country."
In his first e-mail to Ms. Diaz, he took a tough line: "I can tell by your home pages that you have a good base to build upon, yet you lack the self-discipline and perhaps the confidence needed to do quality work. You may think it doesn't matter but I assure you it does."
"I was so shocked," Diaz says with an indignant smile. "I was like, how dare this man!" But soon the two found common ground. They both have a passion for the "Dune" science-fiction books. He was a finance major in college. She's an accounting major.
DeMan encouraged her to write drafts of her papers. "I told him I didn't like rough drafts," she recounts. "But he told me I had to organize my thoughts. He said I have to be consistent." Soon she began rewriting already complete papers.
Then in one e-mail he wrote: "I liked your composition. Well done!"
"That meant a lot to me," she beams. "I worked hard for that."
When Diaz's English class ended last spring, she and DeMan lost touch. Neither ever knew much about the other. "I came on strong, and ... she improved, that's the important thing," DeMan says.
Targeting key interests
One key to successful mentoring is leveraging a student's interests. Sitting in her office cubicle in Boulder, Colo., Mary Jones got connected to a troubled high-schooler in rural North Carolina.
This Hewlett Packard software engineer and mother of three had a tough task. The student, whose name Ms. Jones prefers not to use, was described by her teacher as shy, not gifted, and afraid of computers. With gentle encouragement and a touch of humor, Jones waded in.
She asked what the girl wanted to do after high school. "Open my own jewelry store," came the reply. It was the perfect opening.
"If you're going into business, you're going to have to know how much to charge, and how much profit you're making," Jones wrote. "Math helps you figure this out."
She also encouraged her to write more clearly, "so when you want to buy gold chains from a business in India, you can write a formal request." Before working with Jones, the girl rarely smiled or talked in class. Now she was the resident expert in computer class - because she could ask her mentor tough questions. Her grades soared - from D's in English and math to A's and B's.
Mentors can also give career advice. Alex Kopperud, a senior at Colony High School in the remote town of Palmer, Alaska, had mulled over a career as a lawyer. "But if I could do what I really wanted, I'd be an outdoor photographer," he wrote his mentor.
"Hey, you don't have to compromise," came the reply from David Neils, a Hewlett Packard employee in Fort Collins, Colo. With Mr. Neils's help, Kopperud is putting his pictures from a trip to Mt. Marcus Baker on the Internet.
Neils also got Kopperud to write to two prominent photographers, Gaylen Rowell and George Weurthner, who agreed to offer advice.
"I was amazed they would sit down with a grubby little Alaskan like me," Kopperud says.
For Neils, that was a great reward: "A student's life is different on the other side of the planet because I took 12 minutes a day."