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Older Students Help Peers Build Positive Relationships

Weighed down by a backpack filled with four textbooks, Mill Creek Middle School sixth-grader Anna Burpee ran slowly, with heavy steps, to the end of the hallway. Moments earlier, her seventh-grade mentor Leslie Walters had tucked a piece of paper with words like “stupid” and “fat” into each book before setting them into the backpack.

“How did the backpack feel?” Leslie asked.

“Heavy,” answered Anna.

“Bullying weighs down on you, and it makes it harder to get through life,” Leslie said to her group of sixth-grade mentees Anna, Andrew Field, Santi Bermudez and Julia Rice during a half-hour session of Ignite. The program pairing seventh- and eighth-grade mentors with sixth-grade mentees. Santi Bermundez attempts jumping jacks with heavy textbooks in his backpack

Younger students took turns feeling the heavy load on their back, as older students led the lesson titled “Lighten Up,” part of the Ignite program curriculum. The group meets once a month.

Creating a Positive Climate

Students focus on much more than bullying to improve the school’s climate in a positive manner and build relationships, said Donita Coughlin, Mill Creek teacher and Ignite program coordinator. It’s also about connecting older student leaders with younger students to show them the ropes, help them acclimate to secondary school and have someone to talk to.

“She teaches us good stuff,” said Anna, of Leslie. “We can understand our work better … because she helps us. If we are struggling she tells us how to not have stress.”

Mill Creek administrators started using the national program intended for high school students because they saw the benefits it could have on middle-school students. While the company that created Ignite is no longer in business, Mill Creek administrators are still using the program because of its success in the school.

Eighth-grader Dani Johnston wears her Ignite shirtMiddle school is a big change for sixth graders, and having an older student who will recognize them and address them by name in the hallway is a big help, Coughlin said.

Ashleigh DeWitt is good at bonding with her mentees. The seventh-grader has come up with hand motions and funny noises known by members of her group. They stop in the halls to give an alien-sounding “hello” or a make a prehistoric pterodactyl sound. “If they are having a bad day I can cheer them up,” Ashleigh said.

Each year, seventh- and eighth-grade students apply to be mentors and receive training to teach each lesson. About 40 mentors participate with all sixth graders.

“Without a doubt there’s been tremendous growth in attaining that secondary mindset,” said Principal Gus Harju. Hearing about behavior and school climate from peers can be very valuable, he said. “I’m always impressed with how actively listening the mentees are,” he said.Ashleigh DeWitt demonstrates a greeting she has with her mentor group

Seventh-grade mentor Sadie Essex said she always says “hi” to her group of students and encourages them. “I wanted the opportunity to bond with sixth graders and help them with the middle-school experience,” she said.

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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