When exploring the student behaviors that create desired student learning, I often suggest that students as tutors to each other creates multiple learning opportunities. I found an awesome example in practice at the Isbell School in Frisco, Texas.
Isbell Mission Statement: Our Isbell family creates meaningful relationships while inspiring a community of lifelong learners.
Principal, Serita Dodson, shared with me that to encourage frequent, authentic opportunities for mentorship, classrooms have been aligned so that the kindergarten and third grade students share a common pod of the school. The same is true for first and fourth and second and fifth.
We have been intentional with meeting the needs of all students by identifying specific areas in which the older Peer Pal helps coach the younger Peer Pal. The role of the grade level teachers and administrators is to be the liaison between both student groups, since this truly is a student led/driven program. We poll the class to gain input on their expectations and desires for what they would like to glean from their next Peer Pal meeting. Each teacher also uses her anecdotal notes paired with instinctive knowledge to help focus students’ expectations for their next meeting. This has ranged from strengthening counting skills with the younger students to helping build leadership capacity among the older students.
Teachers shared these examples of their experiences with Peer Pals.
Linda Bugni told of a day when several teachers were absent and the thought of cancelling Peer Pals arose. Previously it had been decided that the 4-1 Pal time would focus on counting by 5’s to 40.
Fortunately, we made the decision to go ahead with it. Students were shepherded to their spots. Okay, maybe everyone was not with their assigned pal, but everyone had a pal. Because my class was split, I envisioned my job as crowd control and handler of issues.
I stepped into the first classroom, and saw students so engaged in the process-whether their role was “teacher” or “learner”, every group of students was actively involved in the task at hand. A fluke? I moved from class to class, and in each room, I saw the same thing. I also observed extensions-“Okay, now try to 100.” And “Can you do it backwards?” Re-teaching-“Let’s try it with tallies.” And even higher level questioning, “When you know how to count by 5’s, what will it help you do?”
Kellie Arends, a fourth grade teacher reports: After the students’ first few Peer Pal meetings, I have been amazed with the results. All of my doubts have been erased.
Low confidence students have found a leadership role. As they work with their first grade peers, these students transform into confident mentors. As I walked through the classroom at our last meeting, I heard many fourth graders talk in a tone that I hadn’t heard before; a tone on self-assurance and fearlessness. They are proud of their relationships with their Peer Pals, and take initiative to plan activities for their pals.
Frist Grade Teachers, Amelia Lingerfelt and Kelli Morse shared, “School wide relationships have strengthened. I have witnessed the fourth graders begin to step out of their “fourth grade bubbles,” and take initiative to form relationships with students in younger grades. Today, as my students were waiting in the hallway to switch to their next class, our Peer Pal first graders walked by and as they passed, huge smiles appeared on everyone’s faces. Students were high-fiving and giving fist pumps left and right. The strengthening of student relationships across the school is remarkable”.
Teacher, Rachel Cassidy, adds “The peer pals program has been a huge success for our fourth and first graders so far this year. Our fourth graders truly value being a mentor and setting an example for their younger peer. After our first meeting they couldn’t wait to see their pal again. The relationships that are forming through the program are solid and extremely beneficial to both age groups. Í have had students ask, ¨Can I go and check on my peer pal to make sure they are having a great day?” or ¨Can I check in with my peer pal on their math facts?” Students are truly seeing the rewards of helping others and building others up.
Kellie Arends has noticed that, “Peer Pals has helped our excelling students as well as our struggling, less confident students. Our students that excel in academics have been able to use their skills to teach their younger pals. Our students who are struggling or who are less confident in their academics have gotten a boost of confidence through being able to help their younger pal”.
Here are Principal Dodson’s current assessment and suggestions;
With only 11 weeks under our belts, we have seen our students develop not only a bond with their peer pal, but a deeper love of learning. And after 11 weeks, it was time to get under the hood of the car, so to speak, to evaluate how students are feeling and what they are thinking about their time with their pal. Here are a few quotes from our first graders that help to illustrate the common feelings among all students’ reflections:
I like peer pals because you get to spend time with them and you get to learn
and draw pictures and really get to know someone you have never met before.
–Luke, age 6
I like that my Peer Pal tells me about 4th grade. I also like that she gives me good vocabulary words. I like it because it helps me learn more. I also like her because
she pushes me to do my best. I love her!
-Sidney, age 6
Our advice for other educators would be to think intentionally when pairing your students. Keep in mind, not only academic needs, but also social needs. You really have to consider the whole child and which partnership would draw out both students’ strengths, while also enabling them to be vulnerable to receive feedback in areas in which they struggle. It is a delicate balance. And the sweetest part of it all is getting a front row seat to experience what’s happening underneath the “Awesome job,” giggles, and words of affirmation. It is clear there is a deeper undercurrent stirring; they are blossoming into leaders, coaches, mentors with a growth mindset.
Isbell School’s experiences certainly reinforce my continued encouragement of educators to explore the value of students teaching students. At this link you can find more detailed information on the process Principal Dodson used to implement Peer Pals. You can also connect with her at DodsonS@friscoisd.org .