Technology Integration

The Power of eMentorship in Student Literacy: An Interview with Nina Zolt

July 1, 2011

Sometime ago, I wrote a blog for Edutopia that chronicled the equation of student success as being dependent on three necessary elements: students, teachers, and family. I believe now, as I did then, that all three variables must work together in order for our students to achieve. But I recently began working with someone who is slowly convincing me that even those three groups need the support of one more: the community.

Credit: Nina Zolt

A couple of months ago, an online colleague introduced me to Nina Zolt, the co- founder of ePals, the world's largest secure K-12 social learning network. ePals connects more than 700,000 educators and 25 million students and parents in 200 countries and territories. Nina is a woman dedicated to effectively deploying technology to improving education. While working with her, we have spent many a Skype-hour talking about our shared passions: Speech and Debate, Shakespeare, and historical fiction to name a few; and we've stumbled on our own debates as well.

Anyway, as it turns out, ePals is all about this equation, because each variable has an outlet for collaboration on the site, and because of this, the equation as a whole is somehow more supported.

In other words, there are places on the site where teachers get to collaborate with teachers, students get to collaborate with students, and teachers and students get to collaborate with eMentors. Now, this eMentor concept was the one I was the least familiar with, and the one I had the most questions about as a teacher, hence the occasional debate. But as she spoke, I understood more and more that the involvement of the community is a key variable in the equation. And many of us within education have allowed the wall to be built wide and tall around our schools, blocking out those outside willing enough to help us within.

We talk a lot in schools about wishing we were somehow more supported by our communities, but schools also need to be more encouraging of that relationship. To address this, Zolt envisioned, and made real, In2Books, ePals' flagship literacy program. In a nutshell, In2Books selects a carefully screened volunteer, let's say a business exec from AOL, and pairs that professional with a student to discuss books through letter writing that is teacher-guided and teacher-approved. It's as simple as that. It's book buddies brought into the 21st Century.

What this does is allow someone to become easily involved with aiding a particular teacher and a specific student, and that can have a tremendous impact in a child's learning.

Anyway, I thought I'd sit down with Nina and ask her a few specific questions about the value of eMentorship and its role in student achievement:

Credit: Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Edutopia: Aren't my guided discussions within the classroom or those between students rich enough? Why add a layer of discussion between students and adult volunteers from outside the classroom?

Nina Zolt: I think, when it comes to academic discussions, more is more. Building in eMentors into a classroom accomplishes four things:

1. Students are more motivated to learn when it's real. eMentors help students realize that adults like to learn in their everyday lives, and they model intrinsic motivation.

2. Caring adults provide individualized attention and encouragement. There is growing recognition that students, especially those in low-income environments, need more caring adults in their lives for encouragement, guidance, and as role models.

3. The adults in our program model good reading and writing skills. Our volunteers represent all 50 states, world-class corporations, and civic groups. In addition to raising standardized test scores, In2Books provides another avenue for practicing language arts skills which no students can have too much of.

4. Corresponding with adults helps students learn more about the world beyond their neighborhood. Having an eMentor provides a safe window into what adult careers and life are like. Also, students get to correspond with successful people in professions they might otherwise not get to experience during their whole life.

What do you think an eMentor needs to have to be a good match for a student?

That's easy. In our case, a great eMentor likes to read children's books, wants to share that love of reading, wants to make a meaningful difference in a child's life, and can meet teachers' deadlines. That last one's important so the teacher's job isn't made harder. If you look at the list of our volunteers, you'd see that we attract extraordinary people who want to support children but who just can't commit to an in-person schedule. Many of our eMentors are busy executives, college students, retirees, or people with disabilities.

So many people want to help our schools but don't know how or don't feel they have the resources. We give them no excuse not to support our schools. The program is set up to make volunteerism easy and involvement truly supportive of what the teacher's already doing.

I've heard you call this model a collaboration between teachers and community. How so?

OK, so the teachers conduct their lessons as they normally would, guiding the students in recognizing great elements of literature. But, students demonstrate their learning by responding to their eMentors' discussions about the books, so the letters become transparent assessments. Their eMentor responds, using the training and resources that In2Books provides, and in so doing, makes the student want to write again. It creates an enthusiasm for writing, an authentic way for teachers to gauge student growth, and an effective method to determine instructional needs in real time.

The most complex and wondrous achievements are those that are created by teams. Think of how many people it takes to make up an orchestra or sports team. It takes sophisticated teamwork. We can't expect the teacher to do it all for every kid anymore. The community outside of school must be involved.

It makes me wonder what other programs are out there that aids in matchmaking teachers with eager volunteers in the community. And are there any others out there doing it online? It seems a vital variable in the equation of student success. Know of any others?

Maybe you are interested in your class participating, or becoming an eMentor for a group of students? As an eighth grade teacher, my kids aren't participating in In2Books this year (which services grades 3-6), but I sure as heck plan to apply to be an eMentor.

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  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School

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