Preschoolers, 7th-graders bond as they learn from one another

Teacher Tiffaney Russell laid out cutouts of two large teeth, one white and one yellow, on the floor and asked the 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds in her Early Start program, held at Edythe J. Hayes Middle School, to place pictures of healthy foods on the white tooth and unhealthy sweets on the yellow one.

Hayes seventh-graders Bria Williams, Naomi Lofton, Micah Jenkins and Jonathan Groves stood nearby, ready to help.

When the preschoolers were turned loose on their next activity — which included painting on construction paper with toothbrushes — the middle schoolers paired off with them in twos and threes, talking to them quietly in English and Spanish.

It was clear: The Early Start students have become accustomed to the help of the big kids. And they relish the extra attention.

Since September, the 26 students in Russell's morning and afternoon sections of Early Start have had the advantage of daily visits from E.J. Hayes seventh-graders in Laura Kerns' Spanish classes.

And twice monthly, students in all four morning sections of Early Start at Hayes have visits from their "Book Buddies," a group of roughly 15 seventh-graders in Ashlee Hyde's language arts class who volunteer to arrive at school early to read to the 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds.

Since the Early Start Program at Hayes opened this year, the middle school's teachers have embraced the opportunity to involve the older kids in peer-driven learning, said Hayes principal Sherri Heise.

"We have a strong sense of community at Hayes. It was our goal to build a partnership between the Early Start students and our middle school students," she said.

Spanish and English

Several students in Russell's Early Start Program are native Spanish speakers. Some know Spanish only. And Russell knows no Spanish.

So when Spanish teacher Laura Kerns approached Russell about having two of her seventh-grade Spanish students visit the classroom each day, Russell jumped at the opportunity.

During their 20-minute daily visit, Kerns' seventh-graders talk to the kids in English and Spanish as they play with them. While counting out blocks or sorting play foods, they help the native Spanish speakers learn English words for colors, numbers and days of the week. At the same time, the seventh-graders help the English-speaking preschoolers learn basic Spanish words.

Russell has seen the difference the partnership has made for her Early Start students, particularly the ones who are learning English as a second language.

"Some are shy about trying to speak another language," she said. "Having someone older come in that they can look up to has really helped them open up," Russell said.

The chance to teach the preschoolers has helped reinforce the seventh-graders' learning of Spanish and even sped it along, Kerns said. She noted that by working with the native Spanish-speaking preschoolers, her students had learned the words for colors in Spanish before they had covered it in their own textbooks.

"My students are learning from them," Kerns said. "My seventh-graders act as teacher and student. Both groups are learning from each other and helping each other at the same time."

"It's great getting to know each and every one of them," seventh-grader Naomi Lofton said. "They're fun to be around."

Eager to help

First-year teacher Ashlee Hyde has seen her seventh-grade language arts students thrive from the chance to mentor the Early Start students as well.

Hyde came up with the idea for her Book Buddies program last year during her teaching internship.

This year, her three sections of seventh-grade language arts competed against one another to see which could collect the most new and gently used picture books to create a reading library for the Early Start students at Hayes.

All told, Hyde's students collected 250 books.

Students from the winning class then had the opportunity to volunteer to become Book Buddies with the preschoolers. About 15 have regularly set their alarms an hour and a half early twice a month to read to the Early Start students from 7:30 to 9 a.m., when their own middle school classes start.

"I love working with the kids," said seventh-grader Anna Freed, who has enjoyed reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Berenstain Bears books to the preschoolers.

Her mom, Rose Anne Freed, has been impressed at Anna's motivation to set her own clock so she doesn't miss the program.

"She always comes home so happy, talking about the younger kids and what they did that day," Rose Anne Freed said.

Both partnership programs have helped the middle schoolers take an active role in teaching the younger students. And in doing so, they've come to feel like protective, proud older siblings.

"The seventh-graders help out a lot," said Dee Fitzgerald, a classroom aid in Russell's room. "They end up developing little friendships with the younger kids, like sisters and brothers."