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May 1, 2004
Vol. 61
No. 8

Tomorrow's Leaders Connect

Students build literacy skills, civic awareness, and self-confidence when they partner with community leaders.

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Reading and writing are often low on a student's list of favorite activities. How, then, can teachers fulfill their responsibility to improve student literacy skills? This question inspired a program called TLC—Tomorrow's Leaders Connect.
The genesis of the TLC program was my observation that many students—even those who do not voluntarily read books—are fairly interested in reading the local newspaper. In general, students' interest in the newspaper grows as they get older and their reading abilities and involvement in their community increase. Depending on the size of the community, students may come across articles about people they know or issues that affect them. I wondered what would happen if students personally knew leaders in the community who frequently appeared in the local paper. Would this personal connection increase students' motivation to read?
To establish such a connection, I designed the TLC program for my 5th grade students at Nocatee Elementary School in Desoto County, Florida. As the program took form, I realized that it had the potential to motivate students not only to read but also to write. The concept of TLC was simple: Recruit students and community leaders, and pair each student with a community partner throughout the school year. The community partners agreed to respond to several letters from their students during the year; they could also choose to write more frequently or even come to the school for a visit. The students wrote to their community partners, regularly scanned the local newspaper for articles mentioning their partners' activities, and maintained portfolios with all correspondence and related newspaper clippings.
The program's only cost was for postage. I arranged for 35 copies of the local daily newspaper, the Desoto Sun Herald, to be delivered to participating classrooms at no charge through the Newspaper in Education program. (More information about this program, developed by the Newspaper Association of America, is available online at www.naa.org/foundation/nie.html.)
Desoto County is a small community with approximately 32,000 residents. The community leaders are well known, and most of them were born and raised in our town and educated in our local public schools. Because of this, they have a vested interest in our students that transcends the typical obligations of an elected official.
As the TLC program has grown and developed, we have seen ample evidence of its power to connect students with supportive adults. As an aspiring artist, David was partnered with a local professional cartoonist. The two have exchanged drawings, and David can't wait to see what drawing tips each letter holds for him. Aaron wants to be a firefighter when he grows up; his TLC partner is a local fire chief. When the partner's first response letter arrived, it was stuffed with goodies for Aaron—a pencil, a key chain, and a firefighter's patch that he now wears proudly on his jacket. Michelle, a school chorus star, writes to a local professional singer. The two have already met and plan to attend each other's performances. Such stories abound.
After being partnered with Aileen Bailey, a former teacher and the current school board chairperson, Ashley eagerly wrote her first letter, expressing her desire to attend an Ivy League college despite economic barriers. Mrs. Bailey responded that her grandson was attending Princeton and that she was off to visit him soon. As the two partners exchanged more letters, Ashley learned of scholarships that are available to students who work hard in school. Ashley writes to Mrs. Bailey often to keep her informed of her schoolwork, and Mrs. Bailey responds with encouragement. Every other week, Ashley cuts out the latest newspaper article quoting Mrs. Bailey or telling what the school board has accomplished. Ashley is now more determined than ever to make her dream come true.
Vivian was not sure about her TLC partner at first. Dan Gibson, the newspaper editor, didn't seem to have a very interesting job. Vivian wrote her first letter with little enthusiasm. “What is your favorite part of your job? How long have you worked at the paper? What state were you born in?” In his eager reply, Mr. Gibson explained the exciting parts of his job and told Vivian he was born in Mississippi. Vivian became a little more interested: Her family had just returned from a vacation in Mississippi. She responded and began to scan the newspaper carefully. She couldn't believe how many articles Mr. Gibson wrote over the next few weeks. Since those first letters, Vivian has accumulated a collection of her partner's articles in her TLC portfolio, and she is always eager to read the newspaper to see what he has written lately.

