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  • Writer's pictureAnna Leonhard Lacerda

Future Focus: 7th Grade Possibility Mentoring

WPS partners with Salem Public Schools to optimize middle school learning for relevance and connection. To this end, we worked with faculty at the McKeown School of Education (Salem State University) to match near peer mentors with 7th grade students in the middle school pilot. The initiative was designed to help build relationships and spark future-oriented thinking, drawing on the possibility mentoring approach.

“It’s difficult for kids to stay motivated to learn if they don’t see a reason for the learning... What if you’re living in poverty and you haven’t seen people go to college? That’s a very abstract idea,” says Michael Nakkula, professor and chair of Human Development and Qualitative Methods Division at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. "Possibility mentoring makes that...a more grounded experience” (Shephard, 2020). Nakkula developed the model together with colleague Andy Danilchick, Director of the Project of Mental Health and Optimal Development. 

Fall Mentoring Overview  

  • 10 Undergraduate Near-peers: 1st & 2nd Year pre-service teachers enrolled in Salem State University’s McKeown School of Education (Educator Scholars of Color Program).

  • 42 Middle Schoolers: 7th graders enrolled in Salem Public Schools’ Middle School Learning Pilot.

  • Mentoring Duration: Three sessions (80min. Each) which took place on SSU’s campus.  

  • Scope: In session one, mentors and mentees shared personal stories, interests and ambitions. In session two, mentors invited 7th graders to visualize their life in the future and used these visualizations to help prioritize students’ interests. In the final session, mentors facilitated a campus tour for 7th graders, before helping each student to create a personal action plan. 


What We're Learning

Mentor Pairing is more Art than science: During the onboarding training with near peers, the pilot team asked mentors to share about their personal interests. After that initial meeting, the pilot innovation manager thoughtfully formed mentor pairings based on personality and interests. Careful listening to mentors and a prior relationship with 7th graders informed the intentionality of the process. The result was accelerated relationship building for each group. “We actually got along well with our mentor,” said one 7th grader. “It was so much fun and my mentor was so nice”. In their evaluation survey, 83% of 7th graders agreed “I get to develop my own ideas” and “My mentor respects my ideas and suggestions.” 

Mentoring facilitates reciprocal transformation: In training with the pilot team, Prof. Nakkula highlighted the way mentoring mutually benefits mentors and mentees. We glimpsed this reciprocal transformation when 7th graders talked about attending SSU one day, while mentors expanded their mindsets about middle school. “I didn’t see myself working with middle schoolers… I feel like they’re a little overlooked cause people usually want to work in HS or Elementary School. But [I loved] the [7th graders’] energy and how excited they were to be here…They were having the time of their life! It was more fun than I expected,” shared one mentor.  When we asked mentors if they would recommend this experience to their fellow pre-service teachers, one undergrad shared, “It was so fun to get to know [middle schoolers]. I would say go for it! It’s an experience.” A second reflected about what makes possibility mentoring unique:

“We got to talk to them about what they want to be when they grow up. That’s so cool, I never hear people talking about that.” Another shared, “The sky is the limit. You want to do work to make the world a better place for them.” 

Middle Schoolers value structures for building relationship: We asked the 7th graders to rate their experience overall, and 87% reported that mentoring had gone well or very well. When asked why, students reported a newfound sense of connection with both mentors and 7th grade classmates:

“We get to learn new things about people and our own classmates you might not have known they've liked or done.” 
“I enjoyed my time with my mentor and it's good for kids. "

Time flies when you’re a possibility mentoring! Three sessions went by quickly. Both mentors and middle schoolers expressed a wish for more time together. This spring, WPS will support will continue to partner with the Pilot team and Salem State Faculty for another round of possibility mentoring.


Anna Leonhard Lacerda; WPS (Director of Program Development)

Rachel Adams; WPS (Program Manager)


Shepard, L. (2020, January 29). ‘Possibility mentoring’ helps Philadelphia middle schoolers plan for their futures | Penn Today. Penn Today. Retrieved September 13, 2023, from


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