Big Brothers Big Sisters of Middle Tennessee High School Bigs Literacy Program
Through the work of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Middle Tennessee (BBBS), local children in need of guidance and support are provided with strong and enduring one-on-one mentoring relationships. One of BBBS’ school-based programs, the High School Bigs Literacy Program, gives at-risk elementary students the opportunity to be mentored by an exceptional high school student while also working on critical literacy skills.
The Scarlett Family Foundation has supported this innovative mentoring program since 2014. Rebecca Ackerman, Vice President of Programs at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Middle Tennessee, oversees the organization’s many mentoring programs. In this Q&A, we talk to Rebecca about how the program works, and why it has such a unique impact on its participants.
Why did Big Brothers Big Sisters start a literacy program?
One of the impacts we see of mentoring programs in general is increasing academic motivation. But we also see big disparities in academic preparation and achievement among elementary students. That time students are spending with their mentors could be leveraged to increase the number of hours of literacy support a child receives in the course of their school year.
So, we found the mentoring relationship is a great time to not only build connection and academic motivation, but build a foundation for academic achievement.
Where and how does the program operate?
The High School Bigs program matches high school students to elementary students within Rutherford County Schools. The Bigs spend about one hour a week with the student for one school year. The hope is for a healthy, long-term relationship because we know the best outcomes happen in relationships that are a year or longer.
Bigs make time to meet with their matches during the school day, and many give up their free periods to mentor. One high school starts an hour later than elementary schools, so those Bigs get up an hour early to meet with their Littles before their own school day even begins.
All of our high school students go through a rigorous application process and interview. We are looking for students who have a level of maturity, commitment and resilience. They are required to participate in a structured, formal training and connect with a coach on a weekly basis for the first year of their mentoring.
What kinds of things do the Bigs and Littles do together and how do these activities improve literacy?
Each match spends time reading together— the Little has the opportunity to read to their mentor or the mentor to the Little. We also provide literacy based-activities and games for the Bigs to do with the Littles.
Student voice is so critical in the learning experience. So conversation is a really important component of literacy building. Children don’t generally have a lot of time during the school day to engage in in-depth, one-on-one conversations. But having an hour for intentional conversation with their Big to read and discuss what was read increases their vocabulary and literacy comprehension.
How does having older students involved in the program make a difference for the younger students?
These matches are one of the sweetest things to observe. Often, the kids referred to us are struggling academically or socially. Because our Bigs are not an adult, they are safer to take risks with and the Littles have less fear. It is relationship-based learning.
Specifically, we often hear that the Littles feel important to their mentors, which is something that’s pretty remarkable when you think about the mentor relationship. Very often it makes sense where the mentor feels important— but this is one relationship in the Littles’ lives where by virtue of the fact that the high school student is showing up every week and giving them undivided attention, it communicates importance.
How does the program benefit the Bigs, too?
This is as much a resilience-builder for the high school student as it is for the Little. Empathy is a skill that is built through this process— and perseverance. It allows high school students to step out of themselves and to gain a different perspective from another person.
It helps them reflect on their own learning and how they’ve built skills and how they have grown as learners and as people. That process of relating to a young person who is struggling with a skill they have mastered is really grounding.
It helps them build the soft skills that are so necessary in the workforce. As they get ready to head off into college or career, for them to have this perspective that is broader than their own is really critical.
One of the only programs of its kind with an emphasis on literacy, the High School Bigs Literacy Program provides Littles with 30 additional hours of literacy programming over the course of the year.