Creating Connectedness and a Love for Learning: Partnering Up With Vic West Elementary

At the start of the school year I partnered up with John DiCicco, a colleague from Vic West (the nearest elementary school to our high school) to collaborate on a literacy project. John teaches Grade 2 and prior to this partnership we hadn’t worked together before. Deb Courville, John’s principal and my former principal, played “match maker” and introduced us. I had some ideas in mind as did John and after a few planning sessions we had outlined where we wanted to go and how we would go about getting there.

Our plan was to have my English 12 class walk over to Vic West once a week over the course of an 8 – 12 week project. We would spend some quality time creating strong relationships between the students, reading in 1 on 1 settings, and begin working towards creating a book in each partnership.

For the first few 45 minute sessions our students paired up and read together, swapping buddies part way through the visit. Over the course of 3 weeks students got to know a handful of friends and began forming a stronger relationship with a single buddy that they would continue working together with for the duration of our project. John and I had discussed choosing the buddy pairings ourselves but as these initial weeks went by we were pleasantly surprised to see that strong bonds were forming all around us and any tinkering we thought we would have to make was completely unnecessary. After each session I would debrief with my class just outside John’s school before we began to walk back to EHS. Through these early weeks my kids would share how they were seeing themselves in their Grade 2 peers, that they were identifying with their little buddies, and that they were beginning to gravitate towards someone they wanted to spend more time with.

During one particular debrief a student shared with us all why he had chosen to work with his particular buddy. He told us a story about how he hadn’t said a single word for all of his Kindergarten and Grade 1 year. He was incredibly shy and nervous at school. At home he was a different child. He would talk freely and with confidence. But when he went to school he shut down and couldn’t bring himself to open up. It wasn’t until Grade 2 that he said his first words and it was a caring and affectionate teacher who proved to be the tipping point for finding and using his voice at school. This student said that he saw a bit of himself in the buddy he had chosen to work with and that he hoped he could be someone to help build his buddy’s confidence during his Grade 2 year.

It may be hard to believe but these incredibly meaningful moments were plentiful during this project. John’s class would talk about our visits all week and our time together began to spill in to other facets of their learning. Heading in to the Christmas break our students swapped Christmas cards. After a month of working together our kids began to hug each other goodbye. And my students began sharing stories about how they were running in to their buddies in the neighbourhood with their families. Whether it be at the McDonalds drive-through window or at the Pizza Hut or at the local playground, the bonds from the classroom were growing in to our community in neat and authentic ways.

Eventually the partnerships began working on co-authroing a book. They brainstormed character, setting, and plot and began developing a story with illustrations that they would publish together to be given as a gift to the Grade 2 students. The result would be an original storybook that the Grade 2s could cherish for years to come as a memento of their time with a Grade 12 EHS student. The final products were amazing. Some artistic and creative, some narratively amazing, some engaging and personalized, they were all reflections of the strong relationships built and the fun time they spent working together on publishing their piece.

Throughout the project John kept saying “we have something here. We have something special”. We knew that what we were witnessing was truly awesome. Grade 2 reading ability was improving, students in both classes were excited about the project and talking about it throughout the week, parents were keen and thankful, strong connections were being made across schools and within the community, and the Grade 12s were growing increasingly confident in their roles as mentor and teacher.

We felt the project was such a success that we have continued it in to our second semester and expanded it to include two additional classes (a Grade 1 and 4/5 class). We have seen a similar positive impact on student learning, engagement, and connectedness to school as well as the strengthening of ties across our community.

I think what makes the partnership between John and I successful can be narrowed down to a single commonality. We are both parents of children in our school district and we approach our profession and our relationship with our students and school community as though they are extensions of our own families. We believe that it takes a village to raise a child and that our role as their educator is pivotal in building confidence and a lifelong love for learning. We teach with care and affection with an eye on individual growth and success. And I think we’d both agree that it is this type of teacher we want learning along side our own children.

Gratuitous selfie op: John and I being recognized with the Parent's Choice Award for our project by the VCPAC at their annual awards gala.

Gratuitous selfie op: John and I being recognized with the Parent’s Choice Award for our project by the VCPAC at their annual awards gala.

To close I thought I’d share some excerpts from my English 12 student’s reflections on this experience. All of them are meaningful and inspiring. Here are just a few that I have selected from the many:

“I would have never thought that I would find this experience even remotely enjoyable, yet I did. I believe it has had a significant impact on my life because the door that was completely closed to having children in the future, cracked open throughout the duration of our visits.”

“Our Vic West trips were so impactful on both parties. I think every class could benefit from doing this, because it teaches us as near adults, life long communication skills, patience, and the ability to learn through listening.”

“Thinking back to when I was in second grade I would have loved to have a big buddy to talk with and read with. Your eyes are wide open at that age. Forming a friendship with our little buddies reminded me how much I have grown since then, and how fast time flies – that was ten years ago already, and it feels like just yesterday. It is one of the most rewarding experiences to make an impact on someone so young who has just started their school experience.”

“The countless moments spent with my little buddy were all very precious and unique in their own way. Over the weeks I got to know her on a personal level and vice versa.”

“We formed a great bond, which made our last visit the most memorable and eye opening moment of the entire experience. Never in a million years did I think I could have such a strong bond with a child. As we were leaving their classroom my little buddy ran up to me and gave me a hug and looked as though she was trying to not cry. In that moment I knew how much I had really had an impact in her life which is one of the great things in life that can’t be bought.”

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