Hand in HandSharing the Gift of Mentoring
By Katherine Nichols
Punahou junior Angella Alania quietly circulates Damon Lab during a session of the After School Literacy Club, navigating each request for her attention from among the 14 second-graders concentrating on an online reading program. The Key Club member, who has aspirations of becoming a pediatrician, seamlessly balances second-grade assistant teacher Joanne Kuwada's efforts in the room. When Alania moves to check on a student whose body language might indicate a momentary struggle, Jackson Saunders '21 beckons with an exaggerated arm wave, then whispers his successful score to her. Alania encouragingly replies: "Good job!"
Although Alania has been a familiar face at the After School Literacy Club since the beginning of the school year, it took a while to build this kind of trust. Now the young students ask Alania for help, share noteworthy performances, inform her about new friends, greet her by name around campus, and even offer spontaneous hugs. Perhaps more importantly, they let her nibble from their snack supply. "That's a big compliment!" says Alania.
Relationships like that blossom at unexpected moments, and lie at the core of Punahou's mentoring programs. Students involved in peer mentoring continue to explore the many facets of a phenomenon that, despite plenty of scientific evidence bolstering its validity as a learning tool, on some level remains a mysterious art. The concept of peer mentoring at Punahou began in the early 1980s with the advent of Academy Camp, offering outdoor experiences to all high-schoolers to foster personal educational growth. At that time, Peer Helpers operated in a school-sanctioned club, which later grew into an effort to formally train students. Today, it's an approach that continues to evolve as faculty help students build a community on and off campus.
Opportunities for students to dedicate their time and knowledge thrive within all grade levels. Veteran teachers in Gates Family Science Workshop guide high school lab assistants, who then instruct elementary students, helping them build confidence while mastering the fundamentals of science. At any given time, approximately 320 students are enrolled in the elective Introduction to Counseling Psychology (ICP) classes, and all participate in mentoring or service projects. Their responsibilities? Everything from acting as counselors at Academy camps to tutoring middle school students, and even serving as buddies for much younger kids.
Eliza Leineweber '92 Lathrop, Academy English and K – 12 Garden Resource Teacher, collaborates with Malia Chong '87 and Laurie Ching's sixth-grade classes, as Lathrop and her students explore writings related to the environment. Initially, she assumed the Academy students would take charge of the compost, cultivation and harvest crews. Instead, "the sixth-graders are teaching the Academy students just as much along the way," she says. Curious preteens ask probing questions that test older students' knowledge of science and literature; in turn, younger students remind the older ones how to engage, wonder and observe.
During one morning class, while much of the garden remains protected in the shade of Griffiths Hall, sixth-graders Kara Tsuruda, Chloe Sato and Katelyn Kam shovel compost alongside juniors Courtney Chun and Kawaiala Ku, bonding over pineapple rinds, half-eaten sandwiches, recycled paper, mulch and manual labor. The eleventh-graders, having just joined the class at the start of second semester, verify the compost recipe with the more experienced sixth-graders. Chun quickly discovers that a pitchfork more effectively pierces and transfers the simmering mound, so she gives the smaller implement to her sixth-grade shoveling partner, Tsuruda. Together, with farm tools heaving amid the rising odor of the sun-baked compost, they initiate a humorous running commentary to which the team contributes and reacts with obvious enjoyment.
In another part of the garden, past the area where Jacqueline Thomas '12 supervises weeding around corn, squash, beans and tomatoes, Daniel LaReaux '12 and Taylor McClafferty '12 crouch to trim a patch of Thai basil. Sixth-graders Nicholas Kapule and Noah Williams examine LaReaux's technique, and chuckle about an earlier experience. "We totally destroyed the plant last time," they say. "We didn't really understand the concept of trimming." LaReaux smiles. "We'll try to be a little less aggressive this time." For the younger boys, watching the repetitive task stimulates curiosity, conversation and connection. They ask LaReaux, "What part of the plant do you cook? The flowers?" "No," he responds, allowing them to smell the spicy fragrance. "The leaves."
Peer mentoring seems to impact students differently at various phases in their education, and many are fortunate to experience it from both sides. Emma Benjamin '11 recalls the guidance she received early on in high school at Academy camp, where she discovered students facing similar challenges in an environment that broke down cliques and prejudgment. The revelatory getaway inspired her to become an Academy camp counselor as an upper classman. "I think I have a lot of valuable experiences to share with other people," she says of leading younger students to the same type of life-altering realizations.
