Peer Tutors and Peer Mentors: Shared Responsibility and Mutual Respect

The staff at El Cajon Valley High School works extremely hard to give students the support they need, but providing all of the support that students need is a pretty daunting task. To help with this, we have a tradition of having Peer Tutors and Peer Mentors help out in the classroom. Peer Tutors and Peer Mentors mostly consist of upperclassmen who have expressed a desire to give back to the school community.

We have had students helping in classrooms for years at El Cajon Valley High School. When I was an English Language Development teacher at ECVHS, I enjoyed the help of some amazing multilingual Peer Tutors (many of them former ELD students of mine) who helped me provide the language support that my students needed. The Moderate to Severe Special Education Program has been relying on Peer Tutors for years to help students with special needs. And now we have a Teaching and Learning course, which trains students to be Peer Mentors to help students in a variety of learning situations.

20160915_084719As the librarian, I had the privilege of playing host to Liz Castagnera as she trained Peer Tutors to help students in the Moderate to Severe Special Education Program. Mrs. Castagnera is always looking for ways to improve how her Peer Tutors serve our students with special needs. Her training focused on the benefits of a philosophy of inclusion and acceptance, as well as the personal benefits being part of a community where we help each other.

20160915_101404Mrs. Castagnera has had her Peer Tutors use Digital Portfolios in the past to reflect on the different aspects of what it means to provide support to students with special needs. But as a person continuously looking for ways to improve, she worked to develop a sample portfolio in the new Google Sites to show Peer Tutors more clearly what was expected of them.

The thing I admire most about Mrs. Castagnera’s use of technology here is that the point of what she is doing is not the technology itself. The focus of this Peer Tutor training is on goal setting, communication, and documenting progress–technology is simply the tool her students will use to keep track of the work they do with students. And because students are developing their Digital Portfolios in this way, Peer Tutors will leave high school with documented evidence of volunteerism and work experience. And as these Peer Tutors apply to colleges and get started in careers, that documented evidence will be very valuable.

Speaking of Digital Portfolios, we are experimenting by having all 9th grade students in our Brave Adventure classes start Digital Portfolios in the new Google Sites. Students follow this sample, which includes links to a step-by-step guide by Grossmont Union High School District Digital Learning Coach, Reuben Hoffman (@reubenhoffman). As stated above, we have Peer Mentors as part of our Teaching and Learning Course. One example of these Peer Mentors helping our school is that they helped us with this Digital Portfolio roll-out. 20160906_132121The Teaching and Learning Peer Mentors were trained in how to create Digital Portfolios in the new Google Sites, then they were assigned to lead Brave Adventure classes in the site creation task. I was able to visit one of the classes during this roll-out, and it was impressive to see our Peer Mentors at work. The class I visited had a substitute teacher, but the Peer Mentors took over and made sure that all students in the class created their Digital Portfolios.

Our Peer Tutors and Peer Mentors are continuing a tradition of giving back to the ECV community. I’m so glad to be a part of a school culture that empowers students to be campus leaders, and I’m excited to see what happens this year as more students embrace leadership roles. We’re building a community of shared responsibility and mutual respect.

Are you encouraging students to shelter knowledge, or share it?

As teachers, we’ve got important things to do. We need to develop lessons, deliver those lessons, assess student learning, and provide quality feedback. In reality, we do a lot more than that. One thing we may struggle with, though, is designing quality groupwork. But that’s okay, right? I mean, we have a lot to cover–we’ve got enough to do as it is!

Consider this situation when thinking about whether or not we should spend more time emphasizing groupwork with our students:

A student recently visited me in the library because she heard a rumor that I know how WeVideo works. She wanted to know how to layer sound tracks and change the volume of her video as it played. I showed her what I knew and she applied what she learned to her video. Then, and this is the important part, she turned to her friend and said: “Okay, let’s not tell ANYONE else in class about this!”

Woah! Where did that come from? I asked her why she wouldn’t share what she learned with her classmates, and she had clear reasons:

I want to have the highest grade in class.

If I tell other people how to make their videos better, they might get a higher grade than me.

