[This is an old piece of writing from 1999. It was the paper I submitted for the 1999 International Conference on Technology in Education which was held in Edinburgh, Scotland. It is really interesting to go back and read something I wrote thirteen years ago and see much of the beginnings of the ideas I now hold most dear to my heart. I still think that “cyber-mentoring” is a great way to leverage the community to help students get more feedback on their writing. And it would be so much easier than it was then. The general idea was, essentially, proto-blogging. And as with most things ed-tech, the goal wasn’t the tech, but the benefits that the use of the technology created. Anyway… enjoy. — Chris]

Technology, Community and the Writing Process:
The Beacon School Cyber-Mentoring Project

— Chris Lehmann
English Teacher / Technology Coordinator
The Beacon School


One of the great problems facing any humanities teachers is “How do I make sure that my students get enough critique of their work so that they can make meaningful revisions and grow as writers?” No matter how many hours teachers spend on grading drafts of papers, nothing replaces those moments of one-to-one interaction between a student and a mentor teacher.

Cyber-Mentoring (http://www.beaconschool.org/~clehmann/mentor) in the humanities classroom uses the technology of web publishing and e-mail to bring more voices into the classroom so that students can get that one-to-one commentary on their writing.

The students publish their writings on-line as web documents, and the mentors read the student work and help the students with their craft of writing by carrying on a dialogue about the work with the student over email. The mentors are kept abreast of the activities of the class through an e-mailing list run by the teacher, who also is still responsible for grading all the student work. We have found that this process has been a transformative experience for all involved — the students, who are able push their growth as writers like never before, the mentors, who are able to spend more time “with” the students than they could in many other volunteer experiences and the teachers who find that their very pedagogy is changed by the experience of the program.

Some History and Some Theory

Most English teachers will agree that the act of revision as part of the writing process is an important and vital part of the writing process, but how do we give our students the tools they need to become good editors of their work? As I started my teaching career, fresh from graduate school and theories of writing, I was a firm believer in assigning multiple drafts of writing projects before a final draft. But as I progressed through the first few years of teaching, I found myself struggling under an increasingly impossible to manage paper load. I watched teachers pull all-nighters so that they could get papers back to students quickly enough for the paper to still have resonance so that another draft could be done. And I watched teachers burn out and leave teaching. Or I watched teachers use peer-review, which while helpful and informative (and still used in my classroom), still does not replace the comments of an adult editor. And I was forced to ask myself: How do we commit ourselves to teaching kids the writing process when we see thirty kids in each class and over one hundred students a day?

Then I attended a technology conference in New York City where Ted Nellen of the New York City high school, Murray Bergtraum, gave a workshop on Cyber-English (http://mbhs.bergtraum.k12.ny.us/cybereng/) and I saw in that lecture the idea of mentoring as a way to get the class more focused on that process of writing, empowering the students with more tools for improvement than a single teacher could ever give.

But why is the process of writing important? What are we, as teachers, trying to communicate when we talk about the writing process? For me, it’s important for students to see writing as a craft, as something that they need to see as an on-going movement. So many of us have memories of the great paper we wrote at 3am, without revision, barely conscious, that turned into something great, but even that paper didn’t happen in a vacuum. And while the brilliant first draft can be a reality, in truth, good writing comes when we are willing to step back from our work, accepting critique and learning to critique it ourselves.

And the act of revision extends long past the one paper. Revision makes students more aware of the structure of their work, so that they can become thoughtful about their writing when they begin pieces and when they revise it. Hopefully, that means when it does come time for that last minute, late night paper, they will have spent the time working on their writing, thinking about what it means to be a writer and to craft a piece of work, so that they will be able to pull that all-nighter off with style. And with the Cyber-Mentoring project, students were getting the necessarily feedback, in-depth and personal, that would allow them to see the power of revision and the writing process.

Moreover, I’ve been an internet geek since the early 1990s, when I started reading USENET groups and first published a web page. It was the early days of the World Wide Web, when Yahoo consisted mostly of college students telling the world they were there, and grad students posting their research. It was in this atmosphere that I first was confronted with the power of audience that this new medium was providing people. All of the sudden, my little web page and my comments to a newsgroup were engendering replies from people fom all over the world. I had an audience, and what I said took on extra meaning for me because now there were people reading it. In a classroom, this was a powerful idea. Now, students were writing, not just for that one teacher who was going to read the work, but what they had to say was going to get published so that anyone in the world could read it. It was a frightening and exhilarating idea for students, some of whom would soon be getting email from places they had to look up on a map. But audience can create power, as now words carried more meaning in a larger context than just a student-teacher dynamic.

