The Problem of Creating Better Mentoring Solved Through PBL Environments

In my career as a teacher, and now especially as an Assistant Dean, I have often pondered the tough questions about education.  Why do some students of average or better intellect fail while others succeed?  Why is there an “achievement gap” when public education is democratic? How can we as teachers decrease the amount of students who feel that education is something done to them and not something in which they actively participate?

These questions cause educators and politicians pain.  Nobody wants to hear that being a poor or minority child makes you more likely to fail in education.  It makes you more likely to get suspended, to be in a remedial class, and to not make your graduation date.  These are the hard and true facts.

There are, however, glimmers of hope.  Some students seem to defy these morbid odds.  They succeed despite these obstacles.  In June of this year, Greenwich High School graduated dozens of such students.  What is it about their story that makes them different?

Several years ago I was involved with a program known as Stand By Me at Greenwich High School.  This was before AVID had hit the school; before we had even thought about making another alternative program at GHS.  Many of the students in our program had potential, but something stood in their way; sometimes it was motivation, sometimes they were first generation college hopefuls, sometimes they were simply new to the town of Greenwich.  Our program paired these kids with upperclassmen tutors and an adult coordinator set goals with students, planned awards ceremonies, and booked team-building trips.  For the most part, all students had fun; but not all students reached the goals we had set for them.

Again, that same question loomed.  Why were some students more successful academically and socially than others?  So I went out to collect anecdotal evidence.  What I found was not particularly shocking.  In fact it seemed too simple to be true.  Students who seemed to beat the odds had one thing in common: they all said that there was at least one adult with whom they connected.  More often than not, this adult and the student shared a goal.  It did not seem to matter what the goal was, just that there was one.  It could have been winning a football game, or understanding The Odyssey.  But because the student and the adult shared something, their connection was real, and this led to student achievement.

Many schools, including our own, struggle to create meaningful mentoring programs.  We know that students need to connect to adults to succeed, but creating these connections seems to be more difficult than it should.  Some people doubt that mentoring even works; and feel that spending money and effort on such “soft” pursuits takes away from the true aim of schools–teaching and learning.

The gurus of mentoring programs, including the Big Brothers/Big Sisters organization, have put forth research that shows good mentoring works.  The claims are that mentoring can help a child at any stage of development, in “multiple domains of youth functioning.” (Dubois, 2010)  According to BBBS, of those served 85% saw an increase in self esteem, 63% got better grades, 56% improved family relationships, 69% had better peer relationships, 66% created more positive relationships with teachers, and 86% experienced an “increased exposure to cultural and educational services.” (Kansas Mentor Project, 2009) These are pretty lofty claims.

Apparently such research has won over the hearts of Republican and  Democrats alike.  Currently in the United States about 5,000 mentoring programs serve more than 3 million youth in the United States. (National Mentoring Partnership, 2013)  Michelle Obama started a program called the Corporate Mentoring Challenge in the hopes of uniting some of the most financially successful people in our country with some of the most troubled youth.  Bush, in 2009, gave accolades to the faith-based Mentoring Children of Prisoners and declared January national mentoring month.

Yet not all mentoring is of the same caliber.  And bad mentoring is fodder for skeptics.  In 1995 Inge Jacobs Carmola found only a slight positive growth in motivation and confidence in children who were mentored, but no significant increase in achievement test scores.  More recently, in 2009 a study done by Lawrence Bernstein etal. found that mentoring led to no significant impact on student academic achievement, interpersonal relationships, and high risk behaviors.  Just pairing students and adults is not enough.

Mentoring seems to work best under specific conditions.  For one, there has to be a need.  Youth tend to do better when they have “pre-existing” difficulties (this could be as minute as a clearly articulated problem that needs to be solved) and when they and their parents volunteer to be a part of the program.  Mentoring works better when mentors and their charges share interests, and when there are clear goals for the program.  Short stints don’t work; mentoring relationships can only form if these last longer.  According to studies, mentoring that lasts six months or less can actually do more harm than good!  In such a case, a kid sees it as just another adult who has left them or let them down.  Finally, mentors need support and training; good intentions are not enough.

Take Friends of Children as an example of good mentoring.  Each pair meets at least four hours a week.  Mentors receive training and must attend classes regularly.  Mentoring starts as early as first grade and for most students continues until high school graduation.  Children selected show signs of being “at-risk” such as an incarcerated or drug addicted parent.  The success of this program is undeniable.  In New York City, of the 140 youths who completed the program 85% graduated from high school, 90% avoided involvement with the justice system, and 95% avoided early parenting.  These were the three objectives of the program.

We are lucky that most of our children in Greenwich do not suffer from such insurmountable odds.  Yet we can’t deny that a few need extra TLC.  Making a program like Friends of Children work in a traditional high school model is nearly impossible.  Where would we find the time and the funds?  Such mentoring could more easily grow, however, in a Project Based Learning environment.  With many working individually on various projects throughout the day, students and teachers would have more time for meaningful one-on-one interaction.  If a student should need extra attention, such time could be granted.  No bells would dictate when students and teachers end communication.  In such a place mentoring–the high quality kind–could organically take shape and be nurtured.  Maybe in this environment we could help those who are falling through the cracks.

And the best part is that all students can benefit from having a mentor with which they can share ideas and work through problems!  Being a member of a solid community, creating what Will Haase calls a sense of a “we,” gives all students strength to accomplish their goals and to weather through obstacles.

Paul Tough wrote an article in the New York Times this spring highlighting how the University of Texas is using peer mentoring and adult advisers to help struggling students create a new sense of identity.  Many of these students had done very well in high school yet for some reason could not continue achieving at the university level.  According to one of the professors working on the project, the school wanted these young adults to feel that “they weren’t subpar students who needed help; they were part of a community of high-achieving scholars.”  The intervention worked.  These previously failing students had turned things around, and by their sophomore year had grades that were above average for University of Texas students.  Mentoring is not just a tool that might help the delinquent.

Tony Wagner in his book Creating Innovators explains how mentoring is essential in a project based learning model.  Young people need help if they are going to play, explore a passion, and find a purpose in education.  Our success stories do well because they have been nurtured.  He writes: “These young innovators did not learn these things alone. They received help from parents, teachers, and mentors along the way. Their evolution as innovators was almost invariably facilitated by at least one adult — and often several. What these parents, teachers, and mentors did that was so helpful may surprise you. Each, in his or her own quiet way, is often following a different, less conventional path in his or her role as a parent, teacher, or mentor. They acted differently so that the young people with whom they interacted could think differently.”  What we need to do as teachers, mentors, and parents is let the students lead the way, and we LET them stumble and fall.  But when they do, we help them figure out what went wrong and urge them to continue their journey.

This certainly is a new way of thinking, but I believe it will help ALL of our students grow.

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