Reaching Reluctant Readers: The Student TeacherOn-Line Mentoring Project
Teri S. Lesesne
Lois Buckman, Cathe Caves, and Bonnie Day
It began at lunch one day, an inauspicious beginning to be sure. My friend Lois Buckman was lamenting the fact that many of the students who were dutifully brought to her middle-school library to check out books did little save wander aimlessly among the stacks. I commiserated while waiting my turn to vent my own frustrations about my university students' lack of real experience working with adolescents. Suddenly, it was a scene straight out of an old movie: "We've got a barn. Let's put on a show!" We had two groups of kids who needed to be brought together. The only problem was the detail. How could we organize this so that each group benefited? S.T.O.M.P. (Student Teacher On-line Mentoring Project) was born that day over lunch. Over the course of the intervening 2 1/2 years, this project has evolved into an effective program for working with at-risk adolescents. The purpose of this article is to provide readers an overview of the project and its preliminary results. S.T.O.M.P. continues to grow and change. We are now expanding our original project into a longitudinal one; so there is, we hope, much more to come.
Components of the Program: The Evolution of S.T.O.M.P.
Initially, our project consisted of bringing together the two groups of students once a month in the school library. The object was for the students enrolled in my YA literature course to talk about books and reading to the at-risk middle-school students who comprise approximately 75% of the population of Lois' school. While this early program produced a few heartening results, the actual contact between the two groups was minimal. Lois and I searched for a way to extend the opportunities for contacts between the groups. About this time, TENET (the Texas Educational Network) became available in Lois' school. TENET provided us just the toll we sought to keep the groups in constant communication: electronic mail (email). My students at the university were provided free access to the Internet on campus; Lois had a TENET line in the library. It was not exactly high tech, but it was a beginning.
We applied for and received a mini-grant from the Texas Education Agency, which allowed us to drop an additional TENET line in the library, purchase an additional computer set-up, and buy books. We even had a bit of money left over to celebrate the project with a pizza party for the kids. Since this first bit of seed money, Lois and I have received several other small grants, including one from the ALAN Foundation last year. The smallish grants have added up to a total of more than $10,000 over the past 2 1/2 years. The current set-up includes 14 computers with direct TENET access (courtesy of a grant Lois received from her school district for over $30,000) plus computers with TENET access in the classrooms of the participating teachers.
Organizing the Project
Simply throwing the two groups together would not suffice. Slowly, we began to develop a more careful plan for S.T.O.M.P. Figure 1 [not available in this format] is a schematic representation of our plan. The essential first step was to form the university-school connections. We met with the principal of the middle school, who welcomed our enthusiastic idea and gave her blessing (thank you Rosalyn Bratcher). We made certain that the university approved of this type of field research through Human Subjects and Field Experiences Committees as well. Finally, Lois brought me together with ELA department chair, Cathe Caves, who would provide a class of students for the project. Cathe would later bring on board others in her department. Bringing her into the project at this early stage was important.
Next, we needed to give these two disparate groups of students a concrete connection. We did this through books. Lois, Cathe, and I met to select a group of books our two classes would read in common and discuss during the semester. We knew the books had to be what we called "drop dead" books: they had to be those which would grab readers' attention and hold it. Initially, we agreed on a short list, only three books. Over the course of this project, the list has expanded considerably. Some books have been rejected, others added. Figure 2 contains our current titles. Lois booktalked the selections for the middle school students, and I did the same for the university kids. Then, when the two groups were brought together, we had a natural means for pairing students: those who had selected the same books became partners.
That first face-to-face meeting was a crucial one. It set the tone for the remainder of the semester. Therefore, we wanted to provide some structure for the time these two groups spent together (about 90 minutes). The university students were required to perform two tasks: conduct an informal reading survey and observe students as they used the library. The middle school kids also designed a series of questions to ask their university mentors. These interviews did quite a lot to dispel the myths each group held about the other. My university students held certain misconceptions about "at-risk" students; the middle school kids thought college students would be snobs. Imagine the amazement of one young man who discovered his university mentor was a school drop out who earned a GED and entered college later in life! After the meeting, the students are asked to write a short piece about the subject of their interview. Lois, Cathe, and I read these pieces, which provide us some additional insights into the students in our respective classes. Before this first meeting ends, the partners are asked to set a reading goal: how many chapters or pages will each have read before the next site visit in about a month?
