To better support our students during their critical transition year for ninth grade, I developed a character education class that incorporates a mentoring program. The class was developed to assist academically at-risk freshmen intellectually, socially, and emotionally during their transition into high school.
Our freshman seminar course was developed after assembling a committee of administrators, teachers, and a parent who researched successful research-based and data-driven mentor/transition programs. Now, during the seventh year of this program, a select group of students are learning critical study skills, organizational skills, and character traits that are vital for academic success.
Mentors and Mentees
As part of encouraging student participation in the clubs and activities offered at Cumberland Regional High School, senior mentors are a key part of the freshman seminar and serve as strong role models for the freshmen in this course. There are three different sections of the course, serving a total of 60 to 65 identified freshmen students. Groups consisting of three to four freshmen are assigned to a senior mentor who provides academic and social support on a daily basis.
The freshmen seminar committee established a rigorous identification process to select senior mentors who display honesty, integrity, and leadership. Each summer, these mentors are involved in a three-day training session conducted by Jamie MacEwen, a classroom teacher, and Matt Lawrence, director of Colt Connection (our school-based services). This training completes the mentor certification process and is capped with a day of team-building activities at Camp Edge.
Introducing Students to High School
Replacing bad habits with good choices, paradigm shifts, and living principle-centered lives are just a few of the topics addressed in the freshmen seminar program to prepare incoming freshmen for high school. In September, the classrooms focus on multiple team-building exercises, trust activities, and organizational strategies to help the freshmen navigate their courses. Students also create a “Bill of Rights” to help govern their actions and to use as a moral compass as the course progresses.
To support participating freshmen, senior mentors have multiple responsibilities in and outside of the classroom. The mentors hold weekly conferences with their freshmen, check their grades weekly, and help them with their lockers and notebooks to make sure they are staying organized. Senior mentors help students stay on task and motivated, especially during major projects. For example, one of the most rewarding experiences is the Red Ribbon Week project, during which students research the effects of drugs and alcohol and create five- to eight-minute PowerPoint presentations. The students learn a lot about the negative consequences of drugs and alcohol, but they also learn about teamwork and public speaking.
The students also participate in a project called “Role Model Day,” during which they identify someone who is or was involved in their lives on a daily basis. For the purposes of this assignment, students are asked to choose someone close to them (family, friend, teacher, coach, etc.) instead of someone famous that they admire. Following a five-paragraph letter format, students write about the reason why they chose this person as their role model and their appreciation for this person’s efforts. They also provide examples of this person’s generosity, commitment, and positive character. They end the letter by telling the person how they plan to live up to their example. The students also create an art project to give as a gift to their role model along with the letter.
Participating students also engage in a career goals project where they research potential future careers based on their personal interests, then produce a PowerPoint and present their career goals to the class. But goal setting also is more immediate. Throughout the semester, the students plan weekly goals, practice the importance of living proactive lives, and learn about responsibility. They also have written mission statements, performed skits about dealing with peer pressure, and created action plans for the second part of the semester. Students are continuously reminded to work on becoming more efficient and use multiple tools to help them become more reflective individuals as they continue onward through this process of growth, learning, and maturity.
Terence Johnson is an assistant principal at Cumberland Regional High School in Bridgeton, NJ. He is the 2019 New Jersey State Assistant Principal of the Year.