Anna Watt, Reagan Bos and Maria Hall all will be teachers in the not-too-distant future, and part of their training other than education coursework at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University includes real-world exposure to potential students.
This can mean shadowing teachers in the classroom and, eventually, student teaching. These three CSB undergrads, however, are going above and beyond what is required to engage with diverse children in St. Cloud as part of a grant-sponsored “Books with College Buddies” program.
Terri Rodriguez, in her ninth year as an education professor at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s, started the program in the spring of 2021 with $3,000 in support via funding from the Corella and Bertram F. Bonner Foundation and the Optimist Club of St. Cloud.
Students in Rodriguez’s courses were able to use their experience from weekly book club discussions with youth at the St. Cloud Community Outpost (COP) House to fulfill major project requirements. Watt, Bos and Hall enjoyed it so much last fall, when the book club was paired with a newly titled course called “Exploring Justice Through Young Adult Literature,” they’ve continued it this semester even though it no longer provides class credit.
“It gives us extra time with kids, and not when they’re in a classroom environment,” said Watt, a junior elementary education major from South St. Paul. “And, honestly, diversity is a huge part of the attraction. We wouldn’t be immersed in this community in St. Cloud if not for this program.”
Depending on where they are placed as teachers, their future classes might not look like the ones they’ve experienced in more rural scenarios. And for Watt, whose goal is to teach middle-school language arts in Minneapolis, hanging with the kids at the COP House just confirms she’s on the right career path.
COP House setting is unique
Once a week, she and Bos and Hall pile into a car and drive to the COP House, which is staffed by the St. Cloud Police Department but also serves as a community connecting space where area residents can get access to needed health, wellness, and other services. Gold Cross Ambulance, CentraCare and Stearns County Social Services also have designated space in the facility, which opened in 2017. But the atmosphere is homey. There are apartment buildings nearby, and a Boys and Girls Club across the street. Children’s voices create a din as they rush in and out with familiarity.
And one of the staples in their programming is the book club. On a recent day, perhaps 20 children gathered in a large open space that might otherwise have been a garage if this were a private home. They sat at tables and on chairs, some drawn by the allure of pizza and ice cream snacks, but all in rapt attention as a special guest reader – CSB alumna Hudda Ibrahim – read from her latest book, “Lula Wants to Wear a Badge.”
The story, one of a series of children’s stories Ibrahim is writing, is based on the experience of her sister, who as a child wanted to be a police officer – only to confront cultural stereotypes that seemingly restrict what kids can be when they grow up.
“Great teachers can have a huge impact on these children,” said Ibrahim, an English and peace studies major at CSB who has been on the faculty at the St. Cloud Technical and Community College since 2015 and started her own talent business a year later. “I believe 52% of the students in the St. Cloud school district now are kids of color. What can we do to make sure that 52% gets a rigorous education so they can be what they want to be?”
Enriching future teachers’ opportunities to build relationships with students in such a community may be a start. And, while Bos and Hall currently shadow teachers at South Junior High in St. Cloud, there’s a different level of interaction with the book club.
“It’s a fun setting and, when we work with the kids, they’re getting to choose what books they want to read, so there’s genuine interest,” said Hall, a sophomore elementary education major from Brooklyn Park. “This isn’t homework. They don’t have to do it. Every week, I see the happiness on their faces and that’s rewarding.”
Kids access e-library on CSB iPads
Typically, the CSB students walk over to the Boys and Girls Club to see whether any of the kids there want to participate in the book club. While some prefer to play in the gym, a surprising number ranging from second to seventh grades choose to go to the COP House and read from a pre-selected e-library of 30 titles (including some anime and comics) on iPads that belong to the CSB+SJU Education department. They then split into small groups to pore over the content. The idea is to read one book over the course of the six-week offering. Though some kids will come and go in that time, most at least read snippets of books they’re interested in, and those who have their own devices also can access the e-library on their own time, which promotes literacy.
“We see some of the same kids from South, and some of the same faces from one week to the next,” said Bos, a sophomore English major from Willmar. “In my situation, you want to get any experience you can working with kids, and it’s fun for us, too. It gives us a break from being college students for a little while.”
Rodriguez developed Books with College Buddies following a suggestion from her friend, Lori Ellering, a lieutenant with the St. Cloud Police Department. The grants offset costs for the COP House, including access to the e-library and snacks for the kids.
“The idea came not long after the George Floyd incident and other things that have happened, and the book club brought the pre-service teachers and the students together around young adult literature that addresses issues of racism and policing and society,” Rodriguez said. “Those are all still huge topics. Young people, whether college students or young adults, they need and want to talk about race relations.”
Community cooperative with law enforcement
That all this activity occurs in the same space where several police officers work every day and become known to the children, also breaks down misperceptions about law enforcement.
“We appreciate the (CSB and SJU) students coming to spend time with these kids in what can be a constant, loud, crazy environment,” said Taylor Richmond, one of the COP House-based officers. “It’s beneficial for us that these kids are comfortable here and I think the Boys and Girls Club likes it, too, because it gives some of them a chance to be more cerebral than just running off energy playing basketball. At first, I think a lot of it was because we had pizza (for the book club). But slowly it’s turned into kids wanting to read with their college buddies.”
Watt, Bos and Hall have played a big role in that, and say they’ll continue to do so. They benefit, regardless of whether it’s by class credit.
“This is what I love about education,” Watt said. “There are things you learn here that you don’t pick up sitting in class. And as someone who cares about equity in education, this experience has proved to me so much that voice matters. It’s going to make me a better teacher and show my commitment to that.”
All three CSB students have convinced their own teacher.
“They have an internal motivation and it’s amazing to me,” Rodriguez said. “I think what they get out of it just that chance to be with kids in a community setting. There’s a real difference from what you can do and learn with kids in a classroom setting. They get to be with small groups, three to four at the most, and it’s middle level and secondary English. These are future language arts teachers, so do we love reading and talking about books? Yes. You find when you’re doing something that you’re passionate about, it energizes you.
“I hope it continues,” Rodriguez added. “If the momentum builds and it becomes institutionalized in a way, that would be very rewarding.”