"The most fulfilling part of this program is when you see a child making a connection and showing how it enhanced his understanding," Marie Bartolotta told Education World. "You hear the teacher's words coming with proof of understanding from a fifth grader, and you know you have made a difference."
[content block] Bartolotta and Jane Boor are teachers and School/Family/Community Partnership team members at Mill Street Elementary School. Their "Reading Buddies" program was established in 1999 by the parent of a student at the Naperville (Illinois) school. In the program, Mill Street fourth and fifth graders are paired with education students from North Central College (NCC), and each twosome reads an assigned book.
"It's usually a one-to-one pairing," said Boor. "If the numbers don't match up, we try to arrange it so that the NCC students, who are future teachers, double up, having more than one elementary student with whom they communicate. Each year the program kicks off with our elementary students going to North Central College to see the campus and meet their buddies."
For three weeks, the students and their college-aged partners communicate by posting messages on a Web board and sometimes through live chat. Teachers at Mill Street Elementary and professors at North Central College use strategies from Mosaic of Thought by Susan Zimmerman in their classrooms, and those strategies guide the conversations between the buddies. As the college students interact with the school-aged children, they actually use these strategies to help their young partners with literacy.
"At the end of the three weeks, the NCC students come to Mill Street for what we call the culminating activity, Boor explained. "All of the students at each campus who have read the same book work together to create final projects to share with the entire group. We have seen skits, plays, games, raps, art projects"
Bartolotta has been impressed with the "authentic writing" that the Reading Buddies program has produced. "The NCC students are more like a peer than the classroom teacher is, so the elementary students have a real audience for their writing," she stated. "It has built self-confidence for our students at Mill Street. We have been surprised at how quickly and genuinely our elementary students connect with their NCC buddies."
The Mill Street students read the letters from their buddies before they respond, and Bartolotta and Boor report that because of this the students stretch themselves to impress their college buddies with their use of strategies. When a college student asks a deep question, the teachers say that it is fascinating to see how the students will expand their thinking and persevere.
"The clincher was when one of my students started to correct the grammar of a college student," recalled Boor. "We had done a lesson on something like proper irregular verb usage. The college student did not pick up on it, and my student would not let it go. With great pride, my student announced his learning to our whole class and his frustration at the college student not listening."
While coordinating schedules can be difficult, technology has often proven to be program's greatest challenge. At first, finding time in the school day and gaining access to computers was a problem. The time block set aside for the children to use the computer lab is sometimes not long enough for them to reply, and some students lack the keyboarding skills to respond quickly. With the implementation of live chat, new issues of security are present. Although each year has brought with it new challenges, every one has been solved through collaboration.
"Approach a program like this as a work in progress," Boor advises. "Each person has responsibilities, so it never just falls on one individual. You work as a team; you solve any problems that arise as a team. There are going to be glitches, but it is worth the effort."
The elementary students often bond with their college buddies, who are positive role models as well as friends. This closeness is just one of the reasons that Boor and Bartolotta recommend this type of program to other teachers.
"Even if you don't have the technology that will enable you to do this, start small," added Bartolotta. "We still only do this with three classes out the ten in fourth and fifth grade."