Connecting Students, Changing Lives

Anna Speller ’20 wanted to share what happened to her, in case she could help one person avoid the pain she’s been through. She steeled her courage, wrote her story and, with her parents’ support, granted permission to her classmates to read it to 8th grade students.

“I couldn’t be down there when they were sharing it, it was too much, but hearing all the positive feedback…that was amazing,” she said. It was an extraordinary journey from the sexual assault she experienced as a freshman on a religious youth-group trip to Washington, D.C., to this year’s 8th grade advisory session on consent and sexual assault.

With a strong support network of family, friends, classmates, coaches, teachers and staff, Speller worked through recovery and ultimately decided to harness her feelings into a powerful resource that helps Middle School students at MICDS. She collaborated with classmates, faculty and staff to develop Peer to Peer, an Upper to Middle School mentoring platform that is now in its second year.

Many parents and teachers today don’t remember exactly what it feels like to be a Middle School student and definitely didn’t grow up with social media. To make matters worse, 7th and 8th grade students aren’t known for listening well to their parents anyway, even if parents could impart the necessary wisdom. Listening to—and learning from—slightly older students helps young adolescents through what can be a difficult time of growth. This is the premise behind the student-led Peer to Peer program. Speller said, “We cover all the hard things that come in Middle School and all the things I wish I had known. It’s different when the information is coming from people who are only two or three years older than you. It’s more inspirational, and I think the students hear it more.”

Twelve times this academic year—six sessions per grade—a dedicated group of Upper School mentors visited 7th and 8th grade students in Advisory and over lunch. They talked about a variety of topics that can be uncomfortable to discuss with Mom and Dad or teachers, led discussions and activities, and shared the insights they have learned as they navigate high school life.

Speller developed the program with Vicki Thurman, Director of Student Support Services at MICDS, and a committed group of classmates. Together, they began working on a way for Speller to share what she had learned with younger classmates, to hopefully help them avoid the same sticky situation. “It didn’t start off as a big idea,” Speller admits.

Although she dislikes public speaking, especially in front of large groups, she steadied her nerves and gave a presentation about Peer to Peer at an Upper School assembly two years ago, inviting students to apply. Thirty-five sophomores, juniors and seniors joined the fledgling program. The team worked together to develop lessons for 7th grade with a vision to eventually expand to 8th grade. When an original co-head stepped down, classmate MacKenzie Macam ’20 jumped on board and brought even more ideas about how to help. The curriculum for Peer to Peer exploded, and today covers self-respect, healthy decisions with regards to drugs and alcohol, healthy relationships, consent and sexual assault, communication styles and healthy relationships, transition to the Upper School, technology and social media, stress and anxiety, and healthy decision making/peer pressure.

Macam said, “I was inspired to help lead this program because I know how scary Middle School can be for some students. I also have a sibling in the Middle School, so I get first- hand experience about what she is going through. Middle school is such a crucial point in a student’s life, and my hope is that our mentors share their own stories about the lessons they’ve learned throughout their time in both middle and high school.”

The Upper School mentors are carefully vetted before being accepted to the Peer to Peer team. Students apply to the program and Thurman and the co-heads review each one. Thurman also checks course load and other commitments, ensuring that mentors have the capacity to commit to the program since building relationships throughout the school year is key. This year, 39 Upper School students serve as mentors, and even shy, quiet students have become integral parts of the Peer to Peer team. “One of the things I love about this is that you can see different things in kids than you would otherwise,” said Thurman.

The Upper Schoolers go through a rigorous orientation at the beginning of the year to learn what it means to be a mentor and discuss topics and lessons. Then, they work in teams of three to plan lessons and meet with both 7th and 8th graders on different days. Sessions are scheduled with the school year in mind and after consulting with the 7th and 8th grade deans; for instance, the topic of transitioning to the Upper School was covered just as 8th graders began making their course selections for 9th grade.

The program is organic and evolving as the team looks to improve. The first year followed a large group presentation- advisory discussion format. Mentors reported that “the magic was actually in advisory connection and pairings, so we removed the group presentations and went straight to advisory,” said Thurman. Mentors are also leading groups over lunch. The longer session offers the opportunity to delve into heavy subjects, like technology and social media, and it’s working. “There’s a big student voice in the development of the topics,” said Thurman. For example, a survey of 7th graders at the end of last year’s program showed a need for more content covering anxiety and stress, so it was added as a specific discussion topic.

The two groups of students are clearly connecting; when mentors visit the Middle School some of their younger classmates will rush to give them hugs. Many of the mentors receive emails from their young friends requesting advice or insight, and some share jokes and memes. Jake Kellner ’22 said, “If I was still in 7th or 8th grade it would be very beneficial to have a highschooler come down and talk about the types of things we talk about. I was surprised at how well I personally connected with the students.”

Macam agreed, “This year, my goal for the program is to continue building relationships with the Middle School students while making sure they know that although Middle School is tough, it will get better!” Grant Purdy ’21 said, “I love the energy that the kids bring to every session. We truly focus on connecting and becoming their friends before we try and teach them hard subjects like substance abuse and healthy relationships. I cherish the relationships and true friendships I have with the kids. The experience for me as a whole has been enriching and an activity that I look forward to.”

Speller has a simple goal in mind: “I said from the beginning if I can touch one person then I am happy. If just one person is helped from anything we’ve taught, if one person gets out of a toxic friendship or goes to a teacher for help because they are anxious, that is 100% success.” She recognized the profound effect of the support she found through her family, friends, teachers and coaches, and knows that it may be difficult, for younger students especially, to recognize resources for support. “Suffering in silence is not necessary,” she said. Simrin Phatak ’21 agreed, “I hope that this program brings a sense of reassurance to them, and reminds them that there are always people here to help whenever they need it.” Estephanie Estrada ’21 said, “For a lot of these kids, they sometimes don’t want to go to a teacher or don’t want to ask these questions to their advisors, but because we are closer to their ages, they know that their questions are legitimate. I am happy that we are able to be that vessel, their guides to all things Upper School.”

What happens after Speller and Macam graduate and are off to college? They worked to make Peer to Peer sustainable, recruiting co-heads for next year early in the season, and involving them in planning and implementation during the 2019-2020 school year. Gretel Wurdack ’21 is ready to take on her leadership role.

She said, “This program teaches students how to be compassionate, empathetic, and deal with difficult situations appropriately. Our decisions say a lot about us, but I also believe they teach us a lot, too. My goal is to help them with my experiences because good advice in hard times can prepare you to make the best decisions when they matter.” She is surprised by how much being a mentor has helped her, too. “I’ve actually learned how to be a better person from the Middle Schoolers. They’ve taught me to reflect on my own life and make more considerate and mature decisions to make me become my best self.”

Through the Peer to Peer mentoring program, Speller has positively influenced the lives of many of her classmates both young and old. “Everything is a learning experience,” she said. That’s a great lesson for all of us.