E-Mentoring: A Middle School Experience
By Sherry Lussier
E-Mentoring: A Middle School Experience (or How To Enrich Middle School Career Exploration with Little Time and No Money)
Orleans Elementary School is a very small, public K-8 school in Vermont. The area is rural and beautiful, but riddled with high unemployment, substance abuse, poverty, and the resulting generational hopelessness. Career exploration through an E-Mentoring program is a simple, safe, and effective way of addressing these issues at a critical developmental juncture.
Orleans Elementary School 7th graders are matched by gender and career aspirations to an adult in the workplace. They discuss educational expectations, day-to-day experiences, goals, decisions, and other career aspects via email with an "E-Mentor". Take these steps to get a program like this started:
- Establish a "clearinghouse" email address for all incoming and outgoing emails. Orleans' school address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Obtain approval from parents. Inform parents that E-Mentors will not know their child's last name or other identifying information. Explain that you will read all incoming and outgoing letters for editing.
- Meet with each student to find out her/his aspirations, and obtain his/her assent to participate. Inform students that all emails will read by the counselor for content. This might also be a good time to collaborate with Language Arts teachers.
- Contact colleagues, friends, relatives, friends of friends, etc., to recruit appropriate E-Mentors. Obtain email addresses. Explain that they will receive an introductory letter from a student, and they are asked to respond with a minimum of one email per month throughout the school year.
- Designate a class time where students write the introduction letter, primarily from a script to save time. Students should save their letters to a common computer file on the school server.
- Finally, copy and paste letters to email addresses that have been saved to the account and let the relationships begin!
Tips for Recruiting Potential E-Mentors
It may be necessary for counselors to "cold call" people. Don't be afraid to contact public figures. They are often excited to be asked. Orleans students have been E-Mentored by college coaches, Vermont's Lt. Governor, and NASA employees. This year's Orleans E-Mentors come from just around the corner and as far away as Australia.
E-Mentors should agree to a minimum commitment of one email per month throughout the school year. Explain that parental consent has been obtained and that all emails will be read by the facilitator.
Keeping it Going
Read emails as they come in, then print them to a document and give them to the students. In Orleans, teachers don't mind deliveries during class time of the latest letters from E-Mentors. They know students are excited to get them.
Dealing with mentors
Sometimes an E-Mentor is slack about writing. This could be a lesson in flexibility and a reality check that adults don’t always behave according to our expectations. You may have to nudge the E-Mentor, or in rare cases, replace them. Either way, it's a teachable moment.
Working with students
Students will often use their own free time to write their next email response. They let the school counselor know their letter is in the server folder, waiting to be sent. For those students who don't have time or motivation to write on their own, a class time each month is given for that purpose.
Keeping in touch with E-mentors
During each holiday period, an e-card from the counselor is a helpful gesture of appreciation. From time to time, let mentors know that, although jotting off these emails may not seem like much, they are meaningful to the students.
Note the National Mentor Month
January is National Mentor Month. Counselors could have students note this in their letters, asking their E-Mentors to share their own mentoring experiences. At the end of the school year, include E-Mentors in whatever recognition event your school offers. Orleans has a volunteer luncheon.
Reading for Content - Editing
Always read emails for content. This is very important. Occasionally, information from a student is too detailed. Counselors can edit, focusing on what is necessary. Less frequently, a student or E-Mentor may write something that will be too sensitive for the intended reader. For example, a nurse E-Mentor's letter included a paragraph about a 7th grade suicide that happened in the neighboring town. She didn't know that the deceased student was a former Orleans student and that the E-Mentee was a friend. The paragraph was edited out, and a phone call was placed to the E-Mentor to let her know.
Value and Benefits
Much research has been done regarding the importance of making learning relevant in middle schools. Bridgeland and Morison (2006), suggested 81% of dropouts report this as a top reason for leaving school. Practitioners know that when a school subject becomes relevant to a middle school student, they can work towards a goal with more clarity and determination. The E-mentor program is one way we have made learning relevant for students at Orleans.
Sometimes students change their choice of careers following their year of E-Mentoring. Perhaps they are not sure about more than 4 years of college, or they realize that TV shows don't depict the slow and boring parts of the job. Often students realize the importance of good study habits, organization, and planning ahead by interacting with their mentors. Beyond the obvious self-esteem building component that mentoring programs can bring, E-Mentoring can help students with their career exploration, bringing focus and allowing them to work in a more confident and purposeful manner.
Bridgeland, DiIulio, Jr., and Morison, (March, 2006). The Silent Epidemic - Perspectives of High School Dropouts, Report by Civic Enterprises in association with Peter D. Hart Research Associates for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Sherry Lussier, Ed.D., is school counselor/asst principal at Orleans Elementary School in Orleans, Vermont. She has been a school counselor at the K-12 and Vocational/Technical levels for 20 years and is President-Elect of the Vermont School Counselors Association. She was the Vermont Counselor of the year in 2005 and a 2009 University of Vermont Outstanding Teacher. She can be reached at email@example.com.