Kids put SPICE in peers' lessons

Mentors: Northfield Elementary fifth-graders are helping younger pupils - and themselves.

May 15, 2002|By Laura Shovan | Laura Shovan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It's almost dismissal time at Northfield Elementary. While a third-grade teacher begins gathering children for the bus, aides circulate among the "walkers," keeping those kids focused on their worksheets.

"It helps you practice your skills you've learned," aide Elizabeth Mackey said.

Elizabeth, 10, and more than 25 fellow fifth-graders are members of a peer mentoring program at the Ellicott City school. Some work one-on-one with partners in lower grades. Others, such as Elizabeth, mentor an entire class for a half-hour once or twice a week.

"I can look back and I'll remember when I was in third grade," she said. "I'll tell them how I learned" the skill they are working on.

Prospective mentors must apply to the program as if it were a job. School counselor Christi Bello, who started the program three years ago, gives candidates an application form. They must list their experience working with younger children and write an essay about why they would make a good mentor. They also have an interview with Bello.

The experience of applying is one reason the mentors named their program Students Promoting Individual Career Enhancement, or SPICE Team. When they are mentoring, pupils wear a uniform - dark blue T-shirts with the SPICE Team logo on the front.

Once selected, new mentors receive training at a summer workshop that includes role-playing sessions and a puppet show to prepare them for work with younger children.

Matt Marcus, 11, said he learned teaching skills at the workshop.

"If you just tell them [the answer], then they're not learning anything. But if you tell them a strategy, then they're actually learning something," he said.

SPICE Team members meet once a month throughout the year to rotate jobs, discuss the progress of their partners and evaluate themselves. At the end of the school year, they will receive a trophy donated by the school's PTA at a pizza party for mentors and their partners.

Like many Howard County schools, Northfield had a peer mediation program. But Bello felt that it was not doing enough.

"A goal for our school ... was to bring up the lowest-achieving level. Mediators are not going to do that," she said.

Bello said she began using pupils as mentors because "the impact that peers have on kids is sometimes greater than the impact that adults have. Some kids that wouldn't even engage with the teacher one-on-one ... will improve with peers."

A handful of middle-schoolers from Dunloggin also mentor at Northfield when their classes are done for the day.

Manor Woods and Clarksville elementary schools have begun similar programs; the young mentors from those schools received training with Bello's fifth-graders last summer.

Bello points out that mentors are not necessarily the top pupils. Some are in the program because they have social and academic needs of their own.

"They need something in their lives to empower them, and this program does that," she said. "It helps them to improve themselves. They're inspired to feel like they're making a connection and a contribution to this school."

Northfield teachers generally have a positive view about the program's effect on the pupils who serve as mentors.

"I evaluated teachers for their input, and they said that [what improved] more than anything was their [the mentors'] confidence level working with a peer," Bello said. "I love the fact that they're excited about helping kids - just the excitement on the mentors' faces when they report the progress."

Sofie Friedman, 11, sees progress in her partner, who has cerebral palsy. Although the girl has trouble communicating, she laughed when Sofie read her book. "I just read to her and it looks like she's enjoying it, so I enjoy it, too," Sofie said.

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