George Lucas Educational Foundation
School Culture

Interest-Based Events Can Boost Students’ Sense of Belonging

Many secondary students pass on pep rallies and whole-school events, but smaller gatherings can help them connect to the community.

July 12, 2021
Janine Wiedel Photolibrary / Alamy

Many high schools across the country have student government groups, such as a student council, class board, or an associated student body, typically with the purpose of enhancing the culture and climate of the school.

When planning activities to engage students, for years the student council at my school created large events like dances and pep rallies with over-the-top, unrealistic expectations of their impact on the student body. As the student activities coordinator, I saw it over and over again: No matter how well intentioned and even well planned these events were and how many students attended, there were inevitably significant numbers of students who didn’t participate.

If the goal of these events was to engage the entire student body and establish a sense of community, we were missing the mark. The student leaders and I needed to collaborate to shift our approach to student engagement.

Framing Our Work

For years, our director of student activities, Dr. Ted Goergen, and I had worked together to increase student participation at dances and pep rallies, but none of our adjustments worked. One day, Ted landed on a metaphor to describe the challenge: The student government was overly focused on “bonfires” (big, over-the-top events) and paid far less attention to “campfires” (smaller, more personal events). Once I shared the metaphor with our student government, creating many small campfire events became a priority, alongside less-frequent bonfires. The metaphor has guided the student government’s work ever since.

When we framed our work as a transition from bonfires to campfires, the student government needed to back up and clarify why the group existed. After watching a TED Talk by Simon Sinek about starting with why, we sat down together and created a mission statement. Students researched what made a good mission statement and examined those of other schools and even those of companies like Apple and Facebook. Together we arrived at a mission statement:

Our student government exists as the steward of the school climate and to build a sense of belonging in our entire student body through outreach and engagement.

From there, the mission statement guided every action taken with respect to events: If the action served our mission, then it worked, and if the action didn’t serve that mission, then it needed to be reconsidered. With that framework established, student leaders could more clearly see how to diversify its offerings.

Measuring Student Engagement

Our school invested in a student activity management system called 5-Star Students to determine which students were attending the large events, clubs, and activities regularly, and which students were not engaging with student events and organizations at all.

With this system in place, the entire student body could check in using an app and identify what after-school activities or larger events they were participating in. Using this tool over several months, a clearer picture emerged of which students were not actively engaged: Overall, 37 percent of students were not attending large events.

Meeting Students’ Interests

Once they could see from the data just how significant a problem lack of participation was, our student leaders created a student interest survey for students who did not participate in any events, including bonfires. The survey included pointed questions like “What could we add to our events that would interest you in attending?” and “If we gave you and three of your friends a free ticket to our next event, would that make the time fun for you?” and “What do you do for fun in your spare time?”

Survey data clearly showed that several students met virtually to play video games online, so the student government added a video game tournament to its Winter Festival and invited students who had expressed an interest in video gaming to compete. Those students came and were actively engaged; from there they met in person to play video games online, and that evolved into a robust, sustained esports club.

Survey data also indicated that a surprising number of students were interested in playing the bat-and-ball game cricket, so the student government folded cricket into its annual last-day-of-the-school-year field-day event called Spring Fling. Because we included the campfire of cricket in the bonfire of Spring Fling and invited interested students to play, students who previously would not have been interested in Spring Fling were fully engaged.

It was incredible seeing students play a sport they were so passionate about. The first year that cricket was included in Spring Fling, only four teams played, but a crowd of students gathered as fans who then became interested in learning and playing the sport with their peers. They wound up playing cricket that day until dusk, and the following school year, the school offered cricket as an intramural sport. To this day, more than 40 students regularly play organized intramural cricket on Sunday afternoons.

The bonfire and campfire analogy helped propel our school toward a new, more vibrant school climate—and one that prioritizes inclusivity. 

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  • School Culture
  • Student Engagement
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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