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Pedagogical Peers

Wednesday, November 15, 2017  
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By Christina Mimms, SAIS

 No one understands the student experience better than students. They have run the same races, worked on similar research projects, sat nervously for the same exams, eaten the cafeteria’s food, and in some cases, slept in the same residence hall. Naturally, schools often turn to their older students to mentor newcomers, acquaint them with the school’s unique culture, and befriend them in the new environment.

At Brookwood School in Thomasville, GA, seniors have enjoyed the opportunity to partner with 1st grade students for the past 16 years. Early in the school year, teachers meet and pair their students based on interests, personalities, or whom they think will match well. The school holds about one event per month to get seniors and first graders together. Some events tie with a holiday and others are opportunities to socialize. For example, the students drew on the school sidewalks with chalk for an art activity. At Christmas time, seniors decorate a tree for the 1st graders and at the end of the school year, 1st graders present their senior buddies with a graduation gift.

Other interactions are more casual by nature. If a senior’s lunch period aligns with 1st grade recess, they will sometimes join their buddy on the playground. Outside the 1st grade classroom is a mailbox where seniors can leave notes for their buddies. First graders often show up at a sports event if their buddy is on the team.

“Unique friendships are formed,” said Jenna Hall, 3rd grade teacher and coordinator of the senior buddy program. “It’s very important to take into account the personalities of the students and their interests,” Hall said. “That promotes a connection right away. Don’t just draw names.”

And the relationships often continue after seniors graduate. They will visit campus on their college breaks and stop by to see their buddy or have lunch with the class. Families of the buddies sometimes meet up outside of school. “Parents love the program,” Hall said. “The seniors know how valuable this program is since they went through it as 1st graders.”

Typically, boys are paired with boys and girls with girls, but if the grade-level rosters don’t match exactly, the school adjusts. Some seniors may share a buddy or sometimes a senior ends up with more than one buddy.

In addition to the senior/1st grade pairings, Brookwood also conducts a reading program for 3rd graders, assisted by upper school psychology students. Typically the upper school student works with two 3rd graders and together read books on an iPad. The buddy helps them with pronunciation or defining words if necessary. The psychology students gather data from the buddy program that they use in their class studies of the brain.

At Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School in Atlanta, primary school students interact with older students in myriad ways. Fourth graders serve as reading buddies to younger students, visiting them in primary school or welcoming them to lower school at least once per month. Eighth grade students spend part of their lunch break at primary school recess once per week or more. The school hosts a primary night at a home football game once per year; four primary students are selected to be honorary captains and walk onto the field with the team captains at the game.

Seniors and kindergarteners enjoy special activities throughout the year: on the first day of school, kindergarten students present seniors with the uniform senior neckties and seniors give the younger students their book bags and escort them back to primary school after the service. During homecoming week, athletes and cheerleaders visit the primary school to teach the students cheers, participate in a tricycle race, and battle it out in a tug of war (primary school always wins). For the past 40 years, seniors buddy with kindergarteners in the annual Halloween Parade; they are the only students who are allowed to dress in costumes.

Primary School Principal Greg Kaiser values these activities greatly. “Students are helping students and learning from each other,” he said. “I tell the kids all the time, ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re little. You can still be a teacher. You can change someone’s life for the better with an act of kindness or helping them learn something new.’”

Upper school students experienced the role of teacher first-hand when they invited kindergarten students to their engineering class to help them with programming their robots. Students worked in pairs to enter commands on laptops that translate to their hand-built robots. See more on this video

“It’s a lot of fun for our kids to share the things they’ve learned,” said Ian Frame, upper school computer science teacher. “They have to put information in an age-appropriate way. The kindergarteners have so much eagerness, excitement, and curiosity.”

Kindergarten students are always wowed by visiting the upper school STEM labs, located just a short walk from the primary building. “I love getting to interact with kids in different divisions,” said kindergarten teacher Maggie Waybright. “We’re all one school and one community. It’s neat to see the older kids working with younger ones.”

While the goal may be for older students to impart knowledge on their younger peers, often the reverse happens and the upper school learns more than they expected. “They get inspired by the younger students,” said Head of School Paul Barton.

The engineering students will welcome kindergarten back to the lab in the spring when they will work on physical therapy equipment. K students help them test their work.

In a school of 1,376 students, scheduling cross-divisional activities takes some special work by faculty and administration. “It is absolutely a logistical challenge,” Kaiser said. “But if you’ve got a good idea and everyone is on board, there’s a way to make it happen. Our teachers understand how important it is.”

Because primary school operates on a more flexible schedule, they work to fit into the other divisions’ schedules for their activities. Over the past 10 years of cross-divisional programs, the school has experienced trial-and-error and many modifications. “Don’t be afraid to fail and don’t always reinvent the wheel,” Kaiser said.

The buddy programs also serve as somewhat of an internal admissions tool. “These are great opportunities for parents to see what’s coming next after they leave primary school,” Kaiser said.  The buddy activities are widely promoted and parents are invited to attend the special events, such as the Halloween parade.

When parents aren’t around, though, peer leaders become even more significant in a student’s daily life. At McCallie School in Chattanooga, TN, seniors serve as mentors to freshman students in several capacities. In the campus residences, about eight seniors serve as resident advisors to freshman boarding students. They go through an application and selection process and then participate in a training retreat to learn about conflict resolution, organization, engagement on campus, study support, substance abuse, and confrontation. They work closely with faculty and counselors, but often the students are first to hear about another student’s issue.

“They provide a powerful layer of leadership in the dorm,” said Upper School Principal Hank Hopping. “They have a certain skill set and sensitivity.”

Homesickness is a common issue, with many students living away from home for the first time, and even living internationally for the first time. The RA students try to look out for signs of a student struggling and engage with the student by inviting him and a few others to go to dinner together, or just talk and share their own freshman year tales. The RAs know to contact a faculty member if it seems that a student has more than a minor problem.

“They can feel a little bit alone,” Hopping said. “Dorm life builds a support network in incredibly powerful ways but it doesn’t happen overnight. The bonds take time.”

Day students at McCallie also enjoy the opportunity to serve as mentors. They can apply to be Day Student Advisors (DSAs) who help to welcome new students along with the RAs. Before school begins, all new students and their parents attend orientation, with some activities led by the seniors. Their work continues during the school year in weekly advisory meetings that all students attend. Seniors often lead those meetings and discuss different aspects of McCallie life and mission, current events, and the honor code. They may also use those meetings to reflect on a recent chapel speaker or other issue that needs to be addressed, such as bullying.

“Seniors are a great resource with the insights and experiences they can bring to the table,” Hopping said. “It’s very helpful for students to know that we all struggle. Just don’t struggle alone.”

As much as students love and value their teachers, sometimes a peer can do a job that a faculty member can’t. After all, it is easier to vent to another student about how difficult an exam was or how much you dislike the cafeteria’s broccoli. At the same time, schools who allow older students to mentor others provide a mission-related leadership platform and a great opportunity for personal growth. 


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