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Eighth-graders mentor first-graders in North Rowan schools

By Maggie Blackwell

For the Salisbury Post

SPENCER — “We lead them; we represent as role models.”

Eighth-grader Kathrine Ellis tosses a braid over her shoulder as she states what, to her, is obvious.

North Rowan Middle School English teacher Angelia Fleming and North Rowan Elementary School first-grade teacher Iesha Patterson met a few years ago when Patterson’s son was in Fleming’s English class.

Last summer, they discussed the possibility of pairing Fleming’s students with Patterson’s students for reading support and mentoring.

They started the program in September with journals, one for each pair of students. A first-grader would write a note in the journal to his eighth-grade pen pal; the teachers would exchange the journals, and the eighth-grader would write back.

“Based on our collaboration, their writing improved because they had an audience they wanted to impress — an authentic audience,” Patterson says. “They were quite excited. It may help the eighth-graders to consider themselves as role models.”

Fleming agreed.

“Yes, they see themselves as role models. Their behavior has improved overall through this experience,” she says.

In October, the middle schoolers started walking next door to the elementary school on Thursdays. When it’s not too muddy, they take a path through a woody glen. The five-minute walk seems to refresh them all.

Each first-grader has the same eighth-grade partner throughout the year. When someone’s absent, someone else doubles up.

The program has been immensely successful.

“It took education out of the box,” Patterson says. “My students feel, ‘I know I need to do my best all the time because I need to impress my pen pal.’”

Patterson is a new teacher with a passion for helping students learn to love math and science. She claps her hands in a simple rhythm. The students clap back, mimicking the rhythm. She claps another cadence. Again, they respond. Then she has everyone’s attention and starts to speak.

Scattered around the room are containers of books — one container for each first-eighth grade pair of students. Students pair up and sit beside a container. The first-grader selects a book and begins to read to his mentor. When he encounters a tough word, the mentor helps him sound it out.

After the kids have time for a book or two, Patterson claps again. The students respond.

She introduces them to a series of tables around the room. Each table has science experiment supplies and direction. The first-graders and their mentors flock to the tables and begin experiments: blowing up balloons with baking soda and vinegar; racing metal puppies with magnets below the table.

There are six tables in all, and the students rotate from one table to another as they complete their tasks. It’s a sort of very organized chaos.

“We like helping the children,” says Xavier Suber of North Rowan Middle School says. “What I do is I work with my partner. We read books and play games. I can tell a big difference from the first of the year. At first, he was struggling a little with his words. He has more confidence now and is reading much better.”

Jasmine Sankey agrees.

“It’s fun and interesting. We have a good relationship,” she says. “We always have a good time. I see some growth but the main thing I see is she’s a lot more comfortable. She’s more open to talk to people. She has more interaction and more social skills.”

“We go and the kids are so excited,” adds Kar’ryn Hill. “We’re excited to see them, too. I love to see them learn. It’s an exciting experience every Thursday. They grow and learn so fast. It’s a good thing that we are helping.”

Patterson says the program helps students in ways other than academics.

“Before we started our collaboration between the first- and eighth-grade pen pals, some of the students were shy and withdrawn,” she says. “Since we have started these visits, many of them have come out of their shells and opened up to their pen pal. It has given them a safe platform to blossom in conversation, sharing ideas and information and social skills.”

Fleming sees the same with her students.

“I have several very shy students in this class,” she says. “This experience brings smiles to their faces and has helped them gain confidence.”

Tre Alexander looks up to his eighth-grade pen pal, Steven, and flashes a snaggletooth grin.

“I feel happy,” Tre says. “He’s a good pen pal. We read books, then we do science or other stuff. It’s better with Steven because I like him.”

Kennedy Stewart shyly smiles at Katherine, her pen pal.

“She’s fun. We get to do stuff together. She’s nice. I want to be like her when I get older.”

Marley Wegstrom’s pen pal is eighth-grader Lilly.

“I like it because we have a whole bunch of fun together,” Marley says. “She’s nice. She tells me to sound it out or break it down, and it helps my reading.”

Fleming and Patterson plan to allow the first-graders to walk to the middle school soon. Next year, they hope to involve other classes in the program.

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