Building Connections with Students

It is remarkable to think that February 2024 has already begun. It feels like just yesterday that we were celebrating the new year, and now we are part way through second semester.

Last month was filled with an energy that seems to only hit me in August and January. I feel like my momentum to complete items on my BINGO card hasn’t waned yet (which could be due to the 5 snow/cold days we had in January), and I am already thinking of ways to complete even more of the challenges.

Not only has the BINGO board allowed me to focus some of my energy on my goals for building relationships, it has allowed me to think constructively about where and who I might share that energy with. Looking back on the blog posts I’ve written so far this year, I realized I was leaving out what is probably the most important group in our school community: The students! 

We truly have no purpose without those learners in our buildings, so it is surprising to me that I haven’t included students sooner. But also, it isn’t surprising, because all day, every day, I think about how to best serve our students. And, every other post I have written has been about building relationships with others to make connections that would then in turn support students. They are always there at the backs of our minds, in all of the work we do.

But, it’s only fair that these young people get their own moment in the spotlight, because they are why we show up to work each day. While there can be moments of frustration, for the most part they are what we find uplifting in our work. Whenever I am asked what gets me through troubling times in our profession, I always say, “the students.” If your day is not going as you hoped or you are facing difficulties, talk with a student for a few moments. It can truly help.

Here are a few of the bright spots from my year so far that help illustrate the power of building connections with students.

  1. I helped a student get access to an eBook copy of a novel he was reading in class. We’ve had our ups and downs, and he hasn’t always taken things super seriously when I’ve taught his classes. But, I was able to get him access to a book so he could get caught up over the weekend. He said, “Miss, I don’t want you to do too much. This seems like a lot.” I replied, “I’m happy to. This is part of my job.” Then, he fist bumped me, which was out of character. I have been talking about that voluntary fist bump for days, because it meant that what I did mattered to him and that he appreciated it.
  2. Walking into our Life Skills Special Education reading classes is the absolute best part of my week. These three groups of students are my only guaranteed classes all year long. Not only do I get an excited “It’s Mrs. Pentland!” whenever I walk into the room, but one student told me “Don’t apologize, you’re amazing!” when I forgot to bring something with me from the library. And, another said “Mrs. Pentland is the best” when she found out what we were going to be doing in class the next week. If I ever need a pick me up, that’s where I go. I’ve gotten to know all of them so well that they truly feel like my students. Not only do I see them every week, but I get to teach them year after year. It has been my absolute joy to connect with them through literature and activities that are at their ability and mobility levels and that interest them. One student is VERY into dogs, so I know that if I find a book with a dog in it, I’m going to have her full attention. I know that certain students enjoy unicorns, or football, or vehicles, or sports biographies which helps me decide what to buy for our Everyone section. Their excitement when they see the new books is worth every minute spent looking for and every penny spent on quality titles.
  3. I host author visits a few times a year. Most are virtual, but I try to bring in a local person each year as well. The students who attend these visits are a pretty core group. Once they go to one, they come to ALL of them, even if it’s outside their normal genre. They share what they like about a book, give me recommendations for the next visits or what to buy for the library; they stop by and tell us how they’re doing in class. Two of them have given me certificates or papers with good grades on them that they didn’t think would matter much to folks at home, and I’ve displayed their accomplishments on the white board in my office. Several stop by and offer to help in the school library when they have free time. By connecting students with authors, their connection to the library has solidified, and I can see that continuing throughout their lives.
  4. Each month, I also offer a Take & Make craft project. It started when we couldn’t use our makerspace materials due to the pandemic, but I haven’t stopped because students seem to love it. Just like our author visit regulars, we have students who always do the craft project each month. In fact, they stop by part way through a month to ask me what’s coming next or to see if it’s ok if they make another or to give suggestions on what we should do next.
  5. During lunch, we host students. Many come in to eat lunch, but there are some that just come to hang out. We have chess (both giant and regular sized), giant connect four, giant coloring pages and sticker murals, and other board games. One group that comes in regularly during lunch and has played UNO for most of the past couple years asked if we had any other board games. When they weren’t thrilled with the selection that was purchased by our mentoring program, I asked them to give me input on what we should buy. In typical teenager fashion they just shrugged their shoulders and said, “I don’t know.” So, I thought about how much time they would have during lunch and looked for games that might be fun – mostly old school ones like Candyland, Sorry, Trouble, Chutes & Ladders, and various card games. After MANY recommendations for Taco Cat Goat Cheese Pizza, we now have that and UNO No Mercy being checked out regularly. They’ve had fun trying them all out, and giving me their opinions, the last few weeks. We also have maker materials like Magnatiles and straw connectors that I used with classes. But, students started grabbing them during lunch to build with. When one group asked for Lincoln Logs, I thought, why not? Let’s go for it. They were so surprised when I showed them it was available just a few days later.
  6. I’ve also made a point of asking students for help in selecting books for the library, especially for our world languages speakers. We’ve had a Spanish for Spanish speakers class for quite a while, but we’ve recently added an Arabic for Arabic speakers class. I’d done this with our Spanish classes before, but I added Arabic classes this year. I went to the classes and asked for their input on what they would like to read in their home language. They have provided wonderful feedback, and our world languages section is continuing to grow in the library which has brought in students who may not have been as keen to check out books otherwise. I’m really looking forward to when our Arabic book order arrives and I can share them with these students.

After looking through all six of these examples and thinking about many more, the best advice I can give to grow connections with students so you can better serve their needs and interests is to listen to them. Truly listen to them, and you can help grow life-long library users and lovers.

Oh, and if you need a pick me up, and you are an AASL member, please go to the AASL Member Forum library on ALA Connect and look for the video from our webinar Building Relationships with Student Advocates. Even though it happened just a few days ago, I am still embracing the hope and awe I felt listening to four young people from across the country talk about the advocacy work they have and are doing and advice they have for school librarians and students. A giant thank you to all of the students on our panel for their bravery, their work, and their willingness to share their time and experiences with all of us.

 

If you have student connection stories you’d like to share, I’d love to share them in a future blog post. Just email me at aaslpresident@ala.org

Author: Courtney Pentland, AASL President 2023-2024



Categories: Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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