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Lower School students work with and mentor each other through ‘Perkins Pals’

Students empower each other in new ways as a means to self-determination and skill development.

Zeke and Josian read from a tactile picture book during a Perkins Pals session.

Zeke reads aloud from a tactile picture book, describing to his friend, Josian, some “deep dark woods” on the page. 

“We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it,” he announces. “We have to go through it.” 

Zeke, who is visually impaired, then runs his hand over the page and encourages Josian, who has both visual and mobility impairments, to do the same. Zeke helps by lightly guiding Josian by the elbow and in turn both students, each 7 years old, get a sense of the shape and feel of the wooded area in the story.

This is “Perkins Pals” in action. 

The Lower School program pairs students to work on a variety of social, educational and other skills outlined in the Expanded Core Curriculum. The idea, says Erin Moynihan, the teacher who developed the program, is that when students work together, they engage with their classroom activities in a whole new way. 

“When a peer shows a student the same skill a teacher might, it becomes a cool thing to do instead of work,” she says. “If a peer reads them a story, it stops being work and it may actually encourage a newfound love of books.”

Zeke, standing, points Josian, in a wheelchair, to a page in a tactile picture book.

Launched just three years ago, the program pairs students based on a few factors. Namely, teachers identify what an individual student would most benefit from working on and then collaborates with other teachers to find a student with complementary needs. 

With Zeke and Josian, for instance, one student had the opportunity to build social awareness through reading to others, while the other worked on compensatory skills, such as listening and concept development. Other activities, meanwhile, are centered around assistive technology, self determination, orientation and mobility and more. And each pair of “pals” is similarly diverse in age and ability. 

“Varied ability level is common, but there’s also some that are more on the same level. Sometimes it’s different ages, sometimes they’re closer in age,” says Moynihan. “It really depends. Every student is different, so we really tailor it to each individual.” 

The program currently runs in the Lower School, where Perkins educates elementary- and middle school-aged students. 

Moynihan hopes it will spread to the Secondary Program, where Perkins high school-aged students learn, as well as to the Deafblind Program. And ultimately, she hopes to see “pals” paired across programs, to have Secondary, Lower School and Deafblind students working together and mentoring one another. 

“It’s just been a really nice way for our students to work with and learn from each other,” she adds. “I love the sense of community and I’d love to keep building on that.” 

Until then, Zeke and Josian will continue working together, through the “deep dark woods” and on their way to cross a river on the next page.

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