I had another rationale for starting the Cyber-Mentoring project. Could I create a curriculum where the level of technology infusion was deeper, more holistic and used in a way that really changed the experience of both student and teacher? As the Technology Coordinator at the Beacon School, I have long been a proponent for using technology in the classroom, but while I had created and taught several projects that integrated technology into my curriculum in what I thought were meaningful and informative ways, I still felt that those projects were somehow “special” projects where we were making a special point of using the computers in the classroom. I wanted to create an atmosphere where the computers were an organic part of my English class. After all, for many people, the computer is a natural tool in their day to day life. Certainly, my kids knew how to use the computers to write their papers, so they knew how the technology could be a rudimentary tool for their learning. With mentoring, they could see a way that technology could become an integral part of their experience in the classroom.

So, I had my general idea. Create a technologically-driven mentoring program that would allow students to gain more of an understanding and appreciation for the writing process, give them a student-driven project where a great deal of time is spent going over their own personal works, thus making the class much more student centered, and let the students gain more fluency both with the written language but also the language and structure and uses of the computer.

Getting started

With all of those lofty goals in mind, I started out working on my project. It was the summer, and the first thing I did was write up some basic expectations of how the project would work. I was fortunate. At Beacon, we already had our Linux server, with email and web service already in operation, which made envisioning this project much easier.

One of the first things I did was find mentors. There are many ways to find mentors, and in the months since my original search, we’ve gone to writers’ organizations, teaching colleges and English programs at colleges, but for what was going to be my first foray into this process, I felt like I needed to work with people I knew. So I emailed every person I’ve knew who had ever talked to me about my teaching and expressed interest in it. Former co-workers, retired teachers, college roommates, old friends… all these people received that original email and formed the core of my group of mentors. All of the mentors were subscribed to an email mailing list or list-serv where I could announce assignments, discuss classroom issues, and mentors could discuss issues about the project both with me and amongst themselves.

Setting up the list-serv meant that, a) I had a quick method of reaching all of the mentors at once, and b) the mentors did not have to feel like that had to deal with issues on their own. And as the year has gone on, there have been many issues that mentors have discussed using that forum. Issues of how to critique to handling sensitive materials to gauging student reaction to the project have all been discussed.

From there, the next step was really trying to anticipate how this was going to affect my teaching on a daily basis. The real first question was how this would affect the physical space of my classroom. A mini-lab in the classroom I was teaching in would take up a lot of space in a classroom that already had to hold thirty-five bodies. I settled on putting a ring of eight computers along the back wall of the classroom along with a printer. The computers were a mix of old 550 and 580 Macs, a rebuilt Linux client and one new PC. One of the things that needs to be addressed with this project is the need for grant writing to get newer computers to run the project. Putting those computers in the class did cut down on the “active” space of the classroom for me, in that I now had much less room to roam between tables and chairs.

More importantly, the mentoring project was going to deeply affect the way that my classroom ran. I have been a “one project at a time” style teacher, where students were always working on the same thing, be it small group discussions, group projects, individual writings or large group discussions. Now, I was admitting that at given time, a quarter of the class was going to “opt out” of the class activities to work on the mentoring project, emailing their mentors or putting their writing up online. This was to be a difficult adjustment to make, both practically and philosophically, and it got to the heart of changes I needed to make to enact the mentoring project. I had to give up the control of my classroom that I was so used to.

Mentoring meant giving up control. I had to give up the control of the day to day running of my classroom, letting the clacking of keyboards add to the noise of a class discussion. I had to give up control of the editing of my students’ works, as now I had to let the mentors into my classroom. We, as teachers, often get very used to our fiefdom in our own little rooms. As a still young teacher, I was just getting used to the feel of the control of a classroom, and now I was giving much of that up.

As the start of school approached, most of the mentors were all in place, and the volume on the mentoring list-serv was fast and furious as mentors struggled with what mentoring was going to entail and this teacher struggled with how to tell them, given that I really wasn’t sure. One of the first “Mentoring Is…” emails contained the following advice:

As far as the types of comments I’d like you all to make… That’s mostly up to you. You will see the parts of their writing that need the most work. That being said, here are some guidelines:

* Make sure to sprinkle your criticism with praise (and trust me, there will be days that’s hard.) Kids (and adults) will get turned off quickly if they read nothing but criticism.

