Like a lot of fifth-graders, Noelle Rosa was feeling anxious about attending middle school in the fall. Luckily, she had an older friend in whom she could confide. Ninth-grader Allyson Schillinger remembers what it was like when she was about to enter middle school. She worried back then, too.
"I remember going into sixth grade and worrying, 'What if I get lost?' " Allyson said.
Noelle and Allyson are part of a unique partnership called the Suncoast-Springstead Writing Project and Mentoring Program. Students at both schools have been communicating for the entire school year through a journal writing exchange.
Last week, the participants met face-to-face for the first time.
Carol Greig, honors English teacher at Springstead High School, and her daughter Jennifer Soccorso, who teaches fifth grade at Suncoast Elementary School, designed the program last fall.
They had coordinated similar exchanges before, but this year was different. They matched the students based on personality and interest, and focused on positive mentoring.
"It's a responsibility to have these bright kids make a commitment to the community," Greig said.
"It taps into the natural desire of younger kids to talk with older ones and of older ones to want to teach what they know," she said.
The younger students had an authentic reason to write. They looked forward to reading responses from their older buddies. Over the year, the quality of their writing and communication improved dramatically, Soccorso said.
Plus, writing gave students an opportunity to share what might otherwise and have been too difficult. An older mentor provided support, particularly for students who might be at risk for isolation and depression, she added.
And older students got a lesson in service and empathy.
"What started out as being like an older brother or sister — initially they'd share and chuckle — turned into something else," Greig said. "They've really matured into this. It's not a fun-and-games thing."
There's mutual respect and a new understanding of what it means to be a positive role model, she said.
The journals, which traveled between schools in a large pink box, were exchanged several times a month over the course of the school year.
Ninth-grader Megan Holley comes from a large family. When her fifth-grade friend Aliza Aponte was concerned about how a new baby might change things at home, her mentor helped her to feel better.
"She dealt with all those brothers and sisters," Aliza said.
Such exchanges are what Soccorso and Greig hoped for. Teachers carefully monitored students to ensure the writing and material was appropriate.
Several students have developed positive relationships outside of the journal exchange.
Fifth-grader ShyAnne Marshall was able to talk about friendship issues, the kinds that typically arise at this age. Her ninth-grade mentor, Kailey Genrich, helped her to see things differently and to feel less alone.
"You feel like you always have somebody to talk to," ShyAnne said.
"Someone who isn't involved in all the drama," Kailey said.
While both groups of students move on in the fall, one to middle school and the other up to 10th grade, their teachers are certain they have been changed by the experience.
Through writing, Greig said, they've had the experience of seeing the world through each other's eyes.
Shary Lyssy Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.