Ask university students about what they develop while doing homework, and they will likely respond with "a headache."
But one program at McGill uses homework as a way to help university and elementary school students develop mutually beneficial relationships while instilling good study habits and a love for learning in the younger pupils.
The Social Equity and Diversity Education (SEDE) Office of McGill Homework Zone program started in January 2012. It pairs McGill student volunteers with elementary-school students who have difficulties academically and/or socially.
The program operates in three Lester B. Pearson schools – Verdun Elementary and Riverview Elementary in Verdun and Orchard Elementary in LaSalle – 90 minutes a week for 10 weeks in the fall and again in the winter. It's offered free of charge to the kids who participate.
"The homework gets them there, but it's the relationships that are built and the tools that are learned along the way that impact school success," said Anurag Dhir, SEDE's community engagement coordinator.
Students who are selected to participate in the program are children who could benefit from having a mentor in their lives and who might not be able to participate in similar initiatives that aren't free, explained Matthew Albert, community liaison with the Lester B. Pearson board.
The program is funded in equal parts by the school board and by Montreal Hooked on School, an organization that works to keep kids engaged and interested in school.
Mentors come from all kinds of academic backgrounds and include first-year undergraduates to graduate students, which provides an opportunity for McGill students to forge new connections with each other, said coordinator Gabrielle Jacobs.
Before they start, mentors are taught basic techniques on how to help students with their homework. While the school year is underway, they periodically get together to share tips they've picked up with their fellow mentors.
Most children are tutored one-on-one, but since the mentors are usually outnumbered, the ratio often rises to one mentor for two or three kids. For last year’s fall semester, there were 55 mentors for 96 students.
The first 45 minutes of each session are dedicated to doing homework. The last 45 minutes are for workshops and less structured educational activities. Previous activities included origami, a demonstration of how to make “comets” with dry ice by McGill astrophysics students and a visit by an artist who shared his passion for calligraffiti, the combination of calligraphy and graffiti.
Many of the mentors are from other provinces or different countries, and the program allows them to see a part of the city they may not otherwise visit while giving the kids a chance to meet people from outside their usual circles.
And being affiliated with McGill means the program's mentors and coordinators are able to consult members of the university community for help if they need tips on how to deal with certain students or to find guests to lead workshops.
Biochemistry student Lucy Li is entering her third semester as a volunteer with the program. She's worked with younger students and said she notices the impact the program has on them, even though they can't necessarily express it.
"In the beginning you don't know them, they don't know you, they're shy and it can be awkward, but I think towards the end they're more comfortable with you, they're more willing to ask for help and they really trust you," she explained, adding it also gets easier, as the weeks go by, to convince them of the merits of completing their homework.
While academics are a major part of the program, the coordinating team can't yet say if the program raises grades.
What they do know is that students who participate in the program are more socially engaged in school and these kids are often more willing to engage in similar programs throughout their academic careers.
"We're trying to instil study skills in the children … but at the same time we're trying to engage them socially. That's the beauty of the program. It's not just ‘Do your homework,' it's more 50-50," Albert said.
For more information, visit sedehomeworkzone.com.