* Decide, as an editor / mentor, what the things you want the student to get out of your criticisms on that particular draft. If the paper has 20 things wrong with it (or things you’d like to see changed, etc…), writing 10 pages of comments to their 5 pages of writing will probably cause what you really want them to notice to get lost. Be thorough, but at the same time, try to focus most of your comments (if not your notations) on a few themes or problems that you see in their work. They will hear that more and be able to focus on those problems as specific tasks for rewrites.

* Trust your instincts. If you aren’t a poet and a kid turns in a poem that you don’t know how to suggest a revision, that’s o.k. By that same token, if you feel like a creative writing piece needs something specific, don’t be afraid to mention it.

* Don’t worry. I’ll be laying out a lot of what *I’m* looking for from assignment to assignment for all of you, so that you won’t be sailing blind.

Thoughts? Questions? What else can I start the process with? (1)

One of the biggest questions to deal was training the mentors to write good comments. These people are not, for the most part, professional teachers. How do you train mentors to be good mentors? This message to the mentoring list was a brief guide, but I really didn’t know how to train them more. Summing up several different theories of assessment wasn’t going to be of interest. Moreover, I did want them to find their own voices as mentors. With those basic guidelines and the discussion that followed them, supplimented by the Cyber-Mentoring Guide that I had written on my web site(2) and a promise that they could always ask me for help, the mentors had enough to at least start the process of mentoring their students.

As the mentors came up with more and more questions, and the reading lists for the classes were posted, a problem arose. With a group of volunteers, how much of the reading could I expect them do to? One of the mentors asked:

I have a question, and a disclosure, of sorts. The disclosure is this: I don’t think I can commit to reading all of the stuff on your reading list.

The question is this: How vital is it that I do so?(3)

This really did present a problem. Clearly, there would be a level of textual analysis missing from the work if the mentors hadn’t read the books. Fortunately, much of what we read in both the ninth and the 12th grade is rather canonical so I could hope that the mentors had read some of the texts, but not all. And I did want the mentors to read if they could, but I didn’t want to scare away this test group of mentors who were all giving up their own time. In the end, I decided that it was more important that people felt good about entering into this process than it was for them to keep up on everything. This was my response:

It’s not all that vital. Obviously, in a perfect world, I’d love everyone to do all the readings, but I don’t expect people to be able to do so. Much of the writing (certainly all of the creative writing) will stand on its own. And with the analytical essays, even if you haven’t read, for example, _Grapes of Wrath_, you can still read an essay for a thesis statement, body paragraphs, supporting evidence, etc…

Just so you all know, I tend to spend a lot of time on Shakespeare (certainly Hamlet, I’ve never taught Lear before), but you all can cheat and rent the movies. 😉

Also, and *boy* do I hate admitting this, there are *gasp* the Cliffs Notes availible for books if you just want to familiarize yourself with character, plot and basic themes. Again, do *not* feel obligated to do this at all.(4)

And it’s true that in an ideal world, I would want all the mentors to read all of the books. But it was important that I got mentor buy in on this project. The mentors are volunteers, and I worried that they needed to be made to feel good about the project. As a first year volunteer in a first year program, looking down at a list of books could be a bit daunting. It’s my hope that I would keep mentors from year to year and that, over time, they would read all the books.

Feedback on the Project

From the mentor’s perspective, this project allows a larger community to take part in the classroom while carving out time for themselves. We, as teachers, know that it’s important to break down the artificial barrier between school and the community at large. Cyber-Mentoring allows adults to take part in the school while not having to physically be in the classroom, so more adults who otherwise would not be able to commit to getting to the school are able to take part in the life of the school. Moreover, the community expands beyond the geographical boundaries. The following comments are from Steve Hawley, a mentor who is an active participant in the project, able to take part from his home in California.

In an ideal world, a teacher has an infinite supply of both time and energy for the students. And while Mr. Lehmann appears to have a boundless supply of the latter, the former is precious resource.

Mentoring, whether direct or remote, is a way to help students in a positive, cooperative way with direct feedback that is simply not possible without one-on-one tutoring.

