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Extension Program Helps Eighth-Graders Learn Leadership, Communication

QUEMADO, N.M. - The red and black blindfold is a little loose, but Morgan Williams promises not to peek. Why worry? She can trust her fellow eighth-graders at Quemado Junior High School ... right?

Bobbie "Sug" Farrington, right, tosses a ball to students in the Quemado schools gym as part of a team-building activity. Morgan Williams, left, takes a final peek from under her blindfold before trusting her classmates, including Zachary Pohl, center, to watch out for her during the game. Farrington, Catron County youth outreach agent for New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service, developed a course that helps eighth-graders learn communication, leadership and self-esteem skills. (04/14/2005) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by Darrell J. Pehr)

During team-building games, Williams and the others formed a circle on the gym floor and began to volley a ball randomly from person to person. Williams depended on her teammates to alert her when the ball approached her part of the circle. After a few hits, the ball sailed toward Williams. The students shouted, Williams moved, and the ball bounced harmlessly on the gym floor. Communication saved the day.

Communication is one of the cornerstones of "Who and Why in Junior High," a program being developed by Bobbie "Sug" Farrington, Catron County youth outreach agent for New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service. Even in New Mexico's largest but least densely populated county, where many people live on vast ranches and rely on their neighbors, teens can learn a lot about teamwork.

"I saw a need for three life skills: leadership, communication and accepting differences," Farrington says. The Quemado students are the first to go through the curriculum. "These are my guinea pigs. They're a great group," she says.

For Farrington, whose family has extensive roots in the ranchland surrounding Quemado, helping teens succeed is personal.

"I know all these kids. I know all their parents," she says. For example, Williams, the blindfolded girl, is her niece. "I want to build trust, I want to build self-advocacy."

Farrington based her program on three elements: the 4-H leadership project; the Reality Store program; and techniques she learned at a challenge training program last year in Roswell. She has worked on the program over the past two years, and hopes to develop a three-year series of classes that would start in sixth grade.

For 12 weeks of this school year, she met once a week with teacher/counselor Kathy Candelaria's Exploratory Seminar class, which includes study of careers, self-esteem, cooking and life skills. The students are eager to talk about what they learned.

"It taught me how to stand up in front of people, to speak to a group," says Zachary Pohl, 14. "I learned how to work with different people, whether they were mad or nice. It taught me that not everyone is the same." People react differently to the same situation, he says. Sometimes, without intending to, you can hurt people's feelings.

Tish Prentice, 14, learned several public speaking techniques.

"Before, I wasn't too good at public speaking and I got nervous." But the program helped. She presented a "turtle talk," which required students to visualize a turtle and think of the reptile's head as the beginning of a speech, scales on the shell as steps in the process being described in the speech and the tail as the ending. Her turtle talk was about making "smoothie" dessert drinks.

For a one-minute talk on any topic, Prentice chose food, focusing on favorite foods and foods of the world. She also had to speak about a debatable issue, so she spoke in favor of starting a boys volleyball team in Quemado schools.

In another activity, Farrington's students formed groups to discuss favorite topics. Prentice chose basketball, since she is a player and the schools' Golden Eagles are solidly supported by the community. A popular Quemado restaurant, the Largo Café, prominently displays the most recent basketball tournament brackets on the front door.

Classwork also required students to interview each other, then introduce their partners to the class; list important people in their lives; and discuss decision-making.

Candelaria says the program brought a lot of benefits to the Quemado schools.

"It made a great difference," Candelaria says. "I thought it was phenomenal." Particularly effective were activities that required students to work with each other.

"Those team-building activities were awesome," Candelaria says. "Students had to work together, they had to communicate. They were really fun and engaging, yet the students really had to learn to get together and get something accomplished."

The Quemado Schools administration was impressed with Farrington's program and plans to have her conduct an in-service session for teachers next year on team-building and leadership skills.