When the pandemic forced the education industry to shift to a remote format, many teachers and students missed the authenticity of in-person interactions. Despite the difficulties that came with switching to remote education, Nicole Kelley, Lynch ’22, and Shemar Joseph, MCAS ’23, witnessed its silver linings firsthand.
Before COVID-19 hit, Kelley and Joseph—both aspiring teachers—volunteered at local schools around the Boston area through Eagle Volunteers, a service group that brings college tutors to Mount Alvernia Academy, an elementary school in Newton. The pandemic halted these in-person tutoring experiences, leaving Kelley and Joseph to search for another way to stay connected with students.
“Because of COVID, we weren’t able to go back [last year], and we still wanted to be involved in education and trying to help other students in any way that we can,” Kelley said.
The silver lining of the pandemic and the opportunity to keep helping students came far away from the Boston schools they had been working in—all the way from Oakland, Calif. As Kelley and Joseph searched for ways to continue their community service, Dan Ponsetto, director of the Volunteer Service Learning Center, circulated an email about an opportunity that suited their criteria—Meaningful Teens.
Meaningful Teens is a program that started during the COVID-19 pandemic that connects low-income students with high school and college students who tutor them remotely, specifically focusing on reading and reading comprehension. Kelley and Joseph both signed up, with the goal of continuing to pursue their passion for educating youth.
“Because of the online format, it’s pretty easy to just join,” Joseph said.
Although operating virtually and serving students across the country through Meaningful Teens is new for Kelley, volunteering with kids is not.
“I have always loved working with kids,” Kelley said. “Ever since middle school [and] high school, I’ve been volunteering at schools and doing anything that I can to be involved in the education system of young children … I just feel like it’s a great way to give back to the community.”
Similarly, Meaningful Teens’ focus on youth education is what drew Joseph in, he said. He wanted to try to replicate the in-person tutoring work he did in a kindergarten classroom during the 2019-20 school year, he said.
“This year, [Meaningful Teens] was the same opportunity to still try to be with kids in a classroom environment. … So, it was an opportunity to do that tutoring, mentorship role. And I think because we’re also working with low-income students from California, that was also a big, big draw for me.”
Not only did Meaningful Teens provide an avenue for Kelley and Joseph to continue tutoring, but they also knew low-income students needed more assistance in reading and reading comprehension because of learning losses due to COVID-19, they said.
Given the virtual format, tutors can be paired with students across the globe, depending on the time commitment that they can offer. Kelley and Joseph were placed at a school in Oakland, Calif. When they logged on to tutor, the sun would be setting for them, but for their students, it was only late afternoon.
The teachers that work with Meaningful Teens mainly facilitate the tutoring sessions, while volunteer tutors like Kelley and Joseph help the students with their reading and reading comprehension skills individually in breakout rooms. The volunteers meet with different students each week in the breakout rooms, allowing them to interact with a variety of the students at their placement.
Through their partnerships with local teachers, Meaningful Teens provides books and magazines for its students to use during the tutoring sessions.
“They do a great job laying everything out for the tutors and the teachers to work with, so that you’re never left unsure what you have to do,” Kelley said. “And sometimes, they’ll bring in guest speakers to motivate students and provide more information and things like that.”
While the online format has its silver linings for tutoring—such as making extra help more accessible—it also has its challenges.
“Even for the kids themselves, it was hard for them to be engaged with you,” Joseph said. “So, you’d have to spend some time asking them like, ‘Do you have siblings? What do you like to do? What are you interested in?’ because sometimes they just weren’t very interested in reading at all.”
Engaging the students wasn’t the only obstacle Kelley and Joseph encountered because of the remote format—the technology itself often faltered.
“Internet connection is a big thing … whether your kids are at home and they have a million people on their internet at the same time, or their internet just by where they live is not the strongest,” Kelley said. “So, it can be tricky because signals will go in and out, and, you know, it’s hard to get them back sometimes.”
Over the past year of working with Meaningful Teens, Kelley said that she has witnessed her students becoming more technologically adept and better able to manage these difficulties.
Despite the challenges of establishing repertoire with students remotely, both Kelley and Joseph said that Meaningful Teens provided a fulfilling way to continue doing what they enjoy—tutoring kids—when it wasn’t possible to do so in person.
“The most rewarding part was just knowing that you were helping these kids become better at reading because reading comprehension is a big, big part of education,” Joseph said. “Even now, in college, I wish I’d spent more time reading when I was younger because it really helped me out writing wise. So, I’d say, even though that may not seem that important, I think helping children become more literate is very important.”
Even though many children are returning to in-person learning, Meaningful Teens will continue to operate virtually this year.
The silver linings of Meaningful Teens go beyond allowing Joseph and Kelley to keep tutoring and developing skills for their future careers as teachers—the online format has also made learning more accessible to low-income students who may not have the time, resources, or other means to participate in in-person, after-school tutoring, Joseph said.
The ease of virtually tutoring students living across the country allowed Kelley to keep helping students during the summer. Joseph and Kelley are enthusiastic about working with the organization again, even with the online format, they said.
The remote format has given Kelley and Joseph the opportunity to foster connections they would not have been able to make without it. Both believe that this program—despite it being a result of the pandemic—will continue to prosper in a post-pandemic world, they said.
“I think it’s going to do wonders because I would have never been able to meet this phenomenal group of people if it wasn’t for the pandemic, and as crazy and awful as it is, it’s been able to open up doors for many different people and connect people nationwide,” Kelley said. “You’re sharing stories and perspectives, and what we’re learning [about how] to become teachers is fairly similar to what they’re doing, across the country, but I’m also learning techniques and strategies that I hadn’t heard about before.”
Featured Graphic by Olivia Charbonneau / Heights Editor