Buddy Up! The Benefits of Pairing Learners from Different Grades

By Shannon Diven, 6th Grade Teacher

Every teacher has, at one point or another, taught a student who didn’t quite fit into the group. Maybe she is miles ahead of the class, academically speaking, and is increasingly impatient with classmates who “Just don’t get it.” Maybe he is introverted and shy and constantly trying to navigate his way with boisterous classmates; he does have things to share, but can’t get a word in edgewise. These are examples of just two types of students that we see that grow frustrated in the classroom. Other examples could include students who are working below grade level or are having difficulty maintaining friendships with peers.

Several years ago my classroom was comprised of all of the above examples, as well as a group of active boys who were not benefitting from the setup of a self-contained classroom. The group, as a whole, needed to be shaken up and taken out of the routine in order to meet the needs of everyone in a learning environment. Enter, the Buddy Up! Program!

We started small, with the sixth graders being assigned a first grader for a two-week period. During that two weeks, the first twenty minutes of each day were spent sitting side by side and reviewing sight word flash cards; the older student held the cards and kept a record of how the younger student performed. The sixth graders were responsible for showing up on time with all of the materials — the cards, the record sheet, a pencil, etc. and the younger students were responsible for coming to school on time and reviewing their words at home, so they could improve their scores. I never would’ve believed that this one activity could have such a significant impact on my students!

The advanced students were humbled when they remembered a time that they “Didn’t know everything!” They started to take their sessions on as challenges — what could they do to motivate the younger student to do well? The shy students and the students who were struggling academically really responded to the 1:1 setting, and were in a position where they were able to be the expert. My active kids were eager to move to a different location and to be in charge, and to not feel confined to one spot. Attendance for both classes was at 100% for those two weeks! As the students got to know each other they started greeting each other in school and on the bus. The older students started to end their sessions with words like, “Have a good day today!” and, “Be good for your teacher today!” The older students were modeling kindness and empathy and the younger ones were doing everything they could to measure up.

After two weeks, we took a small break and reevaluated our system. For us, it wasn’t feasible to lose 20–30 minutes of instructional time out of every day. We knew we wanted an inclusive program, and especially didn’t want to exclude kids because of behaviors or other discipline issues, because the benefits seemed so great. We also wanted to have the students work in different pairs and not have the same partner for the duration of the program.

We ended up working out a rotating system so that all students were getting the help that they needed, just at different times during the day. During the colder months, when outdoor recess wasn’t a possibility, all of the students embraced the chance to meet. Some of the students probably would have preferred to work with the same partner for the duration of the program, but the majority of them enjoyed meeting and working with different students. It seemed, for the most part, that the younger students responded to meeting a new partner by consistently working hard and the older students didn’t lose the drive to motivate and challenge their new buddy.

Would I participate in an activity like this again? I can answer with a resounding “Yes!” It might not be right for every group or every time frame, but the idea itself can be and has been adapted to fit many needs and schedules. The benefits of high attendance, a positive learning atmosphere, and the friendships that were made far outweigh the trouble it took to manage the schedule and oversee the students. We ended our year with appreciation for other learners, a sense of accomplishment, and the pride that comes with giving to others…and I couldn’t ask for a better way to end the sixth graders’ elementary school careers.

Shannon Diven is a 6th grade teacher at North Hills School District. She has taught both 4th and 6th grade students during the course of her career.

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