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September 1998

The Zlata
Study Group

AG00041_.gif (503 bytes) September's

Students’ Enthusiasm for Learning Launches London School’s Zlata Study Group

Elementary students and their university student mentors both learn in this novel extracurricular academic project.

By Paris Meilleur, Elizabeth Moore and Betsy Reilly

In the fall of 1996, Grade 6 student Paris Meilleur was discussing her summer reading with her former Grade 1 teacher, Betsy Reilly. Meilleur complained that the curriculum left little time to pursue personal projects and large classes left little time for teachers to work with students individually. She wanted to investigate subjects that interested her.

Reilly suggested an extracurricular research group, and the Zlata Study Group was born at St. George’s Public School in London.

The first year, nine students from Grades 6, 7 and 8 joined this extracurricular academic program. Twenty-eight took part in the second year, including six from the first group. Each chose her or his own subject to investigate over six months. The participants, with the help of mentors, studied topics that included medieval castles, Scottish Celts at the time of the Roman invasion, Elizabeth I, Hitler’s private life, the Irish potato famine, the American civil rights movement, fishing and casting, the Bernardo children, psychotherapy, and rock and roll greats.

The student’s commitment, not academic achievement, is the criteria for admission to the group. The students are expected to keep up with their classroom work. Their Zlata project is to supplement, not replace, their class assignments.

The project is named after a young girl from Sarajevo whose diary – published in 1994 as Zlata’s Diary, A Child’s Life in Sarajevo – brought worldwide attention to the human consequences of the Bosnian conflict. Her diary served as a model for the importance of inquiry and writing.


Most of the mentors in the Zlata Study Group are members of the Pre-Education Society at the University of Western Ontario. These students are working toward admission to faculties of education and a career in teaching. Shelly Lyford, the volunteer and placement co-ordinator for the society, collects applications from potential mentors and matches the elementary and university students.

Sometimes the matches are based on the subject. One St. George’s student, who wanted to investigate the Temagami logging controversy, worked with a Western student who was involved in preserving the Temagami forests. While the choice of topic is important to the students, the emphasis of the project is on the methods of research and presentation of the findings.

Gender is also a factor in the matches. Most female elementary students insist on same-sex mentors. Finding same-sex mentors for male participants is more difficult.

Student and mentor work together once a week from October to early April, refining the topic, collecting and organizing the data, and completing and editing the presentation. Meeting times are scheduled during periods in the school day that their classroom teachers find acceptable. The pairs usually meet in the St. George’s library, where teacher-librarian David Zavitz provides both resources and supervision for the research.

The group also visits the London Public Library, where children’s librarian Delilah Cummings guides them to a broader range of resources, including books, periodicals, interviews, the Internet, audio tapes and videos located in areas other than the children’s section.

The Zlata students make their final presentations to their classes, often with mentors and parents attending. Their research materials, along with an explanatory sheet, go on display at a reception for mentors and parents.

Parents are great fans of the study group. Maureen Scarborough, whose son Neil worked on a project on fishing, remarked, "I couldn’t believe how hard my son worked on his project. All that I’ve heard for months is how great his mentor is and how he can’t wait to work on the project with him."

The reception also provides an opportunity for the students to thank their mentors formally. Besides the formal thanks, mentors gain from the relationship in other ways. "Can you believe these kids are interested in these things! Every time I work with my student, I learn something else," said mentor Marc Laurente.

For others, being involved in the Zlata group solidifies career plans. UWO student Andrea Pyper says, "My involvement in this project has convinced me that I want to be an educator."


Grade 7 students Elizabeth Moore and Paris Meilleur and Zlata co-ordinator Betsy Reilly interviewed the students and mentors who participated during the first year, 1996–1997. They wanted to find out how students and mentors worked together, what they viewed as effective and what they would keep, change or eliminate. The results were then used to organize the Zlata Study Group for the next year.

According to these interviews, the most successful aspect was the student-mentor relationship. Not only did students build new friendships, many also discovered their own worth.

Isabel Mercier, a philosophy student who worked with two Grade 7 students, said, "If most girls had this opportunity, they would not grow up as self-conscious. I really think it helps to have someone to look at and say, ‘You know, I’m smart and it doesn’t make me some nerd and undesirable woman.’"

While most student-mentor interactions were positive, one relationship became strained because the mentor was not committed to regular meeting times. The elementary student became disheartened and the project was nearly abandoned. This experience led to the suggestion that the program be thoroughly introduced to prospective mentors and that mentors be more carefully chosen.

In the second year, despite more preparation and communication, the same proportion – 10 per cent – of matches failed. But most were detected earlier and new mentors were assigned.

Other suggestions included having one mentor working with one student, not two, and holding regular meetings so that mentors could have more contact with the co-ordinating teacher and other mentors. The mentors found they needed reassurance during the January slowdown, when students are not settled after the holidays. Toward the end of the project, mentors wanted clearer expectations about formats for the project and their role in editing.


As the Zlata Study Group heads into its third year, it is still providing a rich experience for elementary students and for their university mentors.

Peter Ainsworth says he and other Zlata members’ parents are happy to "see an academic, extracurricular activity for students, along with sports and music."

Mentors enjoy and benefit from the experience and the learning. Students, who provided the impetus for the program, continue to be enthusiastic. They look up to their mentors. According to student Devon Hysen, "Being with someone like her (mentor) made me feel I could be a student like her."

Emma Jolliffe sums it up: "The best part of being a Zlata member is working on something that I think is interesting. I like being with someone like my mentor who thinks my interests are important, but who also won’t let me get away with anything."

Paris Meilleur is a Grade 8 student, writer and co-founder of the Zlata Study Group. Elizabeth Moore is a Grade 8 student and an avid writer and reader. Betsy Reilly is a Grade 1–2 teacher and co-founder and co-ordinator of the Zlata Study Group. The authors can be reached at St.George’s Public School, 782Waterloo Street, London ON N6A3W4 or by e-mail at