As classes moved online this spring, so did the work of the Bok Center’s twenty-seven undergraduate Mentors. Responsible for engaging Allston-Brighton children in interdisciplinary science, technology, and literacy programs at the Harvard Ed Portal, these undergraduates gain experience with skills central to good teaching, and reflect on their own development as teachers and learners.
When the Ed Portal’s programming shifted online in March, we wondered whether our undergraduates would want to continue mentoring in the absence of in-person contact with children, each other, and our staff. Teaching effectively is hard work even under the best of circumstances, and new Mentors quickly realize they have much to learn. By practicing with intention, Mentors derive tremendous satisfaction from the process of becoming better teachers and making good on their desire to enrich K-12 education. The allure of this challenge is at the heart of why undergraduates return to the mentoring program semester after semester. But would our undergraduates be motivated to engage in this hard work in a two-dimensional, online environment?
The answer was a resounding yes. The challenge and reward of continuing the meaningful, “real,” work of teaching children, even online, was still present. None of us had ready answers to what K-12 education should look like online nor how to keep our vibrant undergraduate teaching and learning community intact. As students and as educators, Mentors were experiencing both sides of a complex equation in real time.
The questions we asked each other about how to best engage children online were often answered by looking to the undergraduate experience. For example, to the question, “how do we make online learning compelling enough to hold a child’s attention, despite personal circumstances and distractions?” one answer was “relevance.” For a child to want to stay engaged, the topic had to be relevant to their own interests, be they based in a real or fantasy world. For Mentors, working with these children was directly relevant to their own identities; they craved the ability to create something of value for community children despite their forced exodus from campus.
Other motivational threads emerged as well, such as teacher/learner agency. Mentors have freedom to create their own lessons from scratch and offer their children choices to establish a sense of agency in their education. The online environment elevated the importance of learner agency for all parties. Mentor Allanah Rolph ‘23 observed how liberating it was to have control of the seemingly small things, like what time she mentored or the ability to “tailor my content to things that both my mentees and I were interested in.” Our emphasis on agency provided a welcome counterweight to the challenges she and other Mentors encountered in their own online classes, where time zone changes or barriers to normal conversations could leave them unsatisfied with the experience.
The most important theme to emerge from our collective experience was that of making space for interpersonal relationships during program time. Mentors and children alike craved personal connection with each other and with their peers. Allison Pao ‘21 remarked on how her group of children repeatedly asked to meet longer simply to chat. She observed, “I think we became a much needed source of social interaction for them...from what I understand, in their online classes, they seldom had chances to speak, since there would be so many students online at once.”
Likewise, some mentors described their own classes as being a “sea of faceless, voiceless, passive audience members” and without exception, the courses that were viewed as most successful by undergraduates utilized breakout rooms. Nihal Raman ‘22 remarked, “although we discussed course material, our time in breakout rooms was also a time to catch up with each other.” Allison added, “in virtual classes, small group work became something I came to cherish and look forward to, since it would be one of the few real social interactions I would have in a day.”
As a result, mentors made a concentrated effort to allow their children time to share at the beginning of online sessions. And likewise, within our planning meetings, we also made time to check in with each other and make casual conversation. Our Mentor meetings morphed from a series of structured bi-weekly large groups to more frequent small groups that further subdivided into breakout rooms where we offered focused feedback on each other’s lesson drafts and spent time connecting.
Ultimately, the concepts of content relevance, learner agency, and interpersonal relationships are foundational to all effective education. Our online shift happened to bring these important themes into sharp focus, and our undergraduate Mentors are unlikely to lose sight of them for some time to come. We look forward to building upon what we learned this spring when we return to online Mentoring in the fall.