Building Lasting Connections With Students: Interview With Ro Saldana

Sara MartinezPrograms, Teachers

Roseann Saldana has volunteered as a WITS Workplace Mentoring (WPM) literacy mentor for the past seven years. Every Thursday afternoon during the school year, Ro leaves her desk to go down to the 48th floor conference room at Exelon to mentor her Lozano student, Brianna. During the one-hour session, Ro and Brianna read to each other, decode tricky words, tackle tough homework questions, and – most importantly – building lasting connections and a purposeful mentorship relationship. Since 2013, when Exelon first partnered with WITS, Ro and her students have developed meaningful relationships through the joy of reading.

Why did you start volunteering with WITS?

The desire to help students build their confidence with reading sparked my interest, and when I learned that I would also be helping with homework, I became really interested in volunteering. I loved doing homework when I was in school, so to be able to guide and challenge students with their homework and help them with their problem-solving hooked me. I also liked the opportunity to encourage students’ socializing skills and speak with them about the lessons they learned from the books they were reading and connecting it to their lives. I like that we are able to empower students through reading. This program is impeccable—you cannot believe what this one hour gives back to you. Being able to help shape students’ identities through books is amazing. 

As a WITS mentor, why does reading matter to you?

Reading matters to me because it helps build relationships. Reading helps shape students as they are growing throughout the year. Students often say, “I just read this book and I really liked it, so let’s read this other book because it looks similar or is by the same author.” I’ve seen that these connections to the books they’ve read helps tremendously in their reading growth because the interest stays there, and the students are really engaged. Then, they can connect their books to their homework and our conversations, and the relationship grows from there. Being able to help shape them through the books they chose and guide them is wonderful.

Has your experience in WITS changed your perception on reading?

Definitely, it has. My coworkers and I recently went to a seminar about the awareness of the lack of diverse books available to children in libraries and schools. It was very interesting and eye-opening. I investigated it more to see how I could help fix this diversity issue in my life. WITS books have improved in the diverse range of books brought into program throughout the years. I’ve seen how diverse books broadens my student’s perspective and enables them to explore other realities that they can relate to. Since they can connect more with these books, it helps me build a stronger relationship with them. For example, we were reading a book, and my student stopped and exclaimed. “I used to walk to school with my Grandma!” just like the character in the book.  Through our conversation we were able to connect to each other on a deeper level.

Are there any ways you’ve seen your student’s growth in reading throughout your time as a mentors?

Again, being able to really connect to the books they are reading is where I’ve seen the most reading level growth in my students throughout the years. They have a more positive attitude when they see themselves in books and then I can feed off of their excitement and support them in expanding their reading growth.

How has reading shaped your life?

WITS has motivated me to read more and be more intentional in the books I’m picking out. Since being a WITS mentor, I’ve learned how you can really encourage students to pick up a book and spark connections through it. I always encourage my students to read when they get home from program, on the weekends, and over the summer. This has shaped my life because it made me more aware of how reading can shape your life, so now I encourage people to read all around me in my family and friends.

Any final thoughts you’d like to share?

WITS has got to be the most humbling and rewarding experience of my life. Being able to give back and see children light up when they’re told that they have a book they requested and be so excited when they get it the following week is truly amazing. Seeing them throughout the year grow in who they are and how they interact with each other is rewarding, too. Being able to be a person who supports them and shapes their lives is awesome.

I always start session with “how was your day” and then “what did you learn in school today?” Every year, my students either roll with it or say “nothing really”. If they say “nothing,” I follow up and am like, “Really? What was your first class about?” Slowly, I am able to get them to open up and make connections and build the relationship. WITS is the best part of my day, and the interactions I have with my students throughout the years is easily the best part of the program. 

WITS literacy mentors make up the largest volunteer corps serving Chicago Public Schools.

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