Our annual World’s Fair is a showcase of cultures where students share culturally connected foods, traditions, and performances. In previous years, just under 800 students attended on average. This year, to our surprise, we hosted over 1,000 students.
In a previous article, I wrote about how our school recognized a high level of anxiety within students returning to school and struggling to reconnect with their peers and how we responded in our co-curricular and extracurricular activities. Now, we are recognizing a pendulum swing in the other direction. By the end of the first semester, we saw nearly a 20 percent increase in participation in clubs and athletics. Students are looking for ways to engage with each other.
We’ve found three ways to respond to students’ increased desire for engagement.
Provide Opportunity Beyond the Activity
For 18 months, our students learned in a remote environment before returning to full in-person learning at the beginning of this year. Now, they are searching for ways to reconnect with each other. It may seem obvious, but students develop social and emotional skills when they are engaged in activities with each other. Students value time together, even beyond the time their activity is scheduled for.
We witnessed this during a recent freshman intramural basketball game. After the planned games finished for the day, the students continued to shoot hoops. When it was time to put the hoops up and head home, the students still stuck around, talking with each other. One club adviser observed, “They just don’t want to go home.” This group was developing their social and emotional skills surrounding relationship building and social awareness. The supervisor recognized the importance of this team-building time and stayed as late as they could before shooing the boys out of the building for the day.
Our coaches and advisers across the school recognize this desire to connect and so have begun creating time for students to engage with each other beyond the planned meeting, practice, or game.
Create a Sense of Normalcy
Students are constantly inundated with reminders of the pandemic outside of the school day. In response, although our school has a mask policy in place, we have focused on restoring all other opportunities to how they were before the pandemic in order to create a sense of normalcy for our students.
One way we’ve done this is to create opportunities for students to attend large-scale events. For example, we held a high school dance that included an outdoor patio area for students. We did this to have an outdoor mask break or a space to reconnect with one another outside. We also converted our pep rally to a large-scale outdoor assembly for the first time in our school history.
In addition to schoolwide events, coaches and club leaders have begun to reinstate pre-pandemic traditions. Lacrosse coaches, for example, ran team-wide mini-competitions to collect stickers for students to place on their helmets and brought back a traveling trophy that students carry around to recognize a game’s most valuable player. These have allowed the returning members to pick up right where they left off and for new members to have the typical experience of belonging to a group. Re-creating a sense of normalcy and routine went a long way toward establishing a level of comfort and connectedness within the school’s culture.
Communicate Often, and Then Communicate Again
Intentional communication is critical as we bring students back into co-curricular and extracurricular activities. One adviser recognized that in the 2019–20 school year, our first-year students were at our school for only seven months before we went remote. When they returned, they were juniors. I often take for granted the institutional memory that gets handed down from class to class as students are immersed in the school’s culture daily. Nearly every coach and adviser recognized the need for increased communication between them and their students. Additionally, they found themselves needing to provide team captains and club presidents with guidance on how best to communicate with participants, something that happened organically pre-pandemic.
An example of the intentionality of coaching students can be seen in our Freshmen Mentor Program (FMP). In FMP, junior and senior mentors are assigned to freshmen homerooms to provide peer-to-peer guidance as first-year students transition to high school life. In previous years, much of the student leadership development happened organically between the senior mentors and junior mentors. This year, the program advisor implemented an increased focus on reflection as a way to communicate the expectations of the mentors in the program.
As we realized that our students were looking for the chance to get more involved, our entire school focused our energy on providing increased opportunities for engagement, creating a sense of normalcy, and ramping up our intentional communication. As a result, we have been able to provide them the opportunity to develop relationships that were absent over the previous 18 months of remote learning and isolation.