When Janet Isaacman, a Senior Corps-RSVP volunteer tutor at Tarkington Elementary School in Wheeling, learned about the new Senior Corps-RSVP Pen Pals Program, she saw an opportunity for the school’s fourth and fifth graders to improve their writing skills as well as their grades.
Pen Pals volunteers write to third-, fourth- or fifth-grade students (one school in Palatine, the other in Des Plaines) and the children write back. It’s a way for children to have another adult in their lives through letters, and an opportunity for adults to learn what children are experiencing in today’s world. Janet became so engaged in Pen Pals, that she suggested the program to the Tarkington School principal and fifth grade teacher. Because she had a long-time positive relationship with them they were open to hearing about it. The main selling point-kids would actually gain experience in writing letters.
Janet didn’t stop there. She recruited adult volunteers for the program and they in turn found other letter writers. One of the main selling points is that the Pen Pals only commit to about an hour or two a month. At the end of the school year the “pals” meet face-to-face for the first time to work on a project together, or have lunch.
In both tutoring and the Pen Pals program, Janet enjoys children’s honesty and their willingness to share their true feelings. “No games,” she says. “Nobody is trying to impress anyone…What they think is what they say.”
She often challenges the students to reach a higher level of thinking than merely giving simple answers on the material they’ve read, by posing thought-provoking questions.
“We have book discussions,” she explained. “I ask questions such as ‘What would you ask the author if you met them?’ or ‘If you could change the title of the book what title would you give it?'”
She’s been tutoring second and fourth grade students for the past eight years, four hours a day, two days a week. It’s the rewards that keep her going. She has students with autism, extreme shyness or difficult home situations. Yet through her efforts to guide and focus on their fears and anxieties, she has managed to help improve their grades and also builds up close relationships with them. She sees herself more as a mentor than a tutor.
Carolyn Roberts, Senior Corps-RSVP Project Director says of Janet: “She takes a very prominent leadership position behind those things for which she has tremendous passion…Janet’s passion for the overall welfare and education of children is evident. As a Senior Corps-RSVP member volunteering in the Pen Pals program, Janet’s focus is on broadening the exposure of her student Pen Pals by encouraging them to read more and learn about far-away places.”
Janet advises those interested in the Pen Pals program to remember it doesn’t take a lot of time, or even skill, but volunteers know that students will see the value of written communications. In simple and often delightful sentences, children tell about their holiday celebrations, their families and favorite subject in school. They’re interested in the lives of their adult pals too. Along the way, friendships are forged.
The best part is when Pen Pals meet in the spring, before school ends. As volunteers enter the classroom, children jump up from their seats shouting “Yay! The Pen Pals are here!” Then come greetings and hugs all around.
That’s an incentive in itself.
Spotlight written by Janet Souter, Senior Corps-RSVP Member