Over the intervening weeks between site visits, university students use e-mail to send letters and messages to their middle school partners about the books they are reading. This activity dictates two important lessons for my YA literature class. The first lesson centers on the use of technology. Sadly, the majority of my students have little or no practical knowledge of how to use the computer beyond simple word processing, if that. Therefore, we spend an entire class period (3 hours) in the computer lab learning the rudiments of the computer and moving on to some of the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of the Internet. Students send their initial message to their middle school students during supervised visits to the lab. Over the next 3-4 weeks, I set aside about 30 minutes of class time for additional supervised visits to the lab. Soon, most students are confidently using the computer on their own.
The second lesson that must occur to guarantee success in the project centers on how to elicit genuine response from reluctant readers. How can university students encourage aesthetic response from their partners? Unless there is some detailed instruction, we discovered that many of the e-mail messages asked middle-school students to recount plot, character, setting, etc. The university students did not possess the necessary strategies that would allow them to encourage more than efferent response from these at-risk readers. So, in class we explore a variety of questioning and instructional strategies. One strategy, a set of questions I make available to my students, comes from author Richard Peck. Figure 3 lists the 10 questions he developed to help connect students more closely with the text. So, in between site visits, students exchange e-mail messages. We require a minimum of weekly contact; many of the students become enamored of the technology and send daily messages to their partners.
On subsequent site visits, the groups discuss their books and begin to plan for two culminating activities: an author teleconference and a book report project. The latter activity was put into place so that the middle-school students would receive credit for their reading in their English class. The partners decide how best to report to the rest of the group on the book they read. Students have constructed maps and models, written and performed scripts, and presented rather traditional book reports. We videotape the projects which they present as examples for future groups.
The other activity we include in our project is an author teleconference. For the past year, Joan Lowery Nixon has been gracious enough to be a part of this activity. There are two entrance requirements for the teleconference: the students must have read a book by Joan, and they must have questions written down to ask her during the teleconference. The first time we conducted the teleconference, we were more than a bit nervous. How many of these recalcitrant readers, we wondered, would complete the reading in time for the teleconference? Our worst fears were put to rest the morning of the teleconference. Eighty-five percent of the group had completed the reading (some staying up all night to do so). They arrived in the library clutching scraps of paper with scrawled questions. Never have so many students been so quiet as during the 90-minute teleconference that took place that day. A large part of the success lies with our careful selection of Joan Lowery Nixon as the author. Joan does not simply answer questions; she tells stories. The students are mesmerized by her. After the teleconference has ended, we collect the students' copies of Nixon's books and send them to her to be autographed. The semester ends on this high note.
Results of the Project
So what? All of this sounds great, but does it work? How can we measure its effectiveness? Since our initial seed money, we have received additional grants to continue this research. We realized that we needed to collect some hard data. We already had our heartwarming success stories, but what was it that enabled us to reach these kids? We decided on some instruments to be used as pre- and post-assessments for the study.
At the beginning of each semester, we administer an assessment to each group of students. The middle-school students are asked to complete the Estes Scale to Measure Attitude Toward Reading (1971), a set of 20 statements about books and reading that yields a numeric representation of the student's attitude. Also included in the pre-assessment are questions adapted from Gallo's (1984) survey of reading interests and preferences. The university students complete a pre-assessment on their knowledge of technology, specifically e-mail designed by Jean Brown and her colleagues at Saginaw Valley State University (1995).
During the semester we save copies of all e-mail correspondence and analyze their contents. Two readers rate the messages using Sebesta's (1995) Taxonomy of Aesthetic Response. Finally, at the end of the semester, we again administer the technology survey to the university students and the Estes Scale to the middle school kids. Pre- and post-test scores are compared. Gender, age, and ability in reading are variables included in this analysis. Quantitative analyses have yielded positive results. Middle-school students' scores on the Estes Scale are significantly (p<.05) more positive on the post-assessment; university students' level of comfort with technology is also significantly (p<.05) improved.
More than the numbers, though, the observable changes we witness confirm for us the importance of this project. I have asked Lois and Cathe and our latest colleague, Bonnie Day, to share some of their observations with me for this report.
The Librarian: The Missing Link in the Middle-Lois Buckman
Even from its humble beginnings, S.T.O.M.P. has touched many of the students in the middle school where I serve as librarian. Each year the program has grown and, with it, the number of former reluctant readers who now haunt the library in search of more good books to read. Before I chronicle the successes I have witnessed, I want to mention some of the early glitches we discovered.
