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bob maginnis - 1/27/02

January 30, 2002

Manners and mentoring at Bester Elementary



By Bob Maginnis


Imagine asking a group of fifth graders to give up some of their lunch hour to learn how to improve their table manners and conversational skills. Would many really prefer that to horsing around in the cafeteria with their friends?

Yes, says Donna Pile Allen, a teacher at Hagerstown's Bester Elementary School. It's such popular activity, she said, that she doesn't have enough places for all who want to do it.

Allen is a school system veteran whose previous stops include the county's Alternative School and Boonsboro Middle School, where she taught students research skills by having them interview actual veterans of the U.S. armed forces.

Allen said she got the idea after walking through Bester's noisy cafeteria at the beginning of the school year, and after attending a workshop presented by Sol Gordon, an educational expert who's written more than a dozen works, including "The Teenage Survival Book."

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After the workshop, she concluded that manners are not only an essential social skill, but also a way for young people to defend themselves.

Manners are worth learning, Allen said, in part to keep people whose intentions you're unsure of at a formal distance.

So now every day Allen meets a dozen children in a room with two cafeteria tables. Students set the first table with placemats she bought for 50 cents apiece and odd pieces of china and silverware she purchased at outlet stores.

The second table, where students actually eat, also has a tablecloth and candlesticks, but students must use plastic utensils because Allen said the water in the classroom sink isn't hot enough to safely wash the fancy tableware.

"We started with four kids and now we have 12," she said, adding that she'd like to have more, but that would mean pushing some of the original ones out, which she won't do.

"I sit with them while I eat. I taught them how to introduce themselves. Another thing I worked on is how to have a polite conversation," she said.

Allen's original idea was to spend a month or so training the children in manners and conversational skills, then send them into the cafeteria, where they'd pass those skills along to first and second graders.

That didn't work, perhaps because Bester's cafeteria is so noisy that Allen speculates that escaping the din is part of her program's appeal.

"When I knew that the cafeteria wasn't going to work out, I went to the first and second grade teachers and said, 'Could you use some help?' " Allen said.

Yes, they said, and now instead of sharing their table manners and conversational skills, most work with smaller children.

"Some of them do go out to play, but others choose to stay with the teachers," Allen said.

Asked why 10- and 11-year-olds would give up their play time to stay in a classroom, Allen said many have decided they want to be teachers.

"And it helps them build their self-esteem. They are unique and they are really different," she said.

This past Wednesday I found out just how special they are when I sat in on lunch with the group, and talked to them about what they're doing.

Charnica Bridges, who said she'd like to be a lawyer someday, summed it up for the group in this way:

"It was really nice that Miss Allen started a group like this, because she didn't have to," she said.

"This is a privilege," said Jennifer Moyer.

Of their work as classroom mentors, students said that they do everything from escorting children to the nurse's office when they need medicine to reading to them and helping them with writing skills.

"I help the kids that didn't understand the work," said Tyler Eichelberger.

Danielle Higgins said she and her partner "check papers and we get to play games with the kids."

After lunch is over, each one says in turn, "May I be excused?" Then most head to the classrooms, where teachers like Beth Bradley welcome their assistance.

Bradley said that they "help me keep an eye on everyone. They're definitely a big help, an extra set of eyes and ears."

In another classroom, as Kendra Ridenour helps a student sort through papers he's spilled onto the floor to find his writing sample, the teacher smiles and says, "she's a little mother hen."

In some classrooms, the teachers are too busy to talk to me, but I notice that the young mentors work without supervision, patiently guiding younger children through worksheets or other exercises.

Though she got some inspiration from Gordon, Allen said the program isn't based on anyone else's work.

"Oh yeah, I just made it up. I thought that I'd just try it and see what happened," she said.

What happened is that a veteran teacher applied experience to a fresh idea with a determination to make it work, providing a dozen children with some essential skills, the opportunity to help others and memories of a caring lady that will last a lifetime. Seeing these students' bright eyes and their eagerness to help reminded me again of why good teachers keep on doing the job, in spite of all they have to put up with.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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