BAXTER -- What does it mean to be a good friend?

Students at Baxter Elementary School are learning various ways to be a buddy, not a bully, this year.

While the new Baxter Elementary is under construction, staff decided to focus student learning this year around a construction theme. Each trimester has a theme. The first one is building relationships.

Throughout October, students learned a lot about unity and friendship, two words Principal Tammy Stellmach said staff felt were two big pieces of building relationships.

Friday, Oct. 25, was Buddy Reading Day, a monthly initiative aimed at building connections among students in different grades.

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On the last Friday of every month this year, students wear their matching bright orange shirts that read “The road to success is always under construction” and pair up, older students with younger students, to practice reading.

“The younger kids always love to be read to, and then they can practice partner reading,” Stellmach said. “It’s great practice for the older kids, too, just to read fluently out loud and know that they’re modeling good behavior in front of the younger students.”

Fourth-grade teacher Nate Macejkovic said he enjoys watching his students build connections with first-graders and get excited about spending time with their buddies.

Two of his students, Eedie Bosch and Isabella Klink, excitedly read with first-grade buddy Bob Walhstrom Friday.

“When they told us that we had buddies, I got so excited because I didn’t know who I was gonna have, and I really was just excited who I was gonna have,” Klink said in between books.

“You read to them and influence them on a way to read,” Bosch, who said she loves to read, added. “When they (younger kids) read a book, you’ll tell them how to sound things out and if the ‘g’ is silent, or something like that.”

“I like to read to older kids,” Wahlstrom said, “so if I get stuck on words they can tell me if it’s like a silent ‘g’ or a silent ‘f’ or a silent ‘a’ or a long ‘a’ or a short ‘a.’”

Fourth-grade teacher Heather Bender said her students get excited to wear their special shirts each month and form a sea of orange with their buddies.

Her student Isabel Kuepers enjoys watching her buddy, second-grader Hallie Sazama, improve on her reading skills.

“I get to hear how Hallie reads and how she’s doing in her books,” Kuepers said. “And I like it because I just love to read.”

“I like that we get to spend time with each other and read books together,” Sazama added.

While buddy reading happens every month, a unity activity special to October was a school-wide connection chain. Every teacher had their students write down ways to be a good friend on an orange strip of paper and stapled the strips together to make a chain. All the chains were then connected and hung in the hallways for everyone to see.

“I think at first they didn’t really understand how it was all going to look,” Bender said of her fourth-graders. “But once they wrote their ideas and saw our classroom chain, they felt super excited about it. And once they walked down the hallway and saw all of the classrooms united together in a chain, they really started to understand the definition of unity and how important that is as a building.”

Tamie Swanson’s first-grade class made their chain Wednesday, Oct. 16, and talked about many things students can do to be good friends. Their ideas included being kind, smiling, sharing their toys and asking other kids to play with them.

Elliot Aitchison, a first-grader at Baxter Elementary School, writes "I give high fives" on his link in his class's connection chain Wednesday, Oct. 16. Every class at Baxter made chains, with the links showing what students think they can do to be a good friend. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch
Elliot Aitchison, a first-grader at Baxter Elementary School, writes "I give high fives" on his link in his class's connection chain Wednesday, Oct. 16. Every class at Baxter made chains, with the links showing what students think they can do to be a good friend. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

Ultimately, how to build strong friendships is the main takeaway Stellmach hopes the students remember from October.

“I hope that students take away from this that it’s important to be a friend, that it’s important to look at others and see value, that it’s important to make connections and then keep building on those connections,” she said. “It wouldn’t have to be just on a partner reading day, but if they see their buddy in the hallway on a different day, now they have a connection. Now they can share a smile or they can share a small phrase in the hallway, and they can continue to take those relationships along and keep building on them.”

Themes for the next two trimesters at Baxter are building character and building your best self.