At Keystone, students of different ages learn from each other

Oct 08 2021

At Keystone, students of different ages learn from each other

Working with younger students gives us a sense of perspective and makes our problems seem like less of a big deal.
–Evalyn, Keystone 10th grade student

A rainy morning drop-off last week provided a sight that was both beautiful and meaningful. Due to that day’s deluge, we held Morning Care for kindergarten, first grade, and middle school students in various parts of the gymnasium. When a kindergartner and a sixth grader arrived simultaneously, I asked the older student if he minded escorting his younger schoolmate to the gym. As one would expect of our Cobras, he readily agreed.

Spaghetti lunch, 2019

As they headed toward the gym, the kindergartner gazed awestruck at the middle schooler while he carefully escorted her toward their shared destination. In the midst of a rather frenzied morning, an image of a careful guide and admiring follower brought a warm smile to the kindergartner’s father and to me.

This moment had me pondering the benefits of a school where children range in age from preschool to senior year. In a time when the overwhelming majority of schools separate by age, it’s important to remember that educating older and younger students together has a long history.

In Pennsylvania in the late 18th century, the Lancasterian model called for hundreds of students housed in one building; adult masters instructed the older children who, in turn, then taught their younger schoolmates.

As the US grew and industrialized, education went from rural one-room schoolhouses to urban and suburban schools with children in separate facilities according to age. I recall entering sixth grade, and our school district announcing the opening of a middle school to prepare 6th, 7th, and 8th graders for high school. Even then, in the 1970s, many of us questioned the wisdom of a stand-alone middle school. We could have benefited from mentors who were older than us but younger than our adult teachers. We also might have gotten over our youthful self-absorption by helping younger students find their way.

In an effort to learn what Keystone high school students thought about being in a school with children aged 3 to senior year, I interviewed six young women involved in Keystone Connects. Started several years ago by Isabella Sullivan ‘20, this program asks high school volunteers to play with Little School and Lower School students on the playground, read to them in the classroom, or create engaging activities for aftercare or during the day.

Now led by senior Gabi, Keystone Connects demonstrates the myriad ways that older and younger students benefit from their time together. Gabi states that “it’s very important for the youngest children to see the older kids, hang out with older kids, and learn lessons about diversity.” Junior Quincy pointed to the way that programs like this “form relationships and a tight-knit community.” Sophomore Sidney recalled how special she felt when older students like Bella paid attention to her and how she wants to do the same for younger children now.

Other students emphasized that the benefits of older and younger children being together go in both directions. Sophomores Abby and Alyssa agreed that playing with youngsters brings back memories of what it’s like to be that age, and enables high school students to feel like kids again. Tenth grader Evalyn explained that mentoring the children on the playground offers a sense of perspective and reminds high school students that perhaps their problems are not as monumental as they may feel at the moment. The students smiled and agreed that “it’s fun seeing the little kids on campus.”

In addition to the Lower School Connects program, high school students in the World Language Club read to their Kinder buddies, some Upper School volleyball players with 8th period free volunteer to help with the Middle School volleyball practices, and the Annual Spaghetti Lunch serves all K-12 students with upper school students as role models- something the younger children look forward to doing when they reach US.

To hear the adult perspective on being in a school with children of all ages, I asked Keystone’s four division heads to share their thoughts. Little School Head Dena Hoenig Valdez noted how creating formal relations between younger and older students helps both groups, and how young students view the older peers as role models. “For older students, they learn patience, appropriate language when talking to young students and life skills that provide an important foundation to becoming an adult, teacher, or parent,” she said. “For little ones, they learn important social skills such as forming appropriate relationships, trusting others and building connections in a safe environment while building their own self confidence and having fun.

Mallory Matthews, Head of Keystone’s Lower School calls peer mentorships “a powerful educational tool. “Older students deepen critical social-emotional leadership skills like empathy and effective communication, while younger students are eager to listen to and learn from their older peers and practice what is being modeled. I love the deep sense of community and belonging that is nurtured when opportunities are available for our older and younger students to interact and learn from one another,” Mrs. Matthews said. “The relationships that are built are really special, and become a joyful part of the day-to-day experience of our students. Lower School students look up to their Upper School role models. They are tickled with excitement when they see older buddies at morning drop off or in the quad as they walk to their specials classes, and I imagine it feels good for our older students to know that they have a bunch of admiring fans. These opportunities and encounters are one of the gifts of our smaller campus and part of why Keystone is such a special place.”

It’s not just high schoolers. Head of Middle School Dr. Jennifer Wivagg notes that “Middle school students benefit from working with upper school National Honor Society students through a tutorial program in which upper school students work one-on-one with a middle school student who needs help with organization or academics.”

Upper School Head Bill Spedding sees how the young ones help the older students, too. “It is amazing how a younger student’s face can beam with kind words from a high school student over a plate of spaghetti or a high five as they pass by the Lower School playground,” Mr. Spedding said. “These connections also help the older students to reconnect to those little joys of giving back, or to remember when they were in 3rd grade. Keystone often feels like a big “one schoolhouse” and the level of care and familiarity between students in different divisions is an important part of our Keystone culture.”

No matter their grade or division, when students of different ages come together, everyone benefits. It’s a symbiotic relationship for everyone involved. We are truly fortunate to be in a school where all of us are growing and developing together and learning from one another.

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