How a Silicon Valley non-profit builds community between tech giants and local students one email at a time

Dialog to Learn has pioneered a literacy program linking elementary school students to Peninsula professionals.

A Dialog to Learn student next to a handwritten letter my “digital buddy” gave me when we finally got to meet in person. (Photo by Caitlin Wolf)

I stare at my computer screen wondering where to start.

“My favorite color is aqua blue. I was born here at California. I’ve traveled to Mexico since I was 3 years old. Have you traveled outside of California, or the U.S.A? My best friend is Alejandra. We play and we hand out every single day. What is your favorite dessert you like to have after dinner?”

The first email from my “digital buddy,” — a fourth grader named Teresa at Belle Haven Elementary — is packed full of information on various topics, and peppered with spelling and grammatical errors. Reading her crammed-together thoughts on the screen, I start to reflect on how I learned to effectively communicate and correspond with others: to speak in well-formed sentences or compose an articulate email.

Students and volunteers at Dialog to Learn’s Career Day session. (Photos by Caitlin Wolf)

For the past few months I have been volunteering with the educational nonprofit Dialog to Learn, which runs a program helping local school children improve their English reading and writing skills. For many of the students English is a secondary language and not spoken at home or even on the playground. By connecting these students with local professionals, Dialog to Learn bolsters the work being done by the teacher and gives the students reinforcement of proper grammar, word use and sentence structure.

After working at Belle Haven Elementary through AmeriCorps, Peninsula resident Keshia Theobald-van Gent saw the need for outside support of the teacher’s work. With the encouragement of Belle Haven Principal Todd Gavglio, Theobald-van Gent founded Dialog to Learn with the mission of empowering students to learn and achieve. By increasing the students’ reading, writing, and comprehension skills through interaction with local professionals Theobald-van Gent aims to also bridge the gap between increasingly polarized communities on the Peninsula.

Keshia Theobald-van Gent found and director of Dialog to Learn. (Photo by Caitlin Wolf)

“Our students and professionals physically work and live in the same community but interact very little,” Theobald-van Gent explained to me recently. “Dialog to Learn helps bring the community together by getting professionals invested in the community they work in and giving students access to real professional role models. Through these conversations students start to recognize commonalities, allowing them to see themselves as future professionals.”

Since her initial idea for the program in July, Keshia has formed a non-profit board, submitted the 501(c)3 paperwork, and partnered with the Boys and Girls Club of the Peninsula and Facebook, as well as particpants from Playworks, Millipore Sigma, and others. The first 10-week cycle of the program began in October and partnered volunteers from these companies with a “digital buddy” — one of the fourth graders from the school district. All communication is via email and sent through Dialog to Learn’s system so any inappropriate or identifying information can be removed and reported to the teacher. Students drive the topics of conversation with the professionals, who— by responding to questions and posing inquiries of their own—strive to model proper word usage, sentence structure, and grammar.

Students listening to Dialog to Learn volunteers talk about their careers and backgrounds. (Photos by Caitlin Wolf)

As a lifelong resident of the Peninsula and a student of our public schools, I was excited to participate with Dialog to Learn and thrilled when I received my first email from my digital buddy Teresa. The first thing I noticed was the lack of space in her email to differentiate between thoughts and ideas. There were a few misspelled words too. I wrote back separating every new subject with a line break and obsessively spell checked my own writing. The next email arrived — no line breaks but accurate comma usage. I never drew her attention to any of the inaccuracies I found in her earlier emails. My role was to be an adult who was interested in what she had to say, ask questions about who she was and model proper communication style and language.

While I was drawn to volunteering with Dialog to Learn because of the focus on literacy and community, emailing with Teresa became a treat to my week rather than a volunteer commitment. Learning about her Halloween costume and how much candy she got (two bags!), as well as her love of travel was refreshing and fun after a day of work. I enjoyed getting to know what she was interested in and thinking of other things she might like to introduce her to in our next email.

After corresponding with Teresa for five weeks I was very excited to finally meet her in person at the recent career day event hosted by Dialog to Learn and the Boys and Girls Club of the Peninsula. Though Teresa seemed initially shy, she was increasingly talkative and inquisitive, frequently injecting comments into the group supporting what her friends were saying. We talked about my job and what I do on a day-to-day basis.

Dialog to Learn Volunteers (Photo by Caitlin Wolf)

After meeting in small groups with our buddies, the volunteers sat down to field questions from the students. They inquired on a wide range of topics, wanting to know what our favorite food is (mango), if what we studied in college matched what our job is now (not even close), if we still use what we learned in elementary school in our jobs (yes, most definitely yes). Luanda, a volunteer from Facebook, pointed out that you learn how to get along with people in elementary school and that she uses those skills everyday in her job as a recruiter.

Speaking with Theobald-van Gent after the event wrapped up she said that while some students may have seemed antsy, she had “never seen them more engaged.” In reflecting on the mission of Dialog to Learn, she characterized it as “improving students’ literacy while strengthening our communities.”

The last minute scramble to get a group picture before we had to leave! (Photo by Caitlin Wolf)

After meeting Teresa, the other students, and the volunteers I am more committed than ever to helping Dialog to Learn succeed. I have already signed up for the next cycle!

The second phase of the Dialog to Learn’s Digital Buddy program begins in March. To sign up or learn more, click here.

(Please note—the names of the children were changed within the article in the interest of privacy.)

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