Student Mentoring: Challenging Kids to Awaken Their Inner ‘Jedi’

It’s opening night of the middle school play. Performers must report by 6:15 p.m., and as we pull out of the driveway, my daughter says, “OMG. Hurry. We’ve got to stop at CVS. I need to get something.” As a person whose understanding of time is completely different from the rest of my family, I was having a panic attack that we were running late, but Zoey wasn’t concerned. As we pulled away from the store, I asked her, “So, what was so important? Gum?” I know, not one of my finer parenting moments, but I was nervous for her. Some people live vicariously. I stress vicariously.

“I got my sixth-graders opening night chocolate,” Zoey said. I’m not going to lie, no matter what else she accomplishes this year, that was my proudest moment. She had continued an unwritten code in our middle school theater program: The older kids “adopt” the sixth-graders who are in the play or on tech crew. As a seventh-grader, Zoey continued a tradition of mentoring that she had benefited from the year before. As a timid sixth-grader last year, she had done the unimaginable, at least back then; she had auditioned and earned a speaking part, suddenly thrusting her full on into the nuances of being a theater kid: Blocking, taking notes after rehearsal, knowing when to ask the director a question and when not to, knowing which day to wear the production’s T-shirt, and learning how to apply stage makeup are among the lessons she would need to learn. A few eighth-graders “adopted” her right away, mentored her through the unwritten rules, and celebrated her along the way with opening night treats and making sure the whole cast knew when it was her birthday. I had been so incredibly grateful and inspired that I’ve been itching to implement this same model of student mentors.

January is National Mentoring Month, and it is a great time to take up this good cause in your own realm of influence. MENTOR (The National Mentoring Partnership), is an amazing resource to help you get started, beginning with this video. The last line, “If you mentor me, one day I’ll become a mentor too” is at the heart of the mentoring movement, creating generational change and acceleration in closing both academic and opportunity gaps. According to MENTOR, 90 percent of young adults who were at risk for falling off track but had a mentor are interested in becoming one themselves. If you’d like to become a part of this positive chain reaction, MENTOR can help link you with opportunities and training here.

However, if you are like me, you probably see the opportunity right in front of you in your schools or work environments. Share My Lesson has some excellent resources to get you started right away. I love this StoryCorps resource that capitalizes on Star Wars mania with “Conversations About Our Jedi Mentors,” which has students use the StoryCorps app to share stories about their influential “Jedi.” Career Girls also has shared a bunch of resources with SML to provide information for young women on how to become an oceanographer or architect or tech CEO. One of the things that really interests me about the mentoring relationship is that it is about access to information. “Insider” information can make all the difference, and as I look to foster mentoring relationships, that is one element I’m keeping in mind.

I’m excited to share that I was just awarded an Educator Grant from Teaching Tolerance to begin an online literary arts magazine. The grant will allow me to start a club that creates a website to showcase the amazing art, music, photography, writing, and even coding that students are doing in my middle school. One of the elements I wrote into the proposal was inspired by the relationships I saw nurtured in the theater program. There will be three eighth-graders, three seventh-graders, and three sixth-graders who form the backbone of the club, with the older students mentoring the younger ones. I’ll meet with the eighth-graders who will in turn work with the seventh- and sixth-graders to create the website. Not only will I be able to have mentoring relationships with these students as an author and teacher, but they will be able to provide peer-to-peer mentoring.

I’d love to hear about how your school or community mentors students (and each other!). We are all better if we take what works and share it widely, allowing others to utilize the paths we are taking, and walking with each other toward greater destinations for our students.