Peer Pals

700 students, 31 classroom teachers, three pods in the school…let’s shake it up. At Isbell Elementary we have a community of students who walk in each day ready to learn and ready for teachers to extend their learning. We are fortunate that our students come to us with an extensive amount of background knowledge. We spend most of our time during planning asking, “What can we do to enrich this student?” Although our students are ready to take on academic challenges, we have noticed that they need more time developing skills that will enhance their collaboration, social skills, and allow them the opportunity to develop leadership skills. Therefore, we added peer pals as a part of our daily routines on our campus.

Peer pals provide the opportunity for our third, fourth, and fifth grade students to be a mentor to a kindergarten, first, or second grade student. When students meet, they might discuss their week at school, read to each other, write with each other, or work on reinforcing math skills.

When we first started peer pals on our campus, it was more of an administrator-led program. While working with the counselor and assistant principal, we would train the other students on how to work with the younger students. We also started small with the program, which meant not every student had a peer pal. After I saw the positive impact peer pals had on students, I wanted to take the initiative to the next level—every student needs a peer pal!

While attending training by Steve Barkley, I mentioned to him our campus-wide peer pals initiative. I had a great coaching session with him where I outlined my goals for the peer pals program.

My goals were:

1. Every student has a pal.
2. Every older student has the chance to become a leader.
3. Every student has the chance to have one student on this campus cheering for him or her.
4. Every student has the chance to share something with another student that is not on his or her grade level.

Steve’s coaching session helped guide me to decide to change my pods. This would enable the students and teachers to have their peer pals more accessible. At the time, our floor plan included fourth and fifth graders together, third and second graders together, and kindergartners and first graders together. Peer pals were matched with the following grade levels, fifth graders with second graders, fourth graders with first graders, and third graders with kindergartners. It only made sense to have students and teachers relocate to the pod with their peer pals. If only it was that easy. I will never forget sitting in a meeting with my campus leadership teams. I posed the question, “How do you all like peer pals?” All of the comments were positive. It was time to pull the plug and take the plunge with my next question, “Well, what if we relocated the grade levels so each peer pal was in the same pod?” The look on every teachers face was priceless. After everyone got over the shock of packing up their belongings and moving rooms, they decided to go for it. Time to live the mantra of “What’s best for the students…”!

After consulting with the PTA Board regarding any parent push-back and talking to the Campus Improvement Team, we rolled it out to the entire community. I was faced with many questions at first. “What about the bathrooms? Will the fifth graders be mean to the second graders? What happens if a kindergarten student hears a third grader say something bad?” Just as any administrator would do, I sent out a newsletter answering all of the questions and assuring parents that this was best for KIDS! I did explain that there probably would be challenges, but we would work out any of the challenges that come our way.

Fast forward to the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year; our kids and teachers are loving this opportunity. Teachers have had the opportunity to see their kids teach and learn from other students, as well as interact themselves with a different set of teachers. Students are holding their learning to higher standards just because their peer pals gave them feedback regarding an assignment. Teachers have the opportunity to have more vertical discussions just because they are seeing a different age group in their pod. I must say, it has been refreshing for all.

When I walk around the campus when peer pals are meeting, I just smile. The countless hours of matching students together were well worth it. When a student comes up to me and expresses that his peer pal guided him to find grammatically mistakes in a sentence, it reminds me of the impact we have made for student learning. Yes this was a huge undertaking by all, but seeing the positive growth of students taking ownership of not only their own learning, but of community learning, was well worth the time.

Serita Dodson
Proud Principal-Isbell Elementary-(469)633-3400
Loving Every Minute of Learning