Starting a TLC Program

The TLC program offers a simple yet powerful way for community leaders to become part of the school and influence the learning and lives of students. Our experience suggests some guidelines for starting a similar program in your school.
The first step is to choose a TLC coordinator—ideally, several weeks before the school year begins. The TLC coordinator contacts the local newspaper and arranges for copies to be made available in the participating classrooms. He or she also contacts the teachers who want to participate and works with them to make a list of potential community leaders to contact, striving for as much gender and ethnic diversity as possible. Every community is full of potential partners: the city administrator, local attorneys, the county mayor, the fire chief, the police chief, county commissioners, a high school football coach, professional artists, the head librarian, the school district superintendent, and the local newspaper editor, for example. After choosing the community partners, the coordinator contacts them by telephone, e-mail, or in person. In our case, the responses were overwhelmingly positive; not a single candidate said no. Most people feel honored to be chosen as a role model for a student.
After the school year begins, the coordinator may distribute a questionnaire to the participating classrooms that asks about students' personal interests to assist in matching them with TLC partners. For example, a student who answers the question “What do you like to do when you are at home?” by writing “I like to play with my dog” may enjoy having a local veterinarian or pet store owner as his or her partner.
The coordinator should send home a letter to parents introducing the TLC program, along with a consent form for students' participation. The coordinator should also draft a cover letter to send with each student's first contact letter thanking the TLC community leader for taking part in the program. This letter should indicate the teacher's name and school's name and should remind the community partner to respond in a timely manner.
When everyone has a partner, students write their first letter. To avoid confusion and privacy issues, students should use the school address, not their home address, as the return address. Students should be encouraged to ask questions about their partner's interests and personal lives—such as “Do you have any pets?” or “What is your favorite color?”—in addition to questions related to the partner's role in the community. Teachers should help the students refine their letters and teach them any new skills they need, such as addressing an envelope. Teaching opportunities abound, from social studies skills to language arts.
When the letters have been drafted, reviewed by the teacher, attached to the cover letters, and sealed in addressed envelopes, they are ready to be mailed. A field trip to the post office or a class visit to the U.S. Postal Service Web site (www.usps.com) will enhance this experience.
As soon as students find out who their community partner is, they can begin searching the local newspaper for their partner's name and for stories related to their partner's activities or organization. Some students will find more articles about their partner than others will, but teachers should encourage each student to look diligently. The TLC coordinator and participating teachers should also read the paper carefully to find any articles about partners that the students did not notice. The TLC coordinator may want to keep a master file of all articles.
Soon the response letters will begin to come in. The teacher or the coordinator should read all responses before the students read them and file them in their portfolios to safeguard against any possible problems. The teacher should also keep track of the responses and send an encouraging reminder to partners who do not respond within a reasonable amount of time.

Reading, Writing, and Self-Esteem

Students gain a world of information about their community in the TLC program. Fifth graders at Nocatee have learned about the election process, why a community has taxes, how a public library system works, and what a police officer does during the day. They have also learned about some of the possible careers that will be open to them if they work hard in school.
The benefits do not stop here, however. A key goal of the program is to increase students' reading, writing, and technology skills. The increased self-esteem that students feel when they know they matter to someone important is the icing on the cake.
Reading and writing benefits. Reading the paper each day challenges students' reading skills. As they search for articles related to their TLC partners, they become familiar with headlines and learn how to scan for information. Students come across other topics just by reading the headlines, and they often discover new areas of interest.
Students' involvement in crafting letters to their community partners strengthens their writing skills. They work hard to pose questions properly and to formulate responses to their partners' questions. They may even see examples of grammatical mistakes in the responses they receive, reminding them that it's OK to make mistakes. In any event, students learn by engaging in a real-world task that has meaning for them.
Technology benefits. Technology is a fitting, although optional, piece of the TLC puzzle. Most county governments have a Web site where students can read about upcoming events in the community, including those involving their partners. Students should print out the relevant Web pages and add them to their TLC portfolios. If the school has Internet connections available to the students and if district regulations regarding Internet use permit it, some students can communicate with their partners by e-mail. Students who write their letters on the computer will improve their keyboarding and word processing skills.
Affective benefits. In addition to the academic benefits gained through the TLC program, the students will feel increased self-worth as their partners respond to their questions and offer insight into community events and issues. Community leaders serve as role models for students and can sometimes offer encouragement when the students need it most.
Recently, our 5th grade students performed a patriotic program and invited their parents as well as local armed forces personnel, law enforcement officers, and firefighters to attend. Leah, a TLC student participant, had been visibly sad for days before the program. She had no one to watch her perform her part. She wrote to her TLC partner, Ms. Forster, a local policewoman, and invited her to come to the program.
On the day of the program, the two were introduced just minutes before it began. There was no missing the smile on Leah's face throughout the program. And nothing can replace the feeling of satisfaction Ms. Forster has, knowing that she has made a difference in the life of a child.

Community Leaders Make a Difference

This February, we planned a luncheon to honor and thank the community partners. Students sent out invitations to their partners and to their parents. This special event was a great community-building activity as students introduced their partners to parents, school staff, and other students. The relationships that have been formed throughout the school year could remain strong for years.
As educators, we know that although students need to achieve academically, they also need to feel important to someone. They need to feel loved and listened to. By making a small amount of time available in their busy schedules to correspond with interested students, community leaders can help meet this need, boost students' literacy skills, and make a valuable contribution to their local schools.

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