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home : features : people of faith

1/22/2015 9:00:00 AM
Junior-high students mentor little ones at St. Ambrose
Seventh- and eighth-graders from St. Ambrose School teach religion lessons to younger students.
Seventh- and eighth-graders from St. Ambrose School teach religion lessons to younger students.

A princess, a policeman, an angel, Elsa from the movie "Frozen," a priest, a firefighter and Dora the Explorer: These are the most common answers pre-kindergartners through first-graders gave during a recent lesson about vocations at St. Ambrose School in Latham.

Kindergartners Jaden and Aiden want to grow up to be "a heart doctor" and an Army officer, respectively - so, when a team of seventh- and eighth-graders explained the idea of having a calling in life to them, Jaden drew a stethoscope around his character's neck during a coloring project, and Aiden created camouflage clothing for his alter ego.

The junior-high students, part of a mentoring program that debuted this school year, come to the younger students' classrooms once a week to take what they've learned in their own religion classes and demonstrate it in ways younger minds can understand.

Anti-bullying lesson
Aiden told The Evangelist that "they teach us different things" than adult teachers. One lesson he cited: "You shouldn't bully another person."

Eighth-grader Skye McCashion is passionate about using her time with the lower grades to intervene with aggressive behavior. She remembered many children raising their hands when she asked them about bullying.

"We just want to stop it at the root before it grows into something bigger," Skye said. "We know what it feels like. We don't want them to feel the same way. I think they think we know what we're talking about, because most of us have been bullied in the past. They think we're wiser."

Skye's classmate, Deontae Guy, said the younger children are "comfortable with telling me someone pushed [them], because they trust me. [I'm] someone they can talk to, even like a big brother thing."

One goal of the program, said the older students' religion teacher, Cathy Viola, is "so the little kids know our bigger kids. They're starting to look up to them."

Student leaders
In addition, Ms. Viola said, "it brings out the leadership qualities of the older kids [and] tells me what they still might not know. I think they're getting the belief in their own faith."

On Mondays, the 15 older students break into small groups, take a theme and plan a lesson around it using crafts, games, songs, videos and talks. They've covered Advent, the creation story, Thanksgiving, saints and more.

Deontae enjoyed making Advent wreaths out of paper plates with first-graders.

"The ones I like the most are when you interact with the kids," he said. "You get a better understanding of it when you can teach someone else what it means. And you can impact their life at such a young age."

Skye agrees: "It's just a wonderful feeling knowing I've taught them something," she said. "I'm opening up the faith to them. I think I'm impacting them very much."

With younger students, she said, "we've used shorter words that they could understand and we've also done activities with them."

God loves you
To explain the Trinity, for example, they used shamrocks. Skye also helped to explain Jesus' death on a cross and His resurrection, as well as God's love for everyone.

"We are all God's children," she told the children. "Even if we sin or do wrong, we are welcomed back if we are sorry."

The program has given eighth-grader Michele Commerford, an aspiring teacher, a taste of the profession. The three-year-olds are her favorite pupils: "They're a challenge, but they can understand in a way you'd never think they could."

Michele enjoyed explaining Thanksgiving: "They get to see the true meaning of it, and it's not what they think it's about," she said. "They can go on and explain it to others."

That makes her feel like "I accomplished something that I never thought I could do. They'll want to learn more and more from you."

Classmate Maham Ansar also enjoyed making Thanksgiving cornucopias with younger students. She said it's obvious their subjects are getting a lot out of the arrangement: "Whenever the teacher asks them what they learned, they usually get enthusiastic answers."

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