I teach English 3360, Issues in Composition, which is made mostly of education students who do not see themselves as teachers but as students; yet most of them are only a few semesters from becoming public school teachers.

My students write their cyber pals and if they do not get a response, they either do nothing or come to me and complain. Either of these responses are excellent teaching moments for me. I get the chance to tell them that, as cyber pals/ mentors, they are in a role similar to that of teacher. It is their responsibility to think through these issues and solve them, as much as possible, without my help--though I do brainstorm with them in the beginning of the semester to help them get started. I tell my students that the assignment/problem here is for them to keep the conversation going. When they get classrooms of their own, they will have to keep the conversations going. This is a good chance for them to talk, on-on-one to students younger than themselves, to see how difficult it can be to engage students in academic discussions.

And this brings up the next teaching advantage (and pitfall) to cyber mentoring. The younger students do not always want to talk about academic matters. My students write to them about their web pages and English papers, and the students write back about sports and cars and music. I tell my students they will face this every day they walk into a classroom. Students often try to distract them from the subject matter so that less material is covered and less will be on the test. It's the oldest trick in the book. It is up to the teacher to resist this distraction without being too much of a "geek." It's okay to let students have some fun, but then teachers must get on with the class.

This semester, I challenged my 3360 students to engage their cyber pals in some academic conversations of substance. We will see what happens. But, the key here is that the responsibility lies on the shoulders of my students. At first, they were certain it was my problem; then they tried to make it the young students' problem; they finally understand that the challenge is fully their own.

Cyber mentoring also allows my students to write in yet another genre to another (authentic) audience. They get more practice writing, and they have to think about how their words influence the responses of their interlocutors. I read my students' first emails and look forward to seeing more at the end of the semester.

Vicki Hester, November 2005, used with permission.