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Practicing leadership on the playground


When seventh-graders Malia Fields and Emily Monterrosas arrive at the East Kelloggsville Elementary School playground, there are instant hugs as first-graders Jayla Robertson and De’asia Church fling themselves into the older girls’ arms.

There’s just something cool about having middle-schoolers make the short trek from the adjacent schoolyard to lead recess games and serve as positive role models for kindergarten through third-grade students. Moments after the students, who are enrolled in Teen Leadership classes, arrive, games like “Duck, Duck, Goose,” “Spider in the Web” and “Red Light, Green Light” are on full display; pick-up basketball and soccer games begin, and the swings are in, well, full swing.

This school year, the sixth-through-eighth graders are using the skills they learn in the semester-long leadership class and paying them forward  helping out at the elementary school twice weekly to reinforce good behavior.

Seventh-grader De’nairo Paul leads elementary students to the fun

“We noticed on the playground we had an increase in some negative and mean behavior, and so what we wanted to do was have some older students come over and promote positive play,” said interim East Kelloggsville Principal Beth Travis, explaining that the leadership students seemed like the perfect fit. “It gives a chance for Teen Leadership kids to help other students problem-solve and be mentors.”

Malia said it’s been fun getting to know the elementary students. “I like being here with them because they are so energetic and fun to be around. They look up to us.”

For Emily, it’s been a two-way lesson in learning from peers of a different age. “These kids teach me that there’s more than just school or work in life. We can all have fun, make friends and be nice to each other.”

Third-grader Carissa Hulbert said the older students are helpful and teach good behavior. “When someone falls, they pick them back up,” she said. And if someone misbehaves? “They say, ‘no, we don’t do that.’”

Serving as Leaders in the Community, Right Next Door

Teachers Kelly Hammontree and Keith Caterino teach Teen Leadership, which uses a curriculum developed by Flippen Group, creator of Capturing Kids’ Hearts.

Focuses for sixth- and seventh-graders are developing lifelong skills such as shaking hands, making eye contact, public speaking and being aware of body language. Eighth-graders concentrate on choices and reacting in uncomfortable situations concerning drugs and alcohol and relationships. Discussion centers on how choices, both positive and negative, impact one’s entire life, Caterino said.

Seventh-grader Makylah Powers gives kindergartner Eva Cavasos, her sister, a big hug

Both classes also have a service-learning component, running the school’s recycling program.

Hammontree and Caterino see their students’ leadership skills come to life on the playground, where teaching positive play has given teens a sense of the power of mentorship.

“The elementary kids look up to them and get so excited to see them,” Hammontree said.

While learning about leadership, they are serving as leaders and hopefully inspiring younger peers to become them too.

“Ultimately, the goal is to pass it on,” Caterino said.

Seventh-grader De’nairo Paul gives directions for “Duck, Duck, Goose”

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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 or email Erin.

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