Gail Kozak, the reading specialist for Canterbury Woods Elementary School in Fairfax County, had 12 eager students for a recent workshop she gave on writing skills.
But these students were grown-ups. Kozak was training parent volunteers in how to help children in the classroom come up with ideas for essays and stories, get through a first draft and polish their work.
The hour-long seminar was one of four that the school offered to its volunteers this fall. The other sessions focused on how to teach children computer skills, reading comprehension and awareness of letter sounds.
Not so long ago, volunteering to help in class was simply a matter of showing up. At most, the volunteer had a five-minute chat with the teacher about what was expected.
But with schools facing high-stakes tests and more rigorous curriculum standards, a growing number of volunteers are getting a much more substantive lesson in how to raise student performance. Schools increasingly need volunteers who can provide special tutoring and supplement the teacher's instructions, and it's important that the helpers know how to handle that responsibility, teachers and principals say.
"Volunteering is a lot more than sorting papers and cutting out bulletin board shapes," said John Hammett, principal of Ilchester Elementary School in Ellicott City, which has adopted a volunteer training program. "The curriculum demands are so great today that you need every pair of hands that has experience in teaching to help."
Volunteers who have received such training say it has made them more effective classroom aides, and some say an added benefit is that they learn information they can take home to help their own children.
"I think you come out of this with such an appreciation for how different children learn and how, as a volunteer, to work with this," said Mary Ann Troyano, a Canterbury Woods parent who took all four of the seminars that the school offered for the first time this fall.
During the seminar on writing, Kozak explained to one mother that there's no need to be picky about misspelled words when a child is starting to compose a story.
"You don't need to correct every little bit of spelling," she said. "They're willing to take the risk and say that on paper. I'd rather see that and then come back later."
Most of Kozak's trainees are spending an hour to 90 minutes a week volunteering at the school. She said the training sessions have stripped away some of the mystique of classroom instruction. "They can go in with more confidence, they can give better feedback," she said.
In Prince William, 135 senior citizens who signed up to help students with reading are going to training sessions once a month during the school year. The year-old program, which covers both Prince William and Manassas schools, is run by the county's Voluntary Action Center.
Bob Finch, a senior who is tutoring five children, said he learned far more than he expected about teaching techniques and children's learning styles. He said he was particularly struck by a seminar showing that although most school instruction is made through lectures and textbooks, many children need hands-on work so that the lessons will stick.
"I never thought of it that way before," Finch said. "The kids who cannot adapt [to lectures and written work] are most likely the ones we'll be getting."
Although no statistics are available, anecdotal evidence suggests that more volunteers are being asked to take an active instructional role in the classroom, said Karen Salinas, communications director for the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University.
"My sense is, there's more of an understanding that parents really can help student achievement, but they need to know specifically what to do," Salinas said.
At Ilchester Elementary, administrators describe volunteer opportunities in "want ads" in a school newsletter at the beginning of the year. And for the past three years, the school has held workshops for volunteers on topics such as teaching math, leading a reading group and working in the computer lab.
Judy Fuller, the school's volunteer coordinator, said she has learned how teachers can incorporate sports and songs into subjects as cut-and-dried as math. "It's just different from what I remember when I was in school," Fuller said. "They play ball, they sing songs, and it helps some kids. There are just so many ways to teach."
Officials at Westland Middle School in Bethesda decided that one-on-one tutoring would help in preparing their eighth-graders for a state writing test. More than 40 volunteers were trained this fall in how to provide that coaching, and school Principal MaryHolly Allison said she would like to expand the program to other subjects.
Volunteer Laurie Haughey, who worked with a Westland eighth-grader, said she had helped out in school before but had never received so much direction. It helped her make sure that her instruction was consistent with what was being taught in class, she said.
At some schools, individual teachers have made the decision to give more responsibility and training to volunteers.
At Loudoun County's Potowmack Elementary School, first-grade teacher Kristen Mason realized that the school reading specialist did not have time to help more than a handful of students in the class. So Mason this year found four volunteers to work one-on-one with her students twice a week for 45 minutes at a time. She showed training videotapes to the volunteers over two nights.
Now Mason's BEARS (Buddies Enhance All Reading Skills) program has become so popular at the school that other teachers want to adopt it.
Brigitte Barghout, one of Mason's volunteers, says she is putting Mason's training to good use at home. She said her oldest child, a fourth-grader, is an avid reader, but her kindergartner needs a little encouragement--and Barghout is learning how to provide it.
"This is wonderful," Barghout said. "I don't know why we haven't had something like this here from the beginning."
CAPTION: At Canterbury Woods Elementary School, volunteers talk about teaching reading. They are Debbie Sollosi, left, Teryl Pomeroy, Lois Conway and Mary Ann Troyano.
CAPTION: During a session on teaching reading at Canterbury Woods, volunteer Ann Callan listens with her daughter Brooke Callan, 3. Volunteers who have received training say it has made them more effective classroom aides.
CAPTION: Gail Kozak, left, a Canterbury Woods reading specialist who conducts workshops for volunteers, greets Mary Ann Troyano, who says, "I'm a great volunteer."