Program Promotes Peer Learning In Bentonville

Date: February 17, 2014
Author: Dave Perozek
Publication: NWAOnline: Web Edition Articles (AR)

Ruth Barker Middle School students Nathali Meza and Emely Mendez sat side by side in a classroom Thursday reading a book about a magic school bus that blasts off into outer space.

As they read together, Nathali engaged Emely with questions related to the story. They discussed galaxies, moon rocks and the story’s characters.

Nathali, a sixth-grader, has been working with Emely, a fifth-grader, since October as part of a peer-tutoring program
called Learning Together.

Bentonville is the first school district in Arkansas to adopt the program, according to Rose Fowler, Barker’s principal. Barker started doing it in the fall. Apple Glen and Centerton Gamble elementary schools also have started their own Learning Together programs this year.

Fowler said the program’s benefits show up not only in the students’ academic performances, but also in their confidence levels. The program is built in part on the premise students learn material best when they are put in a position to teach that material to others.

“It has exceeded our expectations,” Fowler said.

The 22 boys and girls — 12 sixth-grade tutors and 10 fifth-grade tutees — involved in Barker’s program are all English as a second language students.

Tutors were chosen based on their test scores and other data.
“We looked for (sixth-graders) who were progressing in their language acquisition, but still needed assistance in improving their reading skills,” Fowler said.

The same selection process applied when it came to choosing tutees, except these were fifth-graders who needed some help.
Tutors gather once a week to prepare for the lessons they teach their tutees. That lesson is taught during 35-minute periods on Thursdays.

Teachers Melissa Lopez and Kathryn Allen facilitate the lessons and guide the tutors. They mostly stand back and observe while the tutors work with their tutees, though they answer students’ questions as necessary.

The Learning Together Co., based in Greensboro, N.C., provides kits that include 30 trade books and activity books for both the tutor and tutee. Lessons typically involve reading together and some kind of activity, such as drawing a picture.

On Thursday, the activity involved assembling paper rockets. As tutee Alex Serrano read the directions on making the rocket, tutor Eric Mejia checked off boxes in his activity book to indicate Alex was reading them correctly.

Nathali, 11, said she enjoys working with Emely. The techniques she has learned while tutoring also have helped her when it comes to reading with her 5-year-old sister at home, she said.

She was proud to be chosen to participate in Learning Together.
“I felt good because they had so many choices besides me,” Nathali said.

Though the program has been in place only for a few months, some of the students involved already have gained grade levels in their reading ability, Fowler said. But staff members say they see developmental gains in other ways as well.

“I see new confidence in the students,” Lopez said. “It’s helped them socially and emotionally.”

The program cost about $5,100, including shipping and handling for the 10 kits Barker ordered.

The idea to bring Learning Together to Barker started when Michael Poore, superintendent, shared an article with principals about peer tutoring, Fowler said. That was shortly after Poore began the job in fall 2011.

It was a busy time, so Fowler put the article aside. Later that school year, during the second semester, Poore encouraged her to look at the article again.

Fowler and two of her staff members traveled to Spring Branch, Texas, in January 2013 to see Learning Together in action. They were joined by Wendi Cheatham, a School Board member, and Judy Marquess, district director of instruction.

“We visited multiple campuses and sat with a panel of teachers and central-office people involved in the implementation,” Fowler said. “Spring Branch is an outstanding district and they truly rolled out the red carpet for us.”

Last month, it was Barker hosting a showcase event
on Learning Together. The school invited officials from other local districts to observe Learning Together lessons and ask the students questions.

Among those who attended was Robert Moore, an assistant superintendent for the Rogers School District. Moore said he was impressed by what he saw. He noted the tutors seem to benefit from the program as much as the tutees.

“We are going to be speaking with the people from Learning Together about doing a pilot (program) in one of our middle schools,” Moore said. “I think it’s a good concept.”