Independence High School senior Brittany Perez is a mentor to several sixth-graders who need help with their writing. Every week since November, the youngsters have sent her work samples to edit, typically essays or blog entries.
The teenager tries to be kind with her feedback.
"You go for as little negativity as possible, so you try to start out with two things that you like about it," she said. "Like this one, here, is very descriptive and creative, so I started with that. And then I suggested he might want to work on sentence structure."
It's helping, little by little. As the school year progresses, Perez is seeing progress by her sixth-graders -- whom she's never met because she lives in Bakersfield and they live in Chicago.
The students interact exclusively on a closed social media website that was specifically built for the online writing mentor project.
It's all the result of an encounter on a Facebook page for Pepperdine University students pursuing graduate degrees in education.
Independence advanced placement English teacher Kip Glazer is in the process of earning a doctorate from Pepperdine, and so is Tracy Edwards, curriculum developer for DePaul University's Digital Youth Network. Funded by the MacArthur and Gates foundations, the network promotes digital literacy among inner-city Chicago youth.
Edwards was looking for an adult part-time employee when she sent her colleagues a Facebook message about her need for help editing the youngsters, but Glazer suggested she consider using high school students, instead.
That's worked out better than either of them might have expected, Edwards said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
"They're actually really impressed that the kids live in California, and they listen to their older peers more than us because, of course, we're old people," she said.
One-hundred six Independence seniors mentor 120 sixth-graders from Chicago International Charter School's West Belden, Bucktown and Prairie middle school campuses. There is overlap because each teenager works with five sixth-graders.
"That's by design," Glazer said. "We wanted them to get multiple viewpoints."
The younger children took to the program immediately, said Linda Sullivan, a teacher at CICS West Belden.
"The kids really responded to it. They were so excited to be working on a computer. That was the initial draw," she said. "Once they started inserting media, that was even more fun."
In addition to writing samples, the children can post still photos and video.
Maria Villaza, 11, is a CICS West Belden sixth-grader and said social media is a great platform for learning.
"It's kind of unusual that they're in a different location, but I think it's easier to get comments this way because we're all used to socializing with different people online," she said. "I think it's pretty cool."
Just like the students, Independence teacher Glazer has never met Edwards or Sullivan in person. They communicate online and by phone.
Glazer is a big fan of social media in educational settings despite the reputation it has for being a platform for mischief.
"It can actually be very beneficial to our students rather than something that is inappropriate or unwanted in schools," she said.
Digital Youth Network's Edwards said the fact that the mentoring takes place on a closed, secure site "helps alleviate some anxiety that might otherwise be there."
Not that the vehicle is without limitations.
"At first I was a little nervous because with them being so much younger than us, you don't want to be harsh or write something that could be read the wrong way," said Independence senior Wala Khalid, 18. "Also, with them being so far away, you wonder if they're reading your comments."
But Khalid said she can see the impact she's having, which is gratifying.
"I wish I had had the experience of having someone to help me with my writing when I was their age," she said.
All of the Independence students said they get as much out of the relationship as the youngsters they're mentoring.
"It's really a wonderful program because we're not only helping the kids in Chicago, we're also developing our own writing skills," said Independence senior Alex Edwards (no relation to Tracy), 18. "You learn through the process of evaluating others, and it reminds you to follow the same rules in your own writing."