Sometimes, the best way to learn is through play. Homer High School students and youngsters at Little Fireweed Academy put that to the test over the course of three days this week during a brand new mentoring partnership between the two schools.
Fireweed teacher Kim Fine has always believed in the power of the mentor-mentee relationship, and said she’s wanted for a long time to craft a mentorship program involving high school students.
While the educational aspect is huge, Fine said the relationship and bond created between younger and older students is perhaps even more important.
Finally, this year, she teamed up with Homer High science teacher Bruce Rife to make the program a reality.
“We’ve been talking about this for about five or six years,” Rife said. “After 32 years I’m retiring, so I thought, I’d better do it!”
A handful of students in Rife’s independent study used the school’s Focused on Learning hours to meet at Fireweed, plan their curriculum, and finalize their games over the course of a few weeks, Rife and Fine explained. The students who took the option for the mentoring program will continue to get independent study credit.
All the teaching would be focused outdoors in line with Fireweed’s current theme: journeys.
“We have this sort of old motto from many moons ago that just seems apropos right now,” Fine said.
That motto is: “No child left inside.”
The program is also special in that all but one of the high school students involved in the mentorship were once Fireweed students themselves.
One, who did not go to Fireweed, currently has younger siblings who do, Fine said.
“The cycle was completed after all these years,” Rife said. “We finally pulled it off.”
“I went through Fireweed myself so it’s been really cool just to see … the new generation of kids going through it,” said Simon Dye, one of the teens. “It’s really fun seeing Kim again, all the old teachers that I was with.”
Junior Avram Salzmann, another one of those alumni, joined two other high school classmates in a wooded area outside Fireweed to teach a group of youngsters a game called Sneaky Sneaky Squirrel.
To help the kids learn about how animals communicate with each other in nature, the high schoolers had the young students pair off, with one of the partners blindfolded.
The seeing parter had to verbally help their friend navigate around rocks and tree stumps, through trees and over roots.
“It’s totally crazy to see all the things that we did, like all the fun games that Kim has us do for all these guys, and to see how excited they are about school in general,” Salzmann said. “Because I remember being exactly that excited when I was here.”
Salzmann and his classmates also taught their young students about habitat, in terms of what makes up a good one and what detracts from one.
Over in a ravine near the school, another group of Little Fireweed students were identifying animal tracks.
They also used hand crafted catapults to fling pinecones and other objects across a small stream, as part of an exercise to teach them how to navigate a habitat.
Up in the meadow across from the school, two more teens and a member of the Fireweed staff taught their students a game of mice and foxes. The foxes were blindfolded and could only find their prey, the mice, by following their squeaks in the tall grasses. This game taught them about the predator-prey relationship.
Dye was one of the high school students who facilitated the mice and foxes game, even donning a blindfold himself.
“It’s all about ecology, so we met in the yurt a few weeks ago and we just did a big brainstorm about all the big ideas we wanted them to understand and just created some games related to those ideas,” he said.
Fine said the teens used Google Docs to keep track of their lesson plans and make lists of what materials they would need.
After Tuesday’s lessons, the mentors and mentees gathered in Fireweed’s yurt for a recap of the day’s events with Fine. She helped to drive home some of the key lessons about habitat and animal survival by hosting one last game, in which the younger students chose a symbol representing something they needed — water, shelter, etc. — and had to run across the playground to find the high school student holding up their same symbol.
The high schoolers continued to return and teach play-rich lessons on Wednesday and Thursday.
Rife said the interaction also helps the high school students because it reinforces what they’re learning at their level — some of the students who opted into the program are in advanced placement biology.
“The interaction between two paradigms, you know?” Rife said of the mentor program’s benefits. “This is a charter school, we’re a traditional school. Obviously the vertical development or teaching of having kids respond to somebody other than an adult and so forth.”
Joey Kraszeski, a liaison between Fireweed and the high school while creating the program, also emphasized the point that interacting with older students gives her youngsters a peak at what’s to come, and helps keep them excited to continue their educational journey.
“This cross age thing, it’s part of what we believe is brilliant,” Fine said. “And when we can do this with another community partner like the high school, I think its just double rich.”
“We had a similar experience where some of the older kids came to us when we were in Fireweed, and I think it’s really important,” Dye said as he and the meadow group walked back to the school. “It helps a lot to have people who really know what they’re doing and have a lot of experience.”
Rife and Fine said they’re very hopeful that the mentorship program will be able to continue.
Another program started in recent years pairs Paul Banks Elementary School students with mentors at Homer Middle School.