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Blogging Buddies Give Middle-Schoolers a Virtual Mentor

Story posted March 04, 2008

When it's late at night, and middle school students are fast asleep, Helen Pu '10 switches on her computer and mentors them. She shares her love of writing, encourages their creativity, and offers a helpful suggestion or two. When the children awaken, they go online and delight in knowing that someone at Bowdoin is interested in the work they do.

Pu is one of seven "Blogging Buddies," Bowdoin students who volunteer to regularly log on to a Web site created by Maine School Administrative District 75 and critique the work that students post there. Most of it is creative writing, but some students post videos, artwork or other projects.

Helen Pu
"Most of these students have very good imaginations," says Helen Pu '10.

"Most of these students have very good imaginations," Pu says. "There's no limit to what they can say. There's a lot of fantasy. That's what I was into when I was younger."

The Web site was designed by the coordinators of the MSAD 75's Gifted and Talented Program as a way to connect the 120 gifted and talented students from the far-flung communities of Topsham, Bowdoin, Bowdoinham and Harpswell.

Last spring, they sought help from Bowdoin's Community Service Resource Center, which already runs mentoring programs involving 133 Bowdoin students in six MSAD 75 schools. Nearly 200 Bowdoin students volunteer in 12 mentoring and tutoring programs in MSAD 75, Brunswick and Portland. This, however, is the only program that is strictly virtual.

Blogging Buddies on NECN
Watch the segment here.

Libby Barton '09 (above) and Katy Shaw '11, two mentors in the Blogging Buddies volunteer program, and AmeriCorps VISTA employee Bobby Guerette '07 were interviewed by a crew from NECN, the cable television news station that serves much of New England, for a story that aired Thursday, March 6, 2008.

"Our challenge is that all our other mentoring and tutoring programs operate on a fixed schedule," says Bobby Guerette '07, who runs the mentoring programs as this year's AmeriCorps*VISTA employee. Bowdoin students meet one-on-one with children at their local school at the same time each week. The parents of children in two programs — those who are awaiting a Big Brother or Big Sister and a group of students with specials needs — take their kids to campus, but that also occurs on a set schedule.

"Blogging Buddies is a great option for people who can't make that time commitment," he says. "It is something they can do from anywhere, from home, while they're on vacation, maybe they can continue it all year."

In September, Steve Ciembroniewicz, consulting teacher for the MSAD 75 Gifted and Talented Program, trained the Bowdoin volunteers to give constructive criticism to school-aged children. He taught them to suggest ways that students may "change" their work rather than "fix" it, a distinction that encourages them to try harder and take risks. He also introduced the mentors to the idea of a "feedback sandwich," which starts and ends with specific compliments sandwiched around constructive criticism.

Bowdoin Community Service
Eli Sidman '06

Each week, over 350 Bowdoin students volunteer in local community organizations on a regular basis, including serving meals at a homeless shelter, taking calls at a volunteer lawyer's project, working in the emergency center at Mid Coast Hospital, and performing at senior centers as part of the singing group The Bowdoin Minstrels. Each semester, over 100 students address community needs through service-learning classes, where they apply academic coursework to real problem-solving in the community. Learn more.

In November, Emma Etnier, 10, a fifth-grader from Harpswell, posted this descriptive piece called "Boston Apartment":

The rank of the city melts away when you walk inside the Boston Apartment. The new smells overwhelm you with ease and relief, relief that you are here and nowhere else and that your family is all around you. The windows are small but give you the most enchanting view of streets that twist and turn all over the city. The rooms in the Boston Apartment are crammed together but their walls seem to never end. Its hallways lead to nowhere and its stairs neither go down or up. I love the Boston Apartment for everything it is and everything it isn't. It's just a great magical place.

Katy Shaw '11 praised Emma for her inventive descriptions, and for the way she used seemingly contradictory images to create an understanding in the reader's mind. She recommended that Etnier use the first person where she had written "you," then offered the highest praise: "The level of detail you include in this piece is something I am still working on even in college!"

Etnier loved it, because she was worried that her descriptions had been "a little overboard. It's pretty cool," she said, "because sometimes I write a story, and I think it's good, but I like talking to an older person about it because they're more experienced."

In a later post, Etnier thanked Shaw for her comments and said she would use the first person more in future stories. She also mused about her own writing, saying that her favorite phrase was the one she wrote about the stairs. "I'm not sure it makes sense, though, I mean, 'the stairs neither go up or down.' I really don't know what that's supposed to mean but I like it!"

Shaw sometimes struggles with knowing exactly what kinds of changes to suggest to the students. For her, the goal is to empower them to express themselves.

"The most important part is that these kids are writing," says Katy Shaw '11.

"Do I want to explain where an apostrophe goes, or how you structure dialogue?" she ponders. "The most important part is that these kids are writing, and they're proud of it, and they're showing it to college kids. That's secondary to telling them what I appreciate about their writing."

Guerette notes that Blogging Buddies can have spillover effects, depending on the individual needs of students.

"One of the purposes of mentoring is to offer positive role models to local kids," he says. "But this is part tutoring, too, because hopefully we're helping to develop their writing skills."

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"The most important part is that these kids are writing, and they're proud of it, and they're showing it to college kids. That's secondary to telling them what I appreciate about their writing."
— Katy Shaw '11