Students as teachers

Program initiated at Beaty Warren Middle School focuses on peer education

Times Observer photo by Lorri Drumm Beaty Warren Middle School eighth-grade peer educators meet with School Counselor Matt Menard as they plan the weekly lessons they present to fifth-grade classes. From left are Audrey Smith, Georgie Bickling, Carly Beers, Ella Ordiway, Grant Heeter, Jack Darling, Parks Ordiway, Owen Strandburg, and Menard. Missing from photo are peer educators Maya Stoddard and Lydia Balas.

A new program initiated at Beaty-Warren Middle School this year seems to indicate that young ears may be more receptive to lessons taught by their peers.

A team of 10 eighth-grade students meets each Thursday with School Counselor Matt Menard to plan lessons they will teach to fifth-grade classes the following Tuesday. The eighth-graders function as peer educators.

The lessons are part of the Ophelia Project, a curriculum based in Erie. Menard was able to access the curriculum for free.

The mission of the Ophelia Project is to empower all members of a community to recognize and address relational aggression through a systemic change in the social culture.

In 1998, while listening to the stories of adolescent girls in advisory councils, The Ophelia Project discovered an issue they had not begun to address–how girls hurt each other. With the support of researchers, they learned about relational aggression and the harm to both girls and boys.

The Ophelia Project developed the first program in the country by training high school students to work directly with middle and elementary students in learning about relational aggression.

“We decided to do this because we believe in the power of peer education,” Menard said. He initiated the program by contacting staff at the school but logistically he would have needed a clone to teach all the lessons included in the program.

“We have seven classrooms and seven lessons. That comes out to 49 lessons,” he said. “I would have to multiply myself.”

So staff members recommended some students to fill the role of peer educator. Interviews were held. Some students were receptive and some not so much but a team of 10 was formed, according to Menard.

As the student group gathered to prepare for next weeks lesson on leadership, Menard provided a basic plan and the students addressed some of the challenges they face as they fill the role of teacher.

Menard told the students to start the lesson by instructing the fifth graders to stand up and follow a series of movements performed by them. “Nothing too fancy,” he said. “Something they can follow.”

“Then pick one of the students to be the leader,” Menard advised. Once that was done he told them to have two students lead their classmates in following a series of movements.

The following discussion would focus on selecting leaders. “Ask them how they decide who to follow,” he said. “Why did they make that choice?”

The discussion would then progress to how you decide which leaders to follow in life, he said.

One of the peer educators asked Menard what to do if the students were shy and were hesitant to volunteer or speak. “Just pick someone if that happens,” he said.

Menard also assured the students that it’s not unusual to not know what to say or have all the answers.

Prior to the current lesson on leadership, peer educators presented topics including the language of peer aggression, the role of the upstander versus the bystander, normative beliefs and gender roles and healthy friendships as opposed to unhealthy friendships. A lesson focusing on cyberbullying is upcoming.

This year’s topics were selected based on results of a CASS (Creating a Safe School) survey, according to Menard. The survey will be given again to assess any changes.

A team of peer educators for the 2019/2020 school year will be selected from suggestions from this year’s team, Menard said.

Menard said his vision for the future of the program includes a form of mentorship where peer educators function as a go-to guide for younger students. That may be in the works already.

Several of the current peer educators told Menard that they often bump into their classroom students during the school day and exchange greetings. “That’s great,” Menard said. “A fifth-grader walking up to an eighth grader to say hi…that’s great.”