The student’s thinking is pretty attractive to our culture. We want people to be competitive. We want people to want to be the best, right?

Let’s pretend that was the end of the conversation. This student would go back to class. She would show her video. Students would be pretty impressed that she figured out how to edit the sound in her video. She would have produced one of the best videos in class. A few other students might have good videos, too.

But what if the teacher had placed more emphasis on cooperative learning? What if students knew that one of the primary goals of this activity wasn’t that a small number of students would produce good videos, but that the class would work together and learn from each other in order for everyone to create good videos?

What if that student, after learning her new information about WeVideo, had turned to her friend and said: “Okay, let’s run back to class and tell EVERYONE how to do this.”?

Would we lament that this student was diminishing her own accomplishments by freely sharing what she learned? Would we worry that she was setting herself up for failure in a competitive world? I don’t think most of us would. I think many of us would recognize the value that she was bringing to our learning environment? I think we would appreciate seeing a class full of videos that were better, because one student shared what she learned with others.

Share or ShelterSharing her inside information may run counter to some of our cultural values, but it’s right in line with what we value most as teachers: learning. As we give students group assignments, let’s stress the value of sharing learning and helping each other solve problems.

How are the problems our society faces going to be solved? By sheltering learning to maintain a competitive edge, or by sharing learning to make our world better for everyone?



Last year, I was lucky enough to notice TEDxKidsElCajon being promoted on Twitter. I quickly registered for the event and had a fantastic time. Earlier this year, Liz Leother presented TEDEdClubs at the East County Tech Fest, and she happened to mention that registration for this year’s TEDxKidsElCajon was live. I was registered within minutes of Liz’ presentation.

IMG_20160417_234312It was easy to convince my 13-year-old daughter to attend with me again–she had a blast last year and she was eager to come back. Here are my pictures from the event–I highly recommend you plan to attend next year!

I was also very glad to have a handful of El Cajon Valley High School students attend as volunteers. I hope one day to provide students at ECVHS with the opportunity to share their ideas on a TED stage, so I’ve started the process to become a TEDEdClub leader (thanks again to Liz Leother for your guidance!). I already have a handful of students interested in joining the ECVTEDEdClub. I can’t wait to see how they express their ideas worth spreading.

Also in attendance at Liz Leother’s East County Tech Fest presentation was Dr. Gary Woods, Grossmont Union High School District Board Member. He and I talked briefly and it was obvious that we both agreed that TEDEdClubs could be great for GUHSD students. A few weeks later I was at a district meeting, and I got to talk with Dr. Woods and Theresa Kemper (GUHSD Assistant Superintendent). From this conversation, I was invited to TEDxElCajonSalon. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I thought perhaps the TEDxElCajonSalon event was a 2nd take of the TEDxKidsElCajon event, but I gratefully accepted the invitation to go because I figured the more TEDx events I saw in action the more I would be prepared later to help make one happen at ECVHS or GUHSD.

The TEDxElCajonSalon event was not a 2nd take of the TEDxKidsElCajon event. The venue, Irwin M Jacobs Qualcomm Hall, brought amazing presenters to the stage (Cajon Valley Superintendent David Miyashiro, Vista Superintendent Devin VodickaChief Digital Officer for Vancouver Public Schools Mark RayDirector of Professional Learning @USDMTLC Katie Martin, and many others–even Irwin Jacobs himself!). I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to listen to the great ideas shared on stage. I even heard a few good thoughts to add to a presentation that I need to finish up by Tuesday! I did feel a little out of place, as a TED novice, but I had a great time. I will say, though, that I’m pretty sure I was the only one wearing jeans (Since when does “business casual” include a suit jacket? Come on! Here are my pictures from the event–tell me if you see anyone in jeans).

IMG_20160417_234452I feel very lucky that I was able to attend both TEDxKidsElCajon and TEDxElCajonSalon. Thank you to Dr. Gary Woods and Theresa Kemper for including me in your trip to Qualcomm! Thank you to Reuben Hoffman for the great conversation throughout the day! And, again, thank you to Liz Loether and everyone at Cajon Valley Union School District working to bring this amazing TEDx presence to El Cajon.