There is a controlled chaos in the cafeteria. It is 3:30, classes are over and most kids have already left for the day. Yet groups of five to ten still remain seated or mill around the picnic-style cafeteria tables. There is a buzz about the room. Some students are reading, some are completing math assignments, others are making collages, but most everyone is deeply engaged in one or many conversations, all at once. This is Homework Zone (HZ).
Homework Zone connects McGill students with an after-school tutoring program for inner-city children between the ages of six and twelve. The goal of HZ is to help elementary students form an emotional connection to school through positive educational experiences. The rationale behind the project is an aspirational one: that the forging of strong links can impact the young in positive ways; that tutoring can give them the tools to be successful learners; that mentorship can provide a model of educational attainment that young learners can identify with.
Mentors volunteer for many reasons, but they all agree that it is as much a growth experience for them as it for their mentees. Friendships blossom over weeks and months, and what is learned goes well beyond the textbook. The older students mentor about hard work and perseverance, while learning about active listening and relational being.
One volunteer recounts helping his student persevere: “I was trying to teach him Mathematics and he was just giving up too fast. I was like, ‘Come on. We’ll do it together.’ And I was really trying to show him my support and not be hard, like, ‘I’m with you.’” Working through hard problems together, mentors provide an affective anchor, giving the students the support they need to find their own solutions. The mentors create a safe place for the mentees where they can learn to do things with the help of a more knowledgeable other – what Vygotsky termed the zone of proximal development, where students can try things they might not yet be ready to do on their own.
Now in its third year, Homework Zone is a partnership between McGill’s Social Equity and Diversity Education (SEDE) office and Montreal’s Lester B. Pearson School Board (LBPSB). Matthew Albert, project leader and consultant with LBPSB, builds links with local Montreal organizations to improve student retention and success rates as part of the Hooked on Schools initiative. SEDE is one such partnership. Anurag Dhir, community engagement coordinator for SEDE, has helped build up a network of local partners that enables McGill to connect and share resources with the Montreal community at large. Together they coordinate HZ activities along with a cadre of undergraduate volunteers. Gabrielle Jacobs, a full-time political science major at McGill, has been the HZ Program Coordinator for the last two years. Hired by SEDE, she’s responsible for the day-to-day operations of HZ including recruitment, training, and providing year-long support for the mentors at the schools and through mentor reflection events. Gabrielle believes strongly in the transformative power of HZ. She says, “It’s really amazing to witness how volunteers grow out of their shell. A really shy volunteer in the fall semester will have turned into a leader by the winter.”
SEDE organizes two training events for the HZ volunteers, an orientation at the beginning of the semester, and a reflection event, near the end. These events are meant to equip students with tools and strategies but also to have them reflect on their role with the program by asking, “What does it mean to be a mentor?” and “What is community engagement?” During one such reflection event, Anurag leads a dialogue about establishing and maintaining a positive mentoring relationship, dealing with conflicting agendas, and fixing a mentoring identity between being a friend and a figure of authority. Once these practical concerns have been addressed, there follows a deeper reflection of the goals and ends of mentoring and community engagement. The hope is that students will pursue their mentoring relationship beyond their initial commitment. Many students do choose to continue over more than one term; unfortunately, many others find it hard to negotiate the demands of a full-time university course load and their volunteering work. As an added incentive, SEDE provides their volunteers with a certificate attesting to their experience, which they can add to their resumé.
So what is being a mentor? It’s about empathy – about transcending horizons of difference. In the words of one volunteer, “It’s a lot about sharing your experience and about hearing theirs and trying to teach them something at the same time. You have to be open-minded. You have to realize that this person might be very different from you, in terms of background, or opinions or values.”
Homework Zone may ostensibly be a tutoring program but the structure of the day belies a more complex reality. In addition to providing help with homework, mentors and invited guests lead workshops throughout the year. But most tellingly, HZ just feels different; it’s less study hall, more drop-in centre. In fact, witnessing HZ, one is struck with the impression that it is more about human connection than homework. Sure, the original impetus lies with tutoring in numeracy and literacy, but as is so often the case when we talk about education, discussions of academic achievement conceal the multifaceted character of the educational project. Defining school solely by its activities “misses the forest for the trees.” In the end, school is fundamentally a relational enterprise, connecting people and places and ideas. Many students struggle with feeling disconnected; Homework Zone gives them a place and a community to connect with.
In September, when Matthew greets the newest cohort of undergraduate student mentors, he repeats what’s become the mantra of Homework Zone: “Just the fact of your being here, makes you successful,” he tells these university students. “Just you being here, in this role, makes you a hero in these kids’ eyes.”
For more information, visit Homework Zone’s website:
Photo: courtesy David Lemay
First published in Education Canada, May 2015