The semester we began S.T.O.M.P., I hurried to school in the morning in order to print out all of the e-mail messages Teri's students had sent to our reluctant readers. By 7:15 that day, they were ready to be delivered to the kids. I was so full of enthusiasm that I had failed to completely analyze potential problems might occur. As students dashed to the library to reply to their e-mail, the problem became patently obvious: we had one computer, one phone line. The waiting began. Six students shuffled in line waiting for the connection to be made so they could go on line. After an eternity of busy signals, the line had dwindled to three stalwart students. Something needed to be done. We expended some of our grant funds to purchase an additional phone line and computer set-up. The problem diminished.
There was, however, a second challenge: the lack of keyboarding skills the kids possessed. They all wanted their letters to be perfect. Using their hunt and peck technique, this might mean 20 minutes to complete only 1-2 sentences. I paired less-skilled kids with more-able keyboarders and even took dictation myself. I think this is called cooperative learning these days. Back then, it was simply a matter of survival.
For the past semester, everything has been put into place to guarantee unlimited access to e-mail. We have a bank of networked computers each with TENET access. Students are more confident about their keyboarding skills and less worried about getting everything letter perfect (that reassurance came when they saw the typographical errors in the letters from their university mentors!).
S.T.O.M.P. has made a huge difference in the lives of all of the kids who have participated over the past two years. One child, though, stands out in my mind. David (not his real name) had surgery on his leg last year. Instead of attending his P.E. class for three months, he came to the library. His class was involved in the program, and David now had ample opportunity to communicate with his mentor and to read. Last year, David was part of the ESL program; this year he was placed into a regular English class. This semester, David is again a part of the project. He and his new mentor have read three books in the past eight weeks. Just today, he asked me for the latest Joan Lowery Nixon book. David has become a reader thanks to the work of his mentors.
The Department Chair's Perspective: Witness to the Changes-Cathe Caves
When I was first approached by Teri and Lois, both strong proponents of YA literature, to participate in a mentoring program, I found myself reacting with a curious mixture that was equal parts enthusiasm and doubt. Having spent the past eight years teaching kids who are not motivated, I had pretty much exhausted my bag of tricks in terms of helping those kids discover the joys of reading and the new worlds they would encounter through the written word. In addition, I was one of a handful in the English department who not only was an avid reader of YA literature but also actually believed great literature has been written since the Industrial Revolution. So, part of me was excited at the prospect of demonstrating to the rest of my department that "if you show them, they will read." The other part of me, though, was not convinced that simply providing books and mentors would be enough.
At the beginning, I did struggle to convince students to read. They loved having the attention of their mentors and writing letters using the computer. However, not all of them were reading. I resorted to an age-old method: I tricked them. Students were told that the books they were reading for S.T.O.M.P. were not to leave the classroom. They were to be turned in to me each day after the 10-15 minute silent reading with which I begin my classes. Soon, kids were pleading, "Miss, may I take the book with me?" or saying, "Ahhh, man, just five more minutes - I think I know who did it and I gotta find out." One additional benefit, by the way, to keeping the books in my classroom is that students from my other classes and other teachers' classes ask if they can borrow the books, too.
The mentoring program and the time for reading has had a few other unexpected results. One young man, William (not his real name), transferred into my class with a long history of academic troubles. In fact, he was placed in my class after he was expelled from another school. William presented a genuine challenge; he even challenged me and the other members of the class. Once he became involved in the project, however, he discovered books and their power. William has become one of the strongest advocates of this program at the school. He has read every book we offered in the program and become a proficient reviewer of YA books for anyone who will listen (and given his rather awesome presence, most of us do listen). Lois now provides him with books before they have been processed for the library stacks, asking him for his comments. He is, in many cases, the first person to have read a particular book. With utmost gravity he informed me one day that he could not do the assignment I had given to the class because Dr. Lesesne had asked him to generate a list of the best books he had read this semester. More than satisfying his need to learn, this program has enabled William to be successful in the classroom and to control his behavior better. He is determined to remain with us and in the program.
The mentoring program has involved just one of my classes, a group of 16 students, six of whom are classified as learning disabled. At the beginning of the school year, this was an apathetic group who tended to lag behind all of my other classes. They seemed to possess a collective mindset that they were all failures. Eight months later, this class still lags behind; however, that is because of the in-depth discussion they demand about what they are reading. Their persona has changed from one of defeat to one of pride. The one-on-one mentoring, the chance to use technology, and the opportunity to read literature that appeals to them have created a group of students who are more confident of their abilities, more willing to take risks when undertaking a new task, and more tolerant of others.
