Kindergarten student Lanelle Muonio had a special request for her teacher, Samantha Tuson: instead of sharing her narrative from that day’s writing workshop with just her kindergarten peers, Lanelle asked if she could also share her story with the “olders” to ask for some help.
The “olders” in this case refer to the high school students who are part of the older-younger program at Battle Ground High School. The program, which has been a part of Battle Ground Public Schools’ Career and Technical Education (CTE) program for more than 30 years, pairs kindergarteners from Captain Strong Primary with high school students who are interested in pursuing careers in education.
With all the youngers and olders gathered, Lanelle shared that her cousin Katelyn, whom she is very close with, was in the hospital receiving treatment for cancer. Lanelle told her classmates and older mentors that she hoped to visit her cousin in the hospital, and she wanted some ideas that could help cheer up Katelyn.
The group held a discussion, sharing ideas until a plan was hatched: the class would create a bright, colorful quilt inscribed with sweet thoughts and well wishes to help keep Katelyn warm and cozy while she’s in the hospital. The students also decided to assemble a gift basket to give Katelyn since they felt worried that she was missing out on all the fun learning opportunities that they were enjoying in school.
To make the quilt, the kindergarten students started off by brainstorming with their older mentors what they would write and draw. Each student then practiced on a blank sheet of paper the size of a quilt square before turning them in to Mrs. Tuson and Ms. Christina Wood, who teaches the high school portion of the class. Next, the olders transferred the kindergarten students’ designs onto fabric, and then the olders and youngers worked together to decorate their pieces of the quilt with fabric markers and puffy paint. Once all of the students' sections were completed, the class also made a square for the entire class, and one with Katelyn’s name on it.
Once all of the squares were ready, the quilt was assembled by some of Katelyn's other relatives, Mia Kaski and her sister, who both volunteered their time for the project. With the quilt completed, the kindergarten class assembled their gift basket, which included a first grade workbook, the class’s favorite Dr. Seuss book, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!,” a stuffed animal, the games Uno and Chutes and Ladders (the class’ favorite math game), and of course, plenty of handwritten notes wishing Katelyn well.
All in all, the project took about a month and a half to complete. “It was great to see the passion that this project inspired,” Tuson said. “We’re always looking for opportunities to build empathy in kindergarten classes, and this was a wonderful, real-world example of how to show compassion for others and to help someone else feel better.”
“The older-younger program helps develop strong, deep, personal connections,” said high school teacher Christina Wood. “This project completely embodies that mission, and it was very rewarding for everyone involved.”
Through the older-younger program, high school students visit the kindergarten class for 55 minutes, three times a week. There are 21 high school students and 21 kindergartners in the program this year. The youngers in the program benefit from more one-on-one instructional time than just one teacher can provide, and working with high school students helps the kindergartners to develop social skills. The class focuses on turning unstructured play time into productive, educational time which is a component of the Full Day Kindergarten Guidelines published by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction for kindergarten classes in Washington.
For the high school students in the class, the main benefit of the older-younger program is the hands-on teaching experience they receive. Students who pass the class leave with a State Training and Registry System (STARS) certification (the initial certification needed to work in the childcare field in Washington) and three technical preparation credits from Clark College.
“I approach teaching this class like it’s both a job and a college-level course,” Wood said. “For students who decide they want to pursue teaching or childcare as a career, gaining actual work experience and a certification makes a huge difference.”
Samantha Tuson was once an older herself, an experience she credits for helping her realize that she did in fact want to become a teacher. “The older-younger program is a unique opportunity,” Tuson said. “If you know a student who wants to become a teacher, this program is an amazing option.”