Holly Valentine | May 2021

Connecting with Students

Vulnerable students. We all have them, we love them and we worry about them. Over the last year, vulnerability has become a part of all of us, in a variety of ways. What are vulnerable students? They are any student who requires extra time for any aspect of their education. When we look at it that way, is there really a student in our classroom who doesn’t fit this definition? 

What becomes challenging as a teacher is that we need to approach different vulnerabilities in different ways. Do they need more time to process new learning? Do they need directions rephrased and restated? Or is it their behavior that requires the extra attention? It’s this last group of students that especially seem to draw so much of our attention at the end of the year. 

Think About It

When was the last time you paused to realize that this is often because the end of the school year is looming, and whether they believe it or not, the last thing they want to do is not return to school for a few months – especially when it’s likely they haven’t been there as much as a “normal” school year. The vulnerability that comes out in the form of poor behavior and attitude is often a result of tough circumstances at home. For so many students, school is their safe place. That is to say, it’s the place they feel loved and happy and truly themselves. We may not be able to control their environment, but we can teach them how to continue to function when they are in a less than ideal situation. 

How do we do that? We tap into the arts and we let them find the right creative artistic path for themselves.

Relationships matter, and they are just as important at the end of the year as they are at the beginning of the year, if not more so. Your students want to feel secure that you are still there as all the signs are pointing to the school year ending. We do so much work at the beginning of the year for building relationships, but do you do the same now? Even though you’re tired, don’t check out on your students. We are all tired at this point in the year, but you are needed more than ever. When was the last time you really sat down to have a conversation with your students, one on one? I’m guessing it’s been a while. So challenge yourself to do just that. 

Just Talk

Have a conference with each one of them, and just chat. Connect with them as people, not with an academic focus. When you do, it will improve the academics by default. Instead, chat with an artistic focus. What area of the arts do they enjoy participating in? What do they enjoy watching? Find their access point and when you do, they will open the door for more conversation.  Use this connection and access point for the remaining weeks of school to connect to them. Perhaps they always have their earbuds in and are listening to music. Find a way to share favorite tunes with each other. Maybe it’s a playlist in Spotify that you both contribute to. The same for favorite books or paintings or showtunes. Use their own interests to connect and shift their focus from an ending to a continued journey. 

In fact, in one of the Workshops in our Accelerator program our artist-in-residence, Amy Traggianese, talks about a former student with great behavior problems. It was the simple act of mixing paint that could calm him down and refocus him for significant periods of time. At first seeing the academic connection may seem far-fetched, but think about it. In the case of mixing paints, I don’t think there’s a single academic area you can’t connect that to. For math, you have amounts of paint and ratios. Discuss the science of making paint, or have students read about the idea of mixing and blending, or tap into creative writing. Connect the idea of painting and mixing with music. What do they feel when they are in that comfort zone? What is the music that goes with it? 

All too often it’s our vulnerable students who we force to fit into a mold, or we simply try to get to the end of the year in one piece with. These kids need the arts more than anyone. Using the arts with them, all forms, is what will help them feel connected. When the school year is over, and they hear the piece of music you told them about, or see the piece of art or read the book you recommended, they will still feel the connection you had to them. It might be just the thing they needed – the distant hug that you give them without even realizing it. The arts bring us together help us to feel less isolated. 

Make the Connection

So over these last few weeks, find a few minutes with your vulnerable students. Truly engage them in conversation, and use that conversation to strengthen your connection over the time you have left together. Write down your findings on the connections between their access points and your remaining curriculum. Realize that the reasons they are considered vulnerable are reasons they might not want to share with you, and that’s okay. What matters is your connection and finding an access point to tap into their own creativity. 

Don’t let the remaining few weeks be about closing a door on your time together. Make it about the open door ahead of them and the creative future lying before them. 

About the Author

Holly Valentine is the Director of Curriculum and Assessment for the Institute for Arts Integration and Steam. Prior to joining the Institute, Holly worked as an Arts Integration and Classroom Teacher for 20 years in a suburb of Rochester, NY. She is a certified Arts Integration Specialist and has served as an Arts Standards Writer for the New York State Education Department. Holly has been a recipient of the NYC Broadway League's Apple Award for her work in Arts Education. She also serves as the Director of Education for the Rochester Broadway Theatre League, where she has created nationally recognized programs and develops standards-based curriculum for touring Broadway shows in order to bring the theatre to classrooms and classrooms to the theatre. Holly holds both a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theatre and Psychology as well as a Masters degree in Education from Nazareth College in Rochester, NY,  where she currently lives.