Harvard’s Teaching and Learning Partnerships team trains high school students to be mentors in Boston Public School’s Homework Help program. The team uses an approach developed by Harvard’s SmartTALK program (photo 1). Joan Matsalia (right, photo 2), associate director of Teaching and Learning Partnerships, talks with one of the teens in training, while Renelle Lawrence (standing, photo 3), a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, provides guidance.

Photos by Ann Wang

Campus & Community

Harvard helping the helpers

4 min read

SmartTALK collaborates with Boston Public Library’s Homework Help program to train teen mentors

This fall, Harvard University’s Teaching and Learning Partnerships (TLP) team will begin a new collaboration with the Boston Public Library (BPL).

The TLP team will train more than 50 Boston high school students to become effective mentors for the BPL’s Homework Help program. The team will use an approach developed by Harvard University’s SmartTALK program. SmartTALK offers a structured way to support children’s learning, focusing on methods for effective use of homework time and on proven ways to transition children to game-related learning following the completion of their homework.

Since 2000, the BPL has offered free, drop-in homework help to Boston youth, providing a much-needed academic service to students in kindergarten through eighth grade, as well as employment opportunities for Boston teens.

This school year, 62 high-achieving teens from diverse backgrounds and neighborhoods are serving as Homework Help mentors in the 24 library branches. Among them will be the 50 teens who are also part of the TLP training.

For some, working as a mentor is the result of their own positive experience as a child — when they received homework assistance in the BPL.

“I grew up going to the Honan-Allston Library and would often get homework help there,” said 16-year-old mentor José Mendoza, who attends Mary Lyon Pilot High School in Brighton. “I have two younger sisters, in the first and third grade, and I help them from time to time with their work. One of my friends worked at BPL in the summer, and when she told me about it [Homework Help], I figured it could be fun. I also was a mentee myself at the Harvard-Allston Education Portal in the first year of its mentoring program.”

Since its launch in 2008, Harvard’s SmartTALK has worked to address a key concern of many after-school programs: having staff/volunteers who are adequately prepared and trained to help children of all ages develop strong academic skills outside of school hours. The combination of homework assistance and mentorship in the BPL’s Homework Help program aligns with the goals of SmartTALK, making it a natural collaboration.

“Besides the critical homework help, SmartTALK also realizes that success in school is about so much more than just finishing homework,” said Joan Matsalia, associate director of Teaching and Learning Partnerships at Harvard University. “It also works to strengthen a student’s relationship with the teachers and mentors. It helps them become more organized, develop better and stronger study skills, become more effective problem-solvers, and [it] teaches them how to work more effectively in groups.”

“We couldn’t be happier with the progress of this program and are incredibly excited about this exciting new venture with the Boston Public Library,” Matsalia added.

“The Boston Public Library is proud to have Harvard onboard as a partner in our Homework Help program,” said Amanda Bressler, youth outreach librarian for the BPL and manager of the Homework Help program. “SmartTALK training will give our mentors the skills and added confidence to do their job well, and, in turn, it will benefit those children who rely on Homework Help as a source of academic support. I look forward to seeing where this collaborative effort takes us.”

During the current academic school year, the TLP team will offer three separate training sessions to more than 60 Boston high school students. The first session, offered in late October, focused on teaching students how to ask good questions and on the most effective ways to problem solve. The winter session will focus on behavior management, and on understanding and maximizing group culture. Finally, the spring session will focus on the importance of — and how to — keep learning fun as the homework mentors engage students and optimize learning through games.

For more information about the Boston Public Library’s Homework Help program, including a complete schedule, please visit its website.