May 7 was Buddy Day at Derryfield announced prominently by a “Welcome Buddies to DS” sign. On a sunny 70 degree morning, Derryfield’s eighth graders greeted about 50 elementary school students from Manchester’s Webster and Beech Street schools. Both are the district’s magnet schools for English Language Learners (ELL).
After Derryfield’s students paired up with their younger buddies for snacks, name tags and tours of Derryfield, groups of buddies were formed to rotate through Art, Dance, Games , Reading and Science activities.
Upon entering the Art room, often arm-in-arm or holding hands with their Derryfield buddies, the young buddies learned that they were going to make bookmarks. Teacher Andrew Moerlein explained, “On one side write your name and your school, and on the other side have crazy fun.”
In another classroom, Derryfield students were reading and discussing books that they had chosen for their ELL buddies. Later in the day after lunch, each Derryfield student presented each buddy with a book he or she had written about the buddy’s native country, and read the book aloud.
Outside buddies were lining up for a Science lesson featuring Alka Seltzer rockets. “We’re gonna do some cool experiments,” explained a Derryfield student to his buddy.
On the playing fields and tennis courts, others were kicking and playing catch with Nerf soccer balls, dancing the Macarena and playing tennis. Eighth graders Gavin Schilling and Ethan Chen whose tennis skills have had them practicing with the Derryfield varsity in the afternoons were now the “stars” giving introductory lessons to kids not much taller than full-sized rackets.
Buddy Day is the culminating activity for Derryfield’s Eighth Grade Service Learning Project initially designed and implemented by Derryfield’s Director of Marketing and Global Programs Susan Grodman in 2006. She wanted to create a service learning program. At a time when such programs were increasingly prevalent for college and high school students, Ms. Grodman thought that “It would be easier at the middle school level” for Derryfield.
It has evolved to include two curricular connections for Derryfield’s eighth graders - a literacy component with MS English teacher Paul Whitmore and a History component in Laura Russell’s World Justice class. In the latter, students study the differences between immigrants and refugees, and then deepen that understanding when discussing the experiences of their buddies who are all in Manchester after either immigrating or being accepted as refugees.
But the “learning about differences” aspect of the program is by no means only one-way. Teachers from Webster and Beech Street all stress the value of their students’ cross-cultural experiences in meeting and interacting with their predominantly privileged, white American buddies. They acknowledge that some Derryfield students will eventually make policy decisions that affect their students, but they simultaneously stress that the Buddy program also opens their young students’ eyes to the possibilities of brighter futures for themselves.
ELL teacher Lynn Cade from Beech mentioned one for her former students who had been a refugee form Afghanistan in 2011 and instead of the hate and exclusion she had anticipated, found love and acceptance and whose academic work earned her admission to Derryfield.
Cade and her Beech colleagues Valerie Simpson and Mary Beth Connors all agreed that the exposure to different worlds and the development of communication and friendship is mutually beneficial for all of the buddies.
Similar perceptions were expressed by Webster teachers Katherine Frink and Donna Papanikolau. Ms. Frink commented that “The big thing for our kids is making new friends.” Ms. Papanikolau has been involved with the program since its inception eight years ago. “No matter what great field trips I’ve taken my students on, this one is the one they always remember,” she noted. “Sometimes, “she added, “this is the happiest I’ve ever seen kids in my classes.”
Pleased to hear such reviews, Ms. Grodman is nonetheless neither content nor finished with her project. She admits that it needs a catchier name, and also is considering how to expand it both quantitatively and qualitatively. She foresees the possibility of more visits between buddies and a more explicit academic component.
Both would simply intensify what Ms. Grodman already loves most about the program, explaining, “It’s great that it pushes our students way out of their comfort zones.”
But at the end of the recent Buddy Day, after a Macarena and slideshow finale in the McIninch Room, as buddies from every continent strolled hand-in-hand or even riding on the shoulders of their Derryfield buddies, everyone appeared to be in their own very comfortable zones.
-by Russell Coward