Melissa Charette (Regional Teacher of the Year for the Olympia area) has created an environment unlike any other I’ve seen in a middle school. I walked in early in the morning, after students were already settled into their first period classes. The hallways were quiet and I could hear the sounds of learning and engagement all around me. Washington Middle School is already a pleasant place to be, with bright hallways and student artwork on the walls, but Melissa’s class makes it a truly amazing community.
Melissa teaches in a Designed Instruction Special Education classroom. Traditionally, that means students work with their classroom teacher, as well as one-to-one with paraeducators who help them work through lessons and activities specifically designed for them based on their cognitive and physical abilities. The difference in Melissa’s classroom is that learning happens not only with instructors, but also side by side with their mainstream peers. It is a wonder to behold.
When I first walked into her classroom, the room was bustling with activity. Special education students sat with one of their peers working through a variety of activities, ranging from sorting items and reading instruction to counting items and categorizing them. The partnerships were fantastic to witness. In each pair, both students were engaged 100 percent with the activity and with one another.
As I watched, Melissa told me about several of the students in the room. Two stories stood out. One boy with autism struggled to acclimate to middle school. He is nonverbal, so communication was difficult at first. He did not know how to communicate with his new teachers and his teachers did not yet know how to communicate with him. His story is amazing in that he is so completely engaged now after two years with Melissa and because of the peer mentor program she has built. This student, who struggles still with communication and social skills, works with his peer mentor and has developed friendships with his mainstream classmates. The peer mentor program helped this boy with autism find a safe place and new friends.
The second story is about one of the peer mentors. This student, tall for his age and a bit gangly, came in ready to work at the start of his period. He asked a couple of questions then went right to work with his special education peer. He was very engaged with the work and really seemed to enjoy himself as he helped his friend through his work for that period. I asked about the student and Melissa explained that he struggled with behavior and was often in trouble. Melissa heard about him and encouraged him to become a peer mentor for her special education classroom. After becoming a mentor, his behavior completely turned around. The peer mentor program gave him confidence and purpose-he is now more connected with his school.
My favorite part of the day was “Go Noodle.” During “Go Noodle” the entire class, peer mentors, and paraeducators view a web program for getting kids moving and dance along to the silly songs. The characters and songs are wacky and the movements are even wackier and the kids love it. I loved it, too, and quietly schemed on ways I could get my high schoolers to do “Go Noodle.” Mostly, though, I marveled at this awesome community Melissa has built in her classroom.
Melissa’s peer mentor program is a model for the rest of us. In a time when school safety is a constant worry, connections are key. This classroom shows us the importance of helping our students build relationships across differences. As Melissa took me on a tour of the school, I observed posters hanging on the wall of Melissa’s students and their peer mentors. The peer mentors made the posters to introduce the students to the rest of the school. The faces of the students in the pictures say it all. Both of them have beaming smiles. Their connection is clear. They are not simply mentor and mentee; they are friends.
To learn more about implementing the peer mentor program in your school, check out Melissa’s blog. Also, check out my conversation with Melissa and hear about her experiences as an educator and her messages to other educators, students, and the community.
Mandy Manning is the 2018 Washington State Teacher of the Year and National Teacher of the Year. She is an English language learning educator and teaches newly arrived refugee and immigrant students at Joel E. Ferris High School in the Newcomer Center in Spokane, Washington. The Newcomer Center is a specialized English language development program for brand new immigrant and refugee students to our nation, who have limited English language proficiency.
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