My role as a mentor grants me two gifts. The first is the ability to put on the shoes of teacher and see how they fit me. I am considering changing my career to that of an educator, and this experience has given me invaluable experience to help me choose my future. The second gift is less tangible. It is the gift of being able to see into the developing mind of the future. Through their writing I am given a glimpse of who my charges are, how they live, and who they might become. This is precious to me. (5)

And another comment from Marilyn Wallace, a writer in New York City:

Being a mentor in Chris Lehmann’s program allows me to give something back to the society from which I have received so much.

Giving my time and my experience to help young people is satisfying because it is so direct and personal. My three students are very different people, and I look forward to tailoring my comments about their writing to what I think they need most to grow as people–as potential college students and job seekers and consumers and voters and parents and all the other roles that require using language and ideas to maneuver through this fast-moving multimedia culture.

It’s wonderful to take a break from my own work to check in on the students’ progress, something that the computer component of this program allows me to do according to my own daily schedule. I truly appreciate the opportunity to be involved in this exciting program. (6)

In both cases, the mentors see this project as a way to get involved with younger people. Extending our classrooms to include a wider community allows all members to be touched by the interaction. The students get the advantage of the one-on-one interaction with the mentors and the mentors get take part in the educational process of our students.

And in the end, this is about whether or not it helps the students, so any paper on the project should and must include the words of the students about the project.

The following is an email from one of my seniors about the project:

I have been raised by parents who have always played an active role in my education, whether it be encouraging me to read beyond that which is assigned in school, or reading over my papers, providing structural/gramatical suggestions for improving my work. The cyber- mentoring project was thus, not as beneficial to my analytical work as it may have been to others. I do feel that it is extremely beneficial to students who may not have the same advantages, as it provides them with a person aside from the teacher, who can edit their work and strengthen their writing.

I do feel that the mentoring project greatly benefited my creative writing, something I am accustomed to keeping separate from the work I show my parents. My mentor, not only provided me with structural suggestions, but advised me on plot devices in my short stories, and offered her feelings on my use of alliteration in some of my poetry.

One criticism (please do not repeat this) I have for the cyber mentoring project is that my mentor was not always reliable when it came to responding on time. Much of my work, although it was improved upon at a later date, did not receive the necessary feedback until after the final draft was due. While I realize that the mentors have their own lives/work etc. I feel that, if one embarks upon such a project, he/she must “keep up his/her end of the bargain”.

Overall, I feel that the cyber mentoring project was a success as it provided all students (whether “privileged” or not) with a person whom they could depend on for feedback on their work. Although my mentor was often tardy in her responses, she eventually responded to all of my needs, and benefited my written work. (7)

This student shows the positives and the negatives of the project in his letter. He’s found the space he needs to find good in the mentoring project for himself, getting feedback on areas of his work that he has not always gotten as much help with. Moreover, he sees how this relates to our urban classroom, where not all students have the same advantages. However, he also gets at what has been the most difficult part of the project, the logistical end of the deadlines. While I’ve given a week between rough draft and final drafts, so that the mentor can respond and the students would have enough time to incorporate those responses into their final drafts, there is still a problem getting students and mentors to coordinate when drafts are online and how quickly mentors respond to them. This, it seems to me, to be more of a problem in the 12th grade where, admittedly, it’s harder (and perhaps more intimidating) to comment on the student work. The student work is, by nature of their age and experience, more complex, and I worry that some mentors are, like students sometimes, procrastinating on the harder work.

With the ninth graders, the mentoring project has spawned a great deal of success. Interestingly, there have been more close personal “mentoring” relationships forming between the younger students and their mentors than there have been among the senior class and their mentors. Overall, the ninth graders have been very open to the project, perhaps with the newness of high school, they see this as just one more way that high school is a new experience. An early part of the problem was that they were adjusting to all the added expectations of high school as compared to junior high, and therefore, deadlines and the extra work of the technology of the project threw up some early obstacles with younger students. However, as the year has progressed, the students have matured and have gotten better about meeting their responsibilities with the project.

