During the last year Matt Kiesow and I have been writing a book about our summer work. We hope to publish it this summer.
Here is a cutting from the Philosophy section of the book including our approach to using upperclassmen in our summer programming.
This is the most important section of this ebook. At its core, Connections is a philosophy that focuses on a question: “How can we launch these students into high school?” This ebook is our attempt to answer that question. With some exceptions, the activities in this ebook are unremarkable. Hundreds of variations and substitutions can be made in order to meet the needs of different students, settings, or staff strengths. The elements are malleable; what remains steadfast is the goal to effectively prepare students for the first months of high school.
By the time freshmen leave Connections, we want to reshape the reason they came. The reasons freshmen sign-up for Connections are varied. Fear, boredom, parental expectation, a friend talked them into it, and curiosity top our list of likely reasons to attend. After they complete the class, we want their focus to be leadership. More specifically, we want to equip them to lead their friends through the travails of high school, not just provide a great transition experience.
We also want to replace fear or worry about this transition to high school with opportunity. In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, when a place of safety and security is created, fear is removed. The next layer then comes into focus: Belonging. That’s where we want our freshmen to start in August. Start there. Build there. We think Connections can move students toward that next level of opportunity.
When we collapsed our schedule from a 20-day, half-day schedule to a 10-day, full-day schedule in 2010, we recognized that we needed more help in attending to ELL, SPED, and supervision concerns. The number of students that needed additional support nudged us toward looking for student leaders. We were already using the Link Crew curriculum for our Freshman Orientation in the fall. Why not utilize this existing process to recruit student leaders to enhance Connections? We created an offshoot of Link Crew that would join Connections as student leaders. This cost-effective solution generated dividends at every level.
Credit was the first addition. Students who worked with us during the 70+ hours of Connections would earn a half credit at no cost. In order to earn that credit, they needed to do four things:
- Attend the required 2-hour training prior to the start of Connections.
- Attend and fully participate in Connections.
- Read and journal through The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens by Sean Covey.
- Complete an evaluation of Connections. Mentors would fully explain two things done during Connections that they thought were impactful to freshmen and two things that they thought we got wrong and needed improvement. Over the last six years, these essays have provided a powerful influx of new ideas and new perspectives on how to transition freshmen into high school.
What we found in these juniors and seniors was more than we bargained for. We found a place for upperclassmen to learn significant leadership skills. We found examples for our new freshmen. We found a source of truth and reality that was very palatable to freshmen. We found readers, supervisors, problem-solvers, and partners. We found what may be the most important element of the Connections model. We found mentors.
In our first two years, we kept mentors in our classrooms. Mentors would sit in the back of each of our rooms. When needed, they would be called upon to assist. In our animated, teacher-focused way, we didn’t realize how boring this was for them. Yes, they were utilized, but mostly they sat in the back of the room and watched.
Our present model is to have our mentors in the classroom for the first two days so that we can get to know them and they us. We then release them to an adjoining classroom where they complete their Seven Habits reading and writing assignments.
What actually happens is the creation of a team – a team of upperclassmen – that supersedes their individual teams of freshmen. As will be further explained below, one of the main elements of Connections is competition. We are pitting one team of freshmen against the other. When we started, we were concerned it might be too competitive, that mentors would take it too far. This is not happening. The time mentors spend together in the morning appears to cultivate a network of leaders that nicely counterbalances the “on the field” intensity that is a part of Connections.
Most mentors, with the exception of the two or three needed in the classrooms, gather in the “meeting room” during the three morning class periods. While outside the room it’s Team 1 vs Team 4, this competitive environment is held in check by the unity usually found amongst the mentors. We train, talk, and teach mentors about the greater mission of providing a great experience for the freshmen. We believe in order for that to happen, the more important team is the group of mentors.
As I write these glowing words about working with teenagers, I question its validity myself. These are young and sometimes immature leaders that don’t know each other. How can they suddenly work together? Well, sometimes they don’t. Over the years, we have had a number of run-ins where mediation and hard conversations were needed; however, these were the exception. Our process for recruitment, our training, and our constant reminders about what it is that we are doing have served us well in focusing these young leaders to work together and do great things with and for freshmen.
The mentors are a critical part of what we do. They are the third dimension to what used to be a two-dimensional program.