While this project has subtracted from the time I am allotted to teach the "curriculum," I have discovered that we are able to cover all of the requirements of the state and even to go beyond what is emphasized for this particular grade level. The experience has been personally and professionally satisfying as well. I look forward to the eager learners in my classroom. After all, my greatest goal as an educator is to create lifelong learners. Because these teens have become readers, they are well on their way to a lifetime of learning.
The Newest Member of the Team: Creating Bonds - Bonnie Day
I was a bit apprehensive when Lois approached me about this project. I was concerned about the amount of time it would take away from instruction. I reluctantly agreed and told her that my fifth-period class would be the best candidates. It contained lots of really neat kids who were already good readers. Two weeks later, Lois informed me that my seventh period would have to be the group included because of the scheduling of Teri's classes on campus. Oh, no!!!! Seventh period was my worst class.
I told the students they had been selected for this project. While they were excited about getting to do e-mail, most of them grumbled about the reading part. One boy told me he was not going to become involved! Then, Lois arrived in the classroom with a cart full of books. She did booktalks for each book - and students, some hesitantly, selected two of the fourteen books available for this project. They were told to begin reading right away since their mentors would be at the school in just one week.
The day arrived for my students to meet their mentors. As we walked into the library, the students from the university were already seated at tables. I told my kids to select a partner. They were scared to death. One young man begged me to let him have my student teacher as his partner. I finally helped him select what he has since informed me is the prettiest girl in the mentor group. After this initial meeting, my students came to class talking about what their mentors had said. Some kids asked when the university students would be back. A few were already excited; others could still care less.
Within a few days, my students began receiving their e-mail letters. Even the face of my most reluctant reader brightened when he realized that he, too, had a letter. I believe my students are bonding with their mentors. They no longer wait for me to send them to the library to reply to their letters but come up and demand they be given time to do so. One young lady wanted to write and tell her mentor of a great new book which she had found on her own! I believe my students have read more in part because they do not want to let their mentors down. Whatever the reason, they are reading. As the day draws closer for the next site visit, anticipation fills the air. I have even noticed that on those days my students take extra care with their appearance.
As I look back on this first semester of involvement, I realize just how much it has meant to my students. They are reading more and discussing more. They ask about books their mentors have mentioned in their e-mail letters. The experience has been fun and educational. They have read more and a greater variety of books than my other classes. Even I have benefited. I have learned how to send e-mail to co-workers, my husband, and associates in other cities. I am already looking forward to being a part of this project next year.
After reading the pieces thoughtfully written by Lois, Cathe, and Bonnie, I am more committed than ever to the next phase of this project. Next year we will add yet another component to this project: We will be surfing the net. Students will create their own home pages and participate in book discussion listservs during the semester. I will also involve the students in my children's literature classes in a similar program with groups of fourth graders in another city. Like the others, I am excited about the results of S.T.O.M.P. and continue to seek more ways to reach out to those who have not yet become a part of the reading club.
Funded in part by a grant from the ALAN Foundation, the project described in this article was carried out by Teri Lesesne, Department of Library Science at Sam Houston University, with Lois Buchman, Librarian; Cathe Caves, English Department Chair; and Bonnie Day, English Teacher, at Moorhead Junior/Caney Creek Senior High School.
Copyright 1997, The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN # 0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Lesesne, Teri S., with Lois Buckman, Cathe Caves, and Bonnie Day. (1997). The ALAN Review, Volume 24, Number 2, 31-35.
Spring 1996 Book List
Harris and Me Make Lemonade White Lilacs The Giver Others See Us Loch! The Drowned Ultimate Sports Stories The D-Poems of Jeremy Bloom Flash Fire New Kids in Town PLUS 1 book by Joan Lowery Nixon
Peck's Ten Questions to Ask About a Novel
1. What would this story be like if the main character were of the opposite sex?
2. Why is the story set where it is?
3. If you were to film this story, what characters would you eliminate if you couldn't use them all?
4. Would you film this story in black and white or color?
5. How is the main character different from you?
6. Why or why not would this story make a good TV series?
7. What's one thing in the story that's happened to you?
8. Reread the first paragraph of Chapter 1. What's in it to make you read on?
9. If you had to design a new cover for the book, what would it look like?
10. What does the title tell you about the book? Does it tell the truth?