Emily Hawkins '11, also an Academy camp veteran, confirms the profound difference between learning from teachers and fellow students. "[Older students] knew what I was going through, which made what they had to say a lot more accessible." As a counselor, she says, "You're guiding and helping your peers, and you get to know yourself as a leader."
This reflective process begins in the ICP classes. One day, Ron Gould '67, Academy dean and chair of the psychosocial department, instructs students to sit in a tight circle, the way the teacher's assistants have arranged themselves around Sarah Slater, a licensed social worker and member of Punahou's psychosocial faculty. The tag-team counseling exercise, Gould explains, revolves around exploration through empathy. Students must listen only to what the person is presenting, and avoid trying to connect the person's struggles to their own experiences. To help illustrate Gould's lesson, Slater, with startling honesty, shares a personal issue with the group. The teacher's assistants, all seniors, repeat what they believe Slater is communicating, then ask her to reveal additional emotions. The students, primarily sophomores, remain still and attentive during the hushed exchanges.
Moments later, Gould emphasizes the importance of the exercise, which students will practice together – with seniors leading the sophomores – in the next session. "It's a fairly rare experience to be fully listened to by someone," he says. "It's really not a detective process. More than anything, connection matters."
The constant presence of an adult who guides students appropriately helps build a foundation for empathy, an important prerequisite for mentoring. A primary theme of ICP focuses on how to "distinguish what's in your control and what isn't, and address your energy accordingly," says Gould. "We want them to learn to stand in each other's shoes." After 25 years as dean, Gould firmly believes the peer programs have notably impacted the quality of life for students – in and out of the classroom. After all, it's market driven. "If the kids didn't get something out of it," he confirms, "they wouldn't be coming."
The same success occurs in the middle school, where Gates Learning Center bustles with activity during After School Tutoring. Sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders huddle around textbooks and computers with Academy students as mentors, who assist with core subjects and time-management issues. During the first session of the second semester, newly paired Ashley Uyehara '12 and Max Senesombath '16 willingly stayed past the allotted 45 minutes. Much like the other 42 student-study teams, the early commitment of Uyehara and Senesombath is one of the benefits to having the same partner for the entire semester, as it reinforces accountability on both sides. The Academy students take their responsibilities seriously– by arriving on time and completing weekly progress reports to middle-school teachers. This confidence-booster for middle-schoolers builds trust, and also helps ease the transition to high school.
"I quickly found that there were more requests for tutoring than I had expected," says Tim Lucas '62, academic support coordinator for grades 6 –8. Yet tutoring is only part of the equation. "We are finding that mentoring is the right term," he adds. Even when the need for instruction ends, many teams continue meeting to finish homework side by side. "It's a very fulfilling relationship, and that's why they want it to continue."
Mentoring is a natural function of learning and participating in a sport, which is perhaps why so many Punahou coaches are in favor of encouraging their teams to share what they know with younger athletes. For example, the PUMAS wrestling program nurtures elementary students by teaching them basic techniques. The tennis program also inspires younger players every October during the Punahou Junior Novice Tennis Tournament. As part of a community service commitment, about 32 junior varsity tennis team members help organize and execute the competition. Kids 10 and under – down to age 6, and new to the concept of a tournament – participate.
"The entire team shows up to work in an almost one-on-one situation with the young kids," says Bernard Gusman, director of the Punahou Tennis Program since 1991. Those who received mentoring usually end up joining the program, and returning the favor to other aspiring players. "It's powerful because we believe that what one learns in [sports] can be applicable in life; kids learn to deal with difficulties along with triumphs." The fact that a high school student can find common ground with a first-grader "becomes an innate part of what our program is about," adds Gusman. "The focus is on life skills and character building rather than winning, winning, winning."
Peer mentoring allows students of all ages to embrace leadership roles, enhancing their poise and interpersonal skills. Instead of isolating themselves by grade level, students from kindergarten to grade 12 get to know one another, fostering a supportive environment across the entire campus. Beyond the obvious benefits for younger students, who might gain a friend while improving their performance, it's clear these programs emphasize compassion, self-discovery and empathy, and have the power to significantly impact lives long after students leave Punahou.
Katherine Nichols works for the University of Hawai'i Cancer Center, and is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, The New York Times Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, and other publications. She is the mother of Alison '13.