Lexington, Virginia • February 2, 2011
Katie Blackburn admitted that middle school was not the best time in her life. "I had a solid group of friends that I relied on," she said. "But trying to navigate your way through the new social structure that forms in middle school is challenging, especially for girls."
Blackburn, a Washington and Lee University senior psychology major from Daleville, Va., is currently leading a program in local middle schools to help local girls deal successfully with the kinds of challenges she remembers.
"Girl Talk" is part of a national program and is sponsored by the Prevention Services at Rockbridge Area Community Services, which asked Blackburn to spearhead the effort as part of a two-year internship with the organization.
Maury River Middle School was the first to introduce Girl Talk, followed by Lylburn Downing Middle School. "It gives the girls an opportunity to hear different voices on how to deal with issues and really broadens their horizons," said Veronica Bateman, the guidance counselor at Maury River Middle School.
"It's also a great way to help build their self-esteem, help them develop leadership skills and recognize the value of community service," said Blackburn.
The groups meet once a week for an hour with Blackburn, who acts as senior advisor. She is assisted by W&L students who are also members of the Bonner Leaders Program: sophomores Kalli Havens and Kathryn Marsh-Soloway, and first-year students Taylor McPherson, Melissa Derby, Charlotte Collins and Olivia Davis.
Meetings begin with a conversation about questions the girls have placed in an anonymous question box beforehand. "A lot of friend and boyfriend issues come up, as well questions about taking tests or dealing with a teacher," said Blackburn. For the next part of the meeting, the mentors use a curriculum provided by the national Girl Talk organization to lead discussions on a range of issues including gossip; healthy eating; body image; personal creativity; teen partying; boys and dating; being a team player; choosing good friends; handling stress and being a leader. They also discuss more serious issues such as depression, teen pregnancy and underage drinking.
For each meeting the mentors have a teacher's guide and each girl has a corresponding worksheet. The guides give real-life examples of something that can happen to any middle school girl, which the group then discusses and relates to their own lives. "Our role is to guide them in how to make the best decision possible in each scenario," said Blackburn. "There are also fun activities or games that incorporate what the girls have learned."
At the end of each meeting the girls are given a challenge, such as sitting next to someone new at lunch. "They really get excited about doing the challenge," said Blackburn, "and they'll report back to me on how they did."
Blackburn said that one of the most rewarding aspects of Girl Talk is seeing the girls develop and mature. "You can see tangible changes during the school year," she said. "They develop new friendships and become more open to making friends. They make better grades and feel like they can study better. We also help them with tutoring if there's time at the end of the meeting."
"We really do get personally invested with the girls and try to form as strong a relationship as possible with them. I enjoy being able to help them build on what I may have done wrong in middle school and help them not to make those sam