Peer mentoring is a built-in, powerful tool at The New Century School, arising as a very natural consequence of its philosophy and mission. Classes comprise mixed-age groups quite deliberately, a big difference between TNCS and traditional classrooms, in which each grade level corresponds to a single age. A vital element in TNCS’s approach to education is that older children assist younger ones, and younger children not only learn from their mentors but also develop better social skills through this interaction. The older children also benefit greatly; another key element of TNCS’s approach is consideration for others. Practicing compassion and kindness for their younger classmates teaches the older children how to conduct themselves graciously in any social milieu. Yet another advantage to mixing ages in this way is that students remain with the same teacher and many of the same children for more than just a year, developing trusting, long-term bonds.
Incidentally, the teacher also comes to know each child very well and gains an intimate knowledge of how each child best learns.
Not only does social and emotional learning (SEL) increase from the mentor–mentee relationship, but academic gains are also made. Furthermore, there is scientific evidence to back up the suggestion that mentoring and being mentored provide cognitive advantages that conventional teaching does not. A 2017 study from the Journal of Educational Psychology demonstrates that partnering with higher-achieving peers can have a positive influence on a student’s learning, and students who are older, more capable readers can be these peers for young students.
Reading Buddies at TNCS
That’s where Reading Buddies comes in. This practice pairs different grade-level classrooms for community reading time—an upper-grade homeroom connects with a lower-grade one, and students pair up for time with books.
This cooperative learning method happens all over the campus, in all divisions. In a check-in post from earlier this school year, TNCS Dean of Students/Head of Lower School Alicia Danyali enumerated many of the initiatives she was undertaking for the 2018–2019 school year, including establishing various class partnerships for service learning purposes—read more on that here. And the roots of the school community deepen as classes across campus work and share together. Because of the success of Reading Buddies, in particular, we’re revisiting this lovely tradition in more detail.
“Every second Wednesday, my 4th- and 5th-grade homeroom students go to Ge Laoshi’s K/1st class to participate in service learning by reading to their young friends,” explained TNCS teacher Nameeta Sharma. When asked what he liked about the Reading Buddies program, one of her 4th-grade students replied, “Everything!” “It’s fun to read to the little kids, and they really listen to me while I’m reading,” he continued. “Sometimes the teachers pair us up, and other times we just go read to whoever we want to. We all like to read Dr. Seuss books while we’re there.”
Reading Buddies also promotes reading. It allows younger readers to see what being a fluent reader looks like, as they have a peer model demonstrating reading skills. Older students become positive role models as well as develop patience and empathy as they work with their younger buddies. As the year progresses and the skills of the younger readers increase, students take turns reading to each other. In some cases, the mentee goes on to become the mentor of an even younger student. The relationship is thus bidirectional and enormously enriching.
The benefits are profound. Both sets of students get excited about Reading Buddies time because it’s a chance to do something different, visit another classroom, have fun, and make new friends. Even the Middle Schoolers love it!
Cooperative learning is also a great way to build community in the school, a primary part of TNCS’s mission. Another benefit of cooperative learning is simply that the Upper Elementary and Middle School students would not have another opportunity to get to know their younger schoolmates without this special time together. The upper and lower classrooms are situated in different buildings, and even lunch and play spaces are kept separate, as appropriate. Thanks to Reading Buddies, though, younger students recognize their role models around campus and can wave hello. It’s so nice to see, and these relationships can extend beyond the reading partnership. They can even have a positive impact on disruptive behavior. Younger children yearn for the respect of their older heroes and tend to comport themselves with more self-awareness in their presence. Older children develop a sense of protectiveness and want to nurture their adorable young friends. It’s easy to imagine how these SEL moments take root and flourish in a child’s character.
The practice of sharing a book is a delightful gift in and of itself; Reading Buddies deepens the enrichment exponentially. Now that’s a happy ending!