Relationships are central to learning. This has been a key value of Homework Zone since 2011 and at the root of some recent anxiety as the HZ Team planned for 2020-21 in our new COVID reality. HZ is a free afterschool program connecting McGill students with elementary and high school students around Kahnawá:ke and Tio'tia:ke (Montreal). The purpose of HZ is to support youth to have a positive experience with school by building on their strengths, addressing gaps and promoting well-being, self-esteem, civic engagement and autonomy for all participants.
With relationships at the root of this work, how do we facilitate authentic, trusting friendships between mentors and mentees online when essential elements that make HZ work are missing? These include having a group of 15-20 McGill students getting to know each other and building community while travelling together to their schools. For the youth in the schools, the weekly afterschool ritual of seeing a gang of McGill students entering the school for now is gone. The charmingly chaotic and electric din of mentor-mentee pairs and small Math study groups taking over school spaces, figuring things out and getting to know each other has now migrated to virtual spaces that can seem antithetical to building community.
Thankfully, we humans are a resilient and adaptable lot and that includes the HZ team, our volunteers, youth and their families and our school partners who are everyday responding to what teaching and learning looks like in this new normal. Following our planning over the Summer and into the Fall, HZ was finally ready to launch a month later than usual. For six sessions from late October to the first week of December, we tried out e-learning tools like IXL, collaborative games like Among Us, implemented mindfulness activities with educator Brandon Dawson-Jarvis from Grove Campus, and hosted a workshop on the magic of rocks with McGill’s Earth and Planetary Sciences outreach group.
How did it go? Well, let’s hear from the folks who make HZ happen on the (virtual) ground for the mentors and mentees who join us every week. We will hear from HZ Program Coordinators Drake D’Souza (Kahnawá:ke Survival School, H.S. Billings High School) and Chloe Soucy (Karonhianónhnha Tsi Ionterihwaienstáhkhwa, Kateri Elementary and St-Willibrord Elementary) and HZ’s Curriculum Developer, Catherine Turgeon-Gouin.
What were your expectations about what HZ would look and feel like online?
I think we were apprehensive that what makes Homework Zone so unique, the personal connection between mentors and mentees, would suffer from being online - but we were wrong!
Initially, you worry about how the relationships are going to be built or how are we going to connect through a screen. What I quickly found out was Homework Zone was the opportunity for many of us to connect, meet new people and hear new stories even if it was only for a short time once a week.
I also went into this first online semester wanting to test as much as I could, because I was excited about the opportunity to try out new online learning resources. I was also curious about what resources and approaches would work for different types of students and watching everybody find their preferred path.
I was mostly concerned about keeping the kids engaged— sitting in front of a computer all day is difficult for us, and even more difficult for an elementary schooler! I expected it to be much more difficult for mentors and mentees to build and sustain a meaningful connection. I also expected it to be much more difficult to find McGill volunteers who were interested in mentoring, as I thought they would be turned off by the online format. Really, I figured everyone would be kind of sick of their screens.
What were some pleasant surprises you noticed with how HZ worked online?
There is a different level of comfort people feel when in their own rooms or houses. Being surrounded by all of our favourite things that make us who we are. This created so many unique conversations and allowed all of us to share parts of ourselves that maybe wouldn’t have come out as easily in a school setting. In addition, we are students working with students and we’re all going through similar experiences right now with schooling, so this allows us to speak openly about our unique experiences, share wisdom and motivate each other.
I was pleasantly surprised by the number of mentors we had sign up! Many expressed that they wanted to find ways to connect to McGill and the local community, even if they were living elsewhere. I was also impressed by the connections forged between the mentors and mentees— I believe the mentees are also looking for more of a community connection right now. Some of the mentees even showed up when they didn’t have homework to do, just to hang out with us!
The online format can actually offer the possibility of a more intimate form of connection, because it can strip away some of the distractions. Some mentees seem to be more comfortable being themselves too, since they have a space where even other students can't see or hear them with their mentors. We've had memorable silly faces!
What are you looking forward to next semester?
I am thrilled with the mentors I had this semester so I am looking forward to seeing who comes back in January. Each of them found innovative ways to connect to their mentees, using online games or art-making platforms to develop a more cooperative relationship, not a hierarchical one. I am also looking forward to once again having 5th and 6th graders, McGill undergraduate volunteers, the Cooperating Teacher (school staff), myself (a grad student), and other community members— all participating in the same activities and workshops we organize. I think this is the most important thing when building relationships with kids, especially online. From their perspective, it can be intimidating to be in a Zoom call with a bunch of adults. Using games and art and mindfulness helps show that us “adults” aren’t perfect at everything either, and takes the focus off any individual.
I'm really excited to try offering two HZ sessions a week at each school, because being online means less travel and therefore more opportunities to support the youth, and mentors seem to be open to doing that. Perhaps this means we can do a hybrid version of HZ (live and online) when social distancing measures finally end?
I’m looking forward to seeing all our hard work come together. This past summer we planned through so much uncertainty and rolled out a new online version of Homework Zone we could be proud of. Now with the Fall semester of experience and the adjustments we’ve made throughout that process I believe we have a really cool combination of activities coming up in the winter semester!
What are you looking forward to when HZ goes live again?
I’m excited to get back to the human connection that Homework Zone brings, the high fives after a correct answer or the seeing the “eureka moment” where the students grasp a previously difficult concept.
We're cooking some special activities that I can't wait to do live! I'm especially excited for the ones where mentees will get to interact with their communities - I think these will be particularly exciting.
One of my favorite moments of in-person Homework Zone was bringing the volunteers into the elementary school for the first time. The smell, the tiny chairs, the chaos of kids running in the hallways, the art on the walls… it is a very nostalgic moment for us all.