Believing in yourself and others

500 pupils from 22 county elementary schools share ideas at peer leadership conference at APL


Savannah Wilhelm, 10, a fifth-grader at Thunder Hill Elementary School, is a peer mentor, meaning she tutors younger pupils at her school. She works with kids in second, third and fourth grade, she said, and she is proud of one fourth-grader in particular.

"She needed a little help with math, and ever since I started working with her, she's been getting B's," said Savannah, who added that she feels comfortable helping pupils who are only slightly younger than she is.

On Thursday, Savannah was one of about 500 Howard County elementary school pupils attending a Peer Leadership Conference being held at the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory near Laurel. All the children held some kind of leadership roles at their schools.

The high-energy meeting began with the pupils enthusiastically performing the Macarena, then listening to the motivational speaker, Aric Bostick, before breaking into groups for sessions that ranged from goal-setting to bullies.

The conference, in its third year, is organized by the county's elementary school guidance counselors, who also attended and seemed just as enthusiastic as the pupils they chaperoned.

Savannah, who attended last year, said she preferred this year's conference because she liked the speaker. Bostick, based in San Antonio, spoke for about an hour, jumping up and down on the stage, lying down and always asking for audience participation in the form of shouts and claps. His visit was funded by the Horizon Foundation.

Savannah said the key message she took from Bostick's speech was "to have big dreams, to believe in yourself and to be cool."

Her guidance counselor, Becky Reeb, said the conference is a reward for children who serve as peer tutors in her school. This year, she took 12 pupils, she said.

Counselors can choose which pupils to invite, as long as they are involved in some sort of leadership activity in the school, said Lisa Boarman, the county's facilitator for school counselors.

Some schools have peer mediation programs, she said, in which pupils are taught how to help other pupils resolve their differences. Others have student government programs or tutoring programs like the one at Thunder Hill. "We really encourage our counselors to develop programs that meet the needs of their schools," Boarman said.

Marion Fox, a counselor at Waterloo Elementary, brought 11 fourth-graders who will be peer mediators next year. "This is the kickoff," she said. "I used to bring fifth-graders who were already doing it, but I like this better, to kick it off and then train them."

The conference has gotten more popular every year, Boarman said, and every year it has been moved to a venue that can hold more pupils.

The first conference, three years ago, was at Howard Community College, which could hold 200 people, she said. Last year, it was moved to Wilde Lake Interfaith Center, which held 300. This year, the 500 pupils, who were from 22 elementary schools, filled an auditorium at the Applied Physics Lab, she said.

Boarman said she likes APL because it is professional looking, and she wants the pupils to feel as grown-up as possible. To help with that goal, all the children received packets with the day's schedule, a pad of note paper, a zippered pouch of pencils and other materials.

After Bostick spoke, pupils attended sessions that were presented by a range of people, including Laura Propert, a counselor at Burleigh Manor Middle School, who spoke about leadership skills; Tricia McCarthy, assistant principal at Bollman Bridge Elementary, who discussed setting goals, and Karen Kreitzer, the psychologist at Lisbon Elementary, who spoke about bullying.

Then pupils ate bag lunches that they had brought and returned to school by bus before the end of the school day.

Bostick energized the audience with his mix of comedy and storytelling, perfectly geared to the age group in his audience.

"You want to feel good about your life?" he asked the pupils. "Shout `Oh yeah,' " They responded enthusiastically.

At one point, he took off his baseball shirt to reveal a Superman shirt and cape. He said Superman wore a silly outfit, with his underwear outside his clothes, but he didn't let criticism slow him down. He spoke about cliques and about the small hallway snubs that can be hurtful.

At another point, he acted out the way that he wakes up each morning, bounding out of bed with enthusiasm. "I set my alarm and rather than hoping it wouldn't go off in the morning, I starting looking forward to it," he said. But he said it took him a while to get into that habit.

He also asked the children to shout out names of the college they hoped to attend. After about 30 seconds of cacophony, he said, "Those are really good schools."

Then he asked them to shout out what they wanted to be when they grew up. Again, a wall of noise. "Those are really good jobs," he said.

He told the pupils that they could reach their goals as long as they picture them and take action. Perhaps not every elementary-age child has clear-cut goals, but Savannah does.

"I think I want to grow up and be the owner of my own company," she said, "after I graduate from Harvard."

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