Students and adults benefit from local mentoring programs
It takes a village to raise a child, according to an African proverb. And mentoring programs in local schools are recruiting villagers to help do that.
The Rev. Harold Davis, a former elementary school teacher, founded the TALKS mentoring program 14 years ago after seeing “there was a massive need.” Davis recruited several friends to mentor and wrote lesson plans for the mentors’ use that addressed life issues and sought to build leadership skills.
“We’re making a pre-emptive strike on adult problems while (the children) are young before the children get entrenched in all the problems that adults have. We give them the information that they need to survive.”
Children in the TALKS program are mentored in small, same-sex groups, with each group comprising one child who excels academically but may be shy or lack social skills, one average student who might improve with support, and one student who is “at risk” academically and/or behaviorally.
TALKS – Transferring a Little Knowledge Systematically – is used in 19 area schools and is being replicated in institutions around the country. TALKS currently has 60 adults mentoring in local schools and has separate curricula for boys and girls; the girls’ curricula was written by Ollie Watts Davis, a professor in the School of Music who also is the Rev. Davis’ spouse.
James Hannum, a professor of educational psychology in the College of Education, mentors two boys who are seventh-graders at Urbana Middle School. Hannum is in his fourth year as a TALKS mentor, although three of the students whom he mentored initially have since moved out of the district and other boys have joined his group.
Likewise, Greg Moen, an electrician foreman in Facilities and Services, is in his second year mentoring Cortez, a sixth-grader at Edison Middle School, through the C-U One-to-One Mentoring Program.
Begun in 1994, the program matches adult volunteers with youth in the Champaign and Urbana schools. Teachers, staff members, counselors and even parents recommend students for the program who may be underachieving academically, attending school sporadically or struggling with poor self-esteem.
“When we survey students with mentors, more than 90 percent report that having a mentor helps them feel good about themselves, think about goals for their future and feel better about coming to school,” said Barbara Linder, program coordinator for the C-U One-to-One Mentoring Program. “Having stronger connections to school and having future thinking skills are critical to school success. Having a trusted adult friend, role model and cheerleader are important to life success. That’s why mentors are so important in the lives of students.”
Most children enter the program as fourth-, fifth- or sixth-graders, and mentors are encouraged to make a long-term commitment, staying with their students for at least two or three years. Students meet with their mentors for an hour each week during school hours and engage in activities of their choice.
“I think it’s fun,” said Moen, who is the father of three girls and always has enjoyed working with young people. “There are days when it’s tougher, but it’s never like I don’t want to go. It’s not instant gratification. It’s like planting a tree: You might not be around to see the fruits of your labor.”
Finding common ground, showing interest in the student without being intrusive, and finding activities of mutual enjoyment can be a challenge at first for mentors, who may know little about the students’ backgrounds, interests or the academic and personal obstacles they face. Hannum initially relied on the TALKS readings and teaching format to work with his students but found that mixing in other activities improved his mentoring. He and his two students, Evan and John, often spend time in the game room at Urbana Middle School, playing Ping-Pong or board games, shooting baskets in the gym or tossing a football outside.
“I think what makes a difference is if you don’t try to have too direct a conversation with these boys, they’re much more willing to talk,” Hannum said. “It’s easier to talk with them when they’re shooting baskets than it is to sit across the table from them and say, ‘How’s your day going?’ and ‘What’s happening in your life?’ I find it best to sort of weave in an interest in them without appearing too blunt or direct about it.
“It’s nice having a relationship with them where you don’t have to be their teacher, their parent or their disciplinarian. They’ve gotten to know me, and I’ve gotten to know them, and the relationship is a pleasant one.”
Mentoring the boys has afforded Hannum the opportunity to be involved with youth and watch them grow and develop, which he’s missed since his own children became adults.
A “quiet, very courteous” boy, Cortez was a little hard to get to know at first, Moen said. But they shared an interest in sports and were able to connect through that, sometimes shooting hoops or tossing a football around during their weekly sessions.
Moen, whose hobbies include working with stained glass, shared his skills with Cortez and helped him create a stained-glass window hanging for Cortez’s mother as a Christmas gift.
Want to be a mentor?
University employees may use an hour of release time per week for mentoring in local elementary and secondary schools, as provided by policy in the Campus Administrative Manual.
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