In a writing workshop, students rewrite papers and essays using the constructive criticisms of others — ideally, of as many different people as possible. But how do your teachers make that happen, especially if each one is struggling alone in an overcrowded classroom?

Ted Nellen’s “Cyber English” class offers one answer.

For the past three years, volunteer mentors have helped Nellen teach his classes at Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers in Manhattan. Students design and build original web pages that feature writing they do in Nellen’s class. Mentors critique students’ writing by eMail, reading each work and offering reactions and suggestions for revisions.

Called Adopt-a-Student, the program began in 1995 when Nellen received a prospectus from Kathy Casper, a web site designer for InfoQuest. Nellen had been teaching his students how to create their own web pages, and he required them to publish portfolios of their work on their sites. Casper found the class’s pages on the web and was intrigued.

“After studying a number of their early creations,” Casper said, “I could see that the kids needed more than just help with their HTML coding.”

She and Nellen discussed ways the students could receive help online from other sources, and the mentoring program was launched.

Casper publicized the students’ pages among her colleagues and hosted them at a site of her own, which she registered with search engines. Nellen advertised his students’ sites through several listserves. Their efforts have attracted more than 200 mentors for Nellen’s students in the three years of the program.

With an enrollment of 68 students split among two classes, Nellen said his “Cyber English” course benefits greatly from the Adopt a Student program. “It brings the teacher-student ratio from one-to-34 down to one-to-one,” he said. “It adds a tremendous resource to my classroom, stretching it from a room with one teacher, one voice, and one idea to a place with several voices, several ideas.”

Mentors range from retired teachers and senior citizens to online professionals, Nellen said. They are bound only by their common interest in helping students achieve their potential.

Anyone interested in being a mentor can read the students’ work at a central site, then pick a student whose work is relevant to them and eMail that student to start the relationship.

Nellen acknowledged that the program could raise safety concerns, but these are high school students, and Nellen said he briefs the students to be alert for inappropriate overtures. Nellen said he does not monitor the communication between his students and their mentors, believing that to do so would inhibit the student-mentor relationship.

“Safety is definitely a concern,” said Nellen, “but I’ve found that if you take a proactive approach with students, there are very few problems that can’t be quickly addressed.” Nellen encourages his students to report any suspicious eMail or messages that make them uncomfortable. He said that in the three years of the program, there have been only a few incidents.

In the normal course of events, a mentor regularly visits his or her student’s site and downloads the student’s work to read and critique, offering another perspective to help that student develop his or her skills.

“The key to mentoring,” said Nellen, “is a strong one-to-one relationship between an adult and a young person. Having an entire class meet with or exchange eMail with a subject expert isn’t really mentoring.”

Mentoring transcends a student’s learning in school. “My mentor’s name is Juan, and he is really nice,” said student Nina Perez. “We talk about a lot of things that have to do not only with school but also with life. I’ve had problems that I know I would never be able to talk to Mr. Nellen about. But I’m able to talk to JP about anything and he always seems to know the right thing to say.”

Nellen agreed, noting, “I am not all teachers to all kids. Students can gain a wealth of life lessons, as well as classroom advice, from the mentoring program.”

Perhaps the biggest lesson that students receive is the knowledge that someone is taking time out from their own schedule to offer advice. As Nina said, “I have problems in math, so my mentor decided to take time out for me and look up web sites that may help me understand math better. He also looked up web pages about all kinds of colleges and is making sure I don’t drop out of school. I really just enjoy talking to him and having someone take the time to help me with anything I need.”

If you’d like to start a mentoring program of your own, Nellen suggested you advertise in local newspapers or with schools of education to attract mentors. Have students’ work displayed online at one URL for volunteer mentors to browse. You can also advertise for mentors through listservs such as Ed.Net Briefs.

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