When Tracy Edwards posted on Facebook last October that she was searching for a part-time writing instructor for a middle school program, Kip Glazer jumped immediately at the chance.
But Glazer wasn’t applying for herself. Instead, she envisioned her 100 senior high school English students, who were about to become virtual writing mentors to 200 6th-graders halfway across the nation.
“I require them to do peer-to-peer editing, but I wasn’t quite getting the results that I wanted” when seniors helped other seniors, said Glazer, who found Edwards through a Facebook group created for online graduate students of educational technology at Pepperdine University. Both women are students in the program.
“When [Edwards] said ‘6th grade,’ I felt like this could really work,” Glazer said.
So far, her students at Independence High School in Bakersfield, Calif., have appeared invested. Since late November, each student has mentored five 6th-graders enrolled in the Digital Youth Network’s social network-based writing curriculum digital at three separate Chicago charter middle schools. That ratio allows every 6th grader to receive advice from multiple mentors.
Glazer’s two sections of AP English Literature and Composition and two sections of California's college-prep-focused Expository Reading and Writing Course spend one class period weekly in a
computer lab responding to a range of assignments the 6th graders post on the cloud-based iRemix platform. The platform allows for varying levels of privacy, including blog posts and forum discussions that can be viewed by every teacher and student, and more private notebooks that are only accessible to the 6th grade writer, his or her 12th grade mentors, and teachers.
Glazer’s students then switch from mentor to student in a separate Edmodo online classroom community and discuss their successes and failures as mentors. A sample of their thoughts:
- Breanna S.: It's tough for me to explain their error. I know how to fix their sentences, but I actually had to google why it should be changed. It adds more of a challenge and it helps me remember grammar rules. To be honest, I am worried that I will give them wrong information, but I always try to double check.
- Mavee P.: I found this particularly difficult to provide constructive feedback[,] instead of strict criticism[,] while remaining encouraging. In addition, the balance between too formal and laid back was a constant problem in my comments.
- Lisa H.: I am used to just blatantly pointing out errors because I know my peers won't be offended and can handle constructive criticism. Now I have to put more thought and creativity into the feedback so I won't hurt the kids' feelings. Some of these kids talk about personal things like the death of their family members or worrying about gangs and getting shot, and I wish I knew how to address these topics while still pointing out their errors.
That mutual feeling of concern is ultimately a good thing, said Glazer, who added that it has translated into a heightened awareness of their own writing strengths and weaknesses.
Edwards, meanwhile, said that despite their mentors' concerns about upsetting the 6th graders, their advice has been received better than it might have been from more traditional sources.
“It's actually a lot more powerful than we tend to think it is, because kids tend to value other kids' feedback a bit more than their parents', teachers', etcetera,” Edwards said.
As the students shift into the role of mentor, teachers' roles also change.
The 6th-grade teachers involved, Edwards said, are still ultimately responsible grading students' finished product, and also respond to student work on the iRemix platform. But the quality of the feedback from 12th graders, in general, has been good enough that Edwards said teachers' most important role might be to help their own students push past their initial shyness or hesitance to work with a stranger on the other side of the country.
“Their role initially was to build that community,” she said.
Glazer said she focuses on regularly modeling and discussing the meaning and practice of responsible mentoring.
“Students will say, 'What do I do when I see five sentences and every sentence has some kind of error?'” she said. “Now I step back and say, 'What do you think I should do? If you were me and I was your student, what would you like me to tell you?'”
Glazer also admits there are some necessary conditions to implement a successful virtual mentor-student relationship:
- Distance: Glazer said the vast geographical divide between the two sets of students is a benefit and perhaps a necessity. For one thing, it's easier to enforce a strict ban of any extraneous social contact between mentors and students outside of academic work. And it spurs students' curiosity to learn more about each other during academic activities.
- School culture: Service and community are familiar themes at Independence High School, helping to make Glazer's project more attractive to students, she said. “They naturally understand helping and the benefit of it, and I don't have to sell it too much,” Glazer said. “But I can see how that would be difficult” in schools without that culture, she added.
- Time: Glazer said the project is a better fit with seniors because of their freedom from state standardized testing. And she says students in her two sections that are studying California's state-constructed Expository Reading and Writing Curriculum have been more invested than her two sections of Advanced Placement students. “They have more emotional allowance right now,” Glazer said. “They have decided that either they are going to go to state schools or community colleges, so they have a little more time and they're much more invested in picking up that skill.”
- Technology access: Because Independence High School was built within the last decade, Glazer said technology is accessible enough that securing the computer lab weekly hasn't been an obstacle. And the school's allowance for the use of mobile devices has helped the mentors' ability to respond to the Chicago students' posts in a timely manner. That said, Glazer also enjoys the focus a computer lab provides, as opposed to working on the virtual mentoring project in their normal classroom using a laptop cart.