As part of their end of the semester assignment (http://www.beaconschool.org/~clehmann/mentor/ninth/1stSemAssess.html), they had to share their thoughts on the mentoring project. What follows are two student’s reactions, first from Ivan Vargas:

My Cyber monitor likes my stories. Even though he seems to have pages and pages of comments about them. AJ is a good guy who I can talk to even if it’s not about school work. I think I can thank him for some of my good grades on my papers because he spots things only a teacher would spot which saves me from getting a paper back with all red pen marks on it. [for the record, I grade in black or blue pen — cdl] Other comments I don’t agree with because I feel it might change my work but that is okay because on every letter he reminds me that these are his comments that I can listen to or burn. But they help me a lot. (8)

And secondly, from Lisnel Rivero:

I’d also like to talk to you about the mentoring project. I love it! I think it’s a great idea and you should continue it with your other classes. The mentoring project has helped me a lot, because my mentor, Reilly, has helped me write and edit my work and not only does he help me, but he’s also my friend. We get along well. I’m just disappointed when he doesn’t respond as quick, but I understand that he has other things to do. (9)

While, again, we see the problem of response time, we also see the students with an enthusiastic endorsement of the project. This, more than anything else, has been the most important barometer of the project. While the project has held different challenges for the ninth and twelvth graders, the overwhelming response from the students has been powerful and positive.

Reflections, perspectives and conclusions

When I first started this project, it just seemed to make sense. Pair up kids and adults and have them work together on writing over the web and email. It was, at root, a very simple idea stemming from very common sense theories. There was, as I quickly realized, much more going on with this project.

And as I type this, I’m really no more than half of the way through the first year of this experiment, so I feel almost too wrapped up in the project to be able to offer much of a reflection on it. I look forward to this summer when I can get away from the project long enough to really take a look at what we did and didn’t accomplish this year. I think that the one thing that I really feel is that I wasn’t ready for how powerfully this was going to affect my teaching style.

Creating a Cyber-Mentoring project in this fashion does mean that loss of control that I spoke of earlier. As teachers, we are used to being the ultimate authority in your classroom, and we are used to being the most important point of contact for the students about their work. Giving up that role did take some getting used to. The first time that a student conferenced with me about my paper and responded to a suggestion of mine with, “Well, my mentor suggested I do it this way…” was a turning point for me. I worried that how I handled that moment would define, for me, much of the way that I looked the project. The student and I talked about why the mentor might have suggested the edit, and in the end, she decided to keep the mentor’s suggestion over mine. It was important for me to allow the mentors to feel comfortable making the suggestions that they wanted to make and not just make the ones that they thought I’d want them to make. More importantly, it was important that the students trust their mentors to give them good advice even if that meant backing away myself sometimes.

In addition, I have had to make the time in my curriculum to implement the project. In the beginning of the year, that meant teaching the students HTML, giving extra time for the whole class to put projects online as they got used to this manner of “handing in” their work. But as the students and I have gotten used to the mentoring project, the project has moved more seemlessly into the daily workings of my class.

At its worst, the Cyber-Mentoring Project leaves me feeling more like an administrator than like a teacher. There are times when checking student web pages and monitoring emails between students and mentors (or worse, trying to get one of the two parties involved to write to the other one…) does feel less like teaching than I’d like. It is a frustration, as the students point out, when some mentors are more punctual than others, therefore giving their kids more of a leg up with the process than others. Certainly, there are times when I wonder how much of these questions are part of the growing pains of the project or things that are endemic to the mentoring project itself. (Or perhaps worse, they are merely manifestations of flaws in my teaching that the mentoring project seems to accentuate.)

But at its best, I watch my students developing their voices, getting tons and tons of feedback. I watch their parents have more input on their writing because they can see the essays they write without having to struggle with them. The students check their emails every day after they’ve posted a rough draft, looking forward to seeing what the mentors have said. And my students are more committed to revision and rewriting than in any other year of my teaching. For whatever flaws this project (or my administration of the project) may have, I feel that my students believe in the writing process as a process more, and that’s been a huge boon to them and to my classroom. And that is enough to make me believe in this project and therefore become an advocate for it.



(1) An email sent by me to the mentoring list-serv: “A Week and a half until…” — August 31, 1998

(2) The Cyber-Mentor Guide: http://www.beaconschool.org/~clehmann/mentor/mentorguide.html

(3) Written by Arend Abel, mentor, in an email response to the “A Week…” thread.

(4) My response. Same day.

(5) Email from Steve Hawley — October 14, 1998.

(6) Email from Marilyn Wallace — October 14, 1998.

(7) Email from a student. Name withheld by request. — February 19, 1999

(8) “Letter About Semester,” Ivan Vargas — http://www.beaconschool.org/~ivargas/lletter.html

(9) “Reflection Letter,” Lisnel Rivero — http://www.beaconschool.org/~lrivero/reflecletter.html