A parent of a first-grader tried to wrangle her child from peering into my classroom. “He just can’t wait to be in middle school! He thinks your students are rock stars,” she said. Peter isn’t the only young student who stops by each morning to greet the older kids. And the enthusiasm goes both ways.
Older kids can easily intimidate younger ones by simply ignoring them. But instead of reinforcing this dynamic, we as educators can take advantage of middle schoolers’ innate desire to be treated like grown-ups. We can create opportunities for older students to mentor younger ones and build leaders along with relationships.
As part of our middle school’s community service program, several students choose to volunteer as “interns” in younger classrooms one afternoon a week over a course of eight weeks. They meet with the cooperating teacher before the internship starts. This gives the teacher time to meet the student and communicate their expectations. It’s also a chance for the student to share their skills and interests.
Over the next several weeks, older students read picture books during story time, practice math skills with small groups of children and help supervise free time. They may even lead a lesson. More significantly, they get to know younger students and be important and popular for at least two hours a week.
I’ve found that these mentor roles are especially powerful for struggling students. Tara, a seventh-grader who has a hard time reading at grade level and fears judgment from her peers, builds confidence in her abilities by reading to eager kindergarteners. Justin, an eighth-grader who has difficulty relating socially to other middle school students, does indeed feel like a star when second-graders run to give him hugs and jostle to sit next to him. He shows a sensitive, outgoing side of himself that I have never seen fully expressed in my classroom. He also smiles more and carries himself straighter.
These students would miss out on these confidence-building opportunities if they were only surrounded by their peers. They also may avoid being bullied or engaging in bullying behavior to avoid taunts. Nothing combats bullying behavior better than a heart-shaped note from a 5-year-old that says “I love you.”
At my previous position, middle schoolers and elementary-aged kids had no contact with each other whatsoever. Perhaps the older students felt more “adult” because they were with kids their own age, but there was less of a tangible reason for them to act like adults. The opportunity for my students to interact with younger children gives them a chance to engage a different dynamic––one that can empower them while also bringing a stronger sense of community to our school.
Anderson is a middle school humanities and interdisciplinary studies teacher in Oregon.