Teaching Assistants

Fourth graders play key role in teaching younger students math
Posted on 11/30/2012

Earlier this school year, Eugene Field Elementary School fourth grader Maraleigh Buss entered Kelli Spitze’s first grade classroom and asked the teacher whether her students did their math homework.

Spitze replied that she did not assign any homework, to which Maraleigh said matter-of-factly: “Oh, I did.”

“I got so tickled,” Spitze recalled. “It was like one problem on a little sticky note. They were to put the hour and minute hand (on a clock) to show what time it is.”

Maraleigh is among over a dozen fourth grade teaching assistants who have volunteered to give up their special class periods—art, gym, library and music—to tutor first and second grade math students who may require some extra attention, according to school officials.

The concept of designating older students who excel in math as the assistants began at Eugene Field with Sabrina Skaggs about five years ago. Skaggs, an instructional interventionist, had a fourth grader who struggled with reading, so she decided to have the student read aloud to first graders to help improve her language fluency.

“That one little girl inspired me to sort of empower these natural born leaders,” Skaggs said.

It has been observed that Maraleigh, who turns 10 on Tuesday, maintains quite a command over the younger students’ attention while leading instruction.

“I want to be a teacher, and I want to be a vet,” Maraleigh stated when interviewed. She has only had to give out a warning card to one student, she noted, and prefers awarding good behavior with prizes like stickers and candy. Asked if she purchases the treats with her own money, Maraleigh responded: “Mom’s money.”

“She gets kids engaged right from the get-go,” said Spitze, who began utilizing teaching assistants in her classroom last school year. “Sometimes children learn from their older peers much quicker. They are just more ready to be open-minded in that setting.”

Fellow first grade teacher Cynthia Olsen, who also enjoys the help of fourth graders, explained how she can only make it around the classroom so fast when she has her math students working on group exercises.

“These guys do an excellent job of keeping on task,” Olsen said, “sometimes volunteering to do things I don’t even think of.”

Olsen said she vied to get one particular assistant, Chance Campbell, back in her classroom, as the 10 year old was a former student of hers. Chance also happens to be one of the founders of the basketball leadership club, a group of fourth grade boys who recently taught second graders about sportsmanship and technique.

Chance admitted he was nervous the first time he helped deliver the PowerPoint presentation that he and his classmates prepared over the lunch hour for an entire week. “That only happened one time,” Chance said. “Now I’m not scared.”

The leadership roles elementary students are placed in are as much about the select role models as they are about the younger students who benefit from the tutoring, according to school officials.

“Chance is thinking strategically to problem solve, and communicating gives him practice with his verbal skills, which are both going to carry over into other subjects at his grade level,” explained Jennifer Taylor, Eugene Field principal. “Any opportunity they are given where we’re investing in them not only starts building empathy in the child, but it also builds confidence, and naturally they become more motivated.”

Eugene Field is among the schools in the district that subscribe to ‘The Leader in Me’ philosophy based on Dr. Stephen R. Covey’s best-selling book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” through which student leadership development is integrated into daily curriculum and activities. While the use of teaching assistants in the classroom came prior to adopting the initiative, school officials say the practice ties in perfectly with the seven habits, one of which being to ‘think win-win.’

“Research shows that children learn a lot from their peers, even if they are two or three years older—they’re seeing someone of the elementary age as a positive role model, someone who is helpful, respectful and responsible—and that just further ingrains our building expectations into the school culture,” Taylor said. “It’s not just an academic benefit, this partnership between fourth grade and first and second helps meet the social and emotional needs of each kid as well.”

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Cutline: Fourth grader Maraleigh Buss of Eugene Field Elementary School teaches a group of math students the time-telling concept of ‘half past the hour’ last week in Kelli Spitze’s first grade class.

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