Mentoring and the Internet, by Ted Nellen
Drive down many highways in America and you are apt to see a sign indicating that the section you are driving on has been adopted by some local community organization like the Lions Club, the Boy Scouts, or a local business. Take that concept and apply it to education and you have a unique collaboration between two people: mentor and pupil.
In the fall of 1995, I received email from Kathy Casper. Ms. Casper runs InfoQuest Business Services which provides information to and for the business community via listservs and professional Internet services. She created the Adopt-A-Student page which featured our students as students who could be adopted by her readers. She had seen our school Web site and was impressed with what our students were doing with the Internet in our Cyber English class. Our students were using the Internet to do research for their essays which were then published on the Internet on their individual Web pages. She immediately recognized the power of such a medium in education and offered her services. Her services included free publicity for our site and mentors for our students. The mentors came from the HTML Writers Guild community.
Every fortnight, she would highlight ten of our students on her Adopt-A-Student page. These ten students would immediately receive mail from her readers. Their comments ranged from HTML guidance and criticism to grammar and spelling corrections to advice on writing. The kids were amazed at first that people other than their own teacher would read their work let alone be interested in it and like it. Some mentors even asked for the student's advice. This alone made the Adopt-A-Student program very valuable. Knowing that people really were reading their work made my students all the more careful with what they published on the Internet.
When Ms. Casper first introduced our students on her Web page, I remember receiving email from one rather irate woman, an ex-teacher, one Friday night. She was rather upset with me for allowing my students to publish such error-filled work on the Internet. She continued by pointing out to me some of the rather bad work the students had published. I wrote back thanking her for her concern and telling her that I agreed with her. I explained that I had tried to get the students to make the necessary corrections to their work. I explained how they did not see the value of this, since no one was going to be reading the work anyway and that they honestly didn't think people really cared about such things. I told her that I, too, was upset with their work, but the plan was to publish and if we stayed at the editing process too much longer, nothing would get published. I challenged her to assist me in the editing process. I thought that would be the last I would hear of her. I was wrong.
Monday morning, it hit the fan. When the kids logged on to read their email, I immediately heard outrage and anger from many of the students. "What is wrong? Why are we so noisy, this morning?" I asked.
"Some lady has written and has asked me if I know how to spell?" Exclaimed one student.
"I got email from a lady, too, who said I needed to work on my sentence structure." Chimed in another student.
"I was told that I should be more careful when I proofread." Added yet another student.
This went on for a good ten minutes. Once the dust settled, I was able to ascertain that our weekend visitor had written to the ten highlighted students and a few more as well. Her email first commended them for their efforts and then pointed out their writing mistakes and weaknesses. She was very thorough and comprehensive. Immediately the students began the arduous task of editing and correcting their work. This time, they asked for my guidance and for help from their peers. All of a sudden my nonchalant students of last week became conscientious writing students this week. This ex-teacher had in one weekend provided the spark that I could not produce to get my students serious about editing. She was a godsend.
The students were excited. They had an audience that gave honest feedback.
Another student, Amy, received six mentors in a two week period. These mentors came from all over the world. Why so many to one student? Amy had provided a great deal of despair in her "I am" piece. Her plight touched many. Her work was filled with typical mistakes a non-native speaker of English might make when writing. She was honest and revealing about her feelings. She was receptive to all of the attention and grew strong as a result. This episode showed me the power of a project such as Adopt-A-Student.
I will never forget the morning that Tati received email from her mentor. He had complimented her on her academic and intellectual skills, but then discussed in-depth her writing weaknesses. He cited specific instances in her work and then offered suggestions. She was aghast. "How dare this guy talk like this about my writing. He isn't even an English teacher, Mr. Nellen." She shouted across the room. His next email message was a grammar assignment he created from her work. She asked me if I put him up to this since this was my method to use the student's work to generate grammar lessons. I assured her I did not know her mentor or ask him to do this. She completed the assignment and corrected her work.
This was the typical reaction Monday mornings as more students were adopted over the following weekends. Mentors would spend the weekends reviewing the students' work and email them about their work. The students who were not adopted anticipated their adoption. Eventually all of the students were adopted and, in many cases, by more than one mentor.