PANHANDLE PERSPECTIVES: Teens as teachers for elementary students

Dave Ostdiek, Communications Associate
Panhandle Research and Extension Center, Scottsbluff

Four high-school students from Scottsbluff and Bayard are spending their summers teaching elementary students, and in the process learning a few things themselves.

They are participants in the Teens as Teachers program, sponsored by Nebraska Extension and in its third year in Scotts Bluff, second year in Morrill, and a handful of other counties in Nebraska.

Leo Sierra and Jackie Guzman coordinate the program locally. Leo said the goal of Teens as Teachers is to provide positive learning experiences to under-served audiences by youthful teachers who look like them. The lessons relate to at least one of the program areas stressed by 4-H: preparing youth to make decisions for today and the future; engaging youth in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and agriculture; and empowering youth leadership and entrepreneurship.

The program started with a grant from UNL. Now in its third year, it relies increasingly on local funding sources. Scotts Bluff County 4-H Council is sponsoring the Scottsbluff teens in 2019. In Morrill County, funding is from Nebraska Extension and Bayard Public Schools. Sierra said he is grateful for the support.

The four teen teachers have had a busy June and July. First they attended several days of training in Lincoln where they learned leadership, experiential learning (hands-on activities that promote learning in a positive manner); communications; building bonds; ages and stages of development; developing teams; what to do when the unexpected happens; and 4-H safety and conduct. They also received CPR training.

Next, with Sierra’s help, each of the teen teachers researched and developed lesson plans. The plans were based on their interests and passions, and some were based on 4-H curriculum. Then each of them taught the activities to students at Roosevelt Elementary School in Scottsbluff or Bayard Elementary School, in six lessons over a two-week period.

Sierra said the teen teachers brought ideas for lesson plans to him, and he helped them build the ideas into lessons with specific topics and key words. Before they taught, the youthful teachers needed to get the necessary materials, supplies, and also make prototypes of items that they would be creating with the elementary students during the hands-on sessions. “We want lesson plans to be fun, but also educational for students,” he said.

One of teen teachers, Alazay Trevino, a junior at Scottsbluff High School, developed lessons related to tornadoes to share with a group of students at Roosevelt Elementary. One lesson was “tornado in a bottle,” which uses large beverage bottles, water and glitter to create vortexes, so the students can visualize the effect that tornadoes create in the atmosphere. Another hands-on activity used Slime, and the youngsters also were put into motion when they were taught how to take shelter at the school in the event of a tornado warning.

Trevino is considering options for after she graduates in 2021. Two possibilities are law and veterinary school. She said choosing will not be easy because she has broad interests. “No matter what I study, it will have something to do with kids,” she said.

Jordin Gonzalez Chavez, also a junior at Scottsbluff High, developed and taught a series of lessons related to robotics. In one lesson, he helped the elementary students build a cardboard robotic arm. Another activity centered on drones. Gonzalez Chavez has been interested in science since he was little, says he enjoys programming with robotics, and hopes to study mechanical engineering in college, possible at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. After college he might enroll in the U.S. Air Force.

Of the robotic arm, he said, “That was fun and the kids really enjoyed it.” Another lesson used small flying drones, some of which were brought by the elementary kids, to learn about federal guidelines that must be followed when they fly them.

Two of the teen teachers this year were based in Morrill County. Kassi Garza, who will be a senior at Bayard High School, developed and taught lessons at Bayard summer school around marine biology and its importance. One of Garza’s dreams is to be a marine biologist. Hands-on activities included making organisms found in coral reefs (for example, they made sea fans out of pipe cleaners and plastic needlepoint canvas and made coral out of Play-Dough.)

After high school Garza plans to attend WNCC to take her general classes while deciding whether marine biology will be her eventual career path, or if another field comes along.

The other Morrill County teacher is Adrianna Salazar, also a senior at Bayard High School. She taught a group of lessons centered on art styles and media in which elementary students got to explore how and why they choose the art they create. Each lesson consisted of a different style and medium.

“All the stuff we did was hands-on,” Salazar said. The first lesson focused on abstract art. She said she chose art because it is a subject she knows well and has been interested in for many years.

After high school Salazar plans to attend WNCC to take general classes. “I have so many interests I don’t know where to go,” she said.

This year’s four teen-age teachers said it has been a challenging and rewarding summer.

For Trevino, the most difficult part was making lesson plans that were appropriate for the elementary-age students they worked with. “I have siblings of my own, so I know what they’re interested in and what they consider fun. My sister was helpful, so I give her a big thank-you.”

Trevino and Gonzalez-Chavez both expressed surprise at the amount of preparation needed for each lesson, including finding and buying the materials they would need. Another part of the preparation was making prototypes of any items they would be constructing with the elementary students, so they knew how much time it will take. One of the lessons developed by Gonzalez Chavez had the students building cardboard robotic arms, so before teaching he had to cut pieces in advance so there would be enough time in class. “It felt good to see how it would turn out.”

Gonzalez Chavez said he found it challenging to decide on lessons that the elementary students wanted to learn, and at the same time he wanted to teach.

Garza said working with the third- through fifth-graders was difficult, but enjoyable. “I’ve learned a lot about working with kids,” she said, although she doesn’t expect to teach in her eventual career. She enjoyed spending the summer with coworkers, noting that the teens as teachers program provided her with her first job.

Salazar said she enjoyed the teaching experience. “It gave me more appreciation and recognition for teachers,” she said. “I got to see both sides, students and teachers. It was more than me teaching them, they taught me too.

The teen teachers also have been assisting with other 4-H summer youth activities, including the Roosevelt-Lincoln Heights Field Day, helping with 4-H Mentoring, the Western Nebraska Community College Summer Youth Academy (developing lessons teaching about solar energy, blueprints, and making ice cream); and as July turned to August, have been helping at the Scotts Bluff and Morrill county fairs.

All four of the teens also helped a pair of 4-H interns, Luis Cordova and Hunter Hill, carry out their keystone teaching project, which covered a variety of science and career topics such as cells, electricity circuits, career planning, applying for admission to college, and raising livestock.