Giving a Helping Hand to First-Years
Submitted by Nadine Fiedler on Wed, 03/21/2012 - 10:51am
From the Winter 2011-12 Caller
By Sue Phillips and David Zonana
Students new to Catlin Gabel, as well as those arriving from our Middle School, find a perfect opportunity to reinvent themselves in their freshman year. While the adults in the Upper School community welcome this reinvention, we know that teenagers find this change both exhilarating and frightening. Fortunately, the freshman team made up of teachers and staff are there to support the students through their first year, cheer them on, and help them when they struggle.
The Freshman Toolkit
This year we reinvigorated the five-year-old Freshman Toolkit. Our 9th graders typically have, for the first time in their school lives, several unstructured free periods each week. To help them establish habits that will support their success, a group of Upper School faculty developed the Toolkit curriculum, which includes structured skills sessions and supervised study time. During the weeks between the beginning of school and Thanksgiving break, freshmen attended two Toolkit sessions each week: a skills session, and a supervised study session managed by a rotating group of committed faculty and staff. The skills sessions taught students strategies for keeping a calendar to manage their assignments, meetings with teachers, sports practices, and after-school activities, and emphasized managing multi-step assignments that require work over the course of a few weeks.
Other skills sessions focused on students’ learning styles, working effectively with an academic adviser, and developing a plan for fulfilling community service hours in a meaningful way. Our freshmen met a second time each week in their groups, and followed a protocol of reporting on the homework they planned to complete during that time. The overall purpose of Toolkit was to help our 9th graders understand how to organize and prioritize their lives so they can get their work done in time to enjoy dinner with their families, have a chance to socialize with friends, and get enough sleep to be ready for the next day.
Our learning specialist Cindy Murray is a key supporter of Toolkit, and was central to its establishment this fall. She says that it’s effective because students have learned how to start to take responsibility for their learning in ways that allow them to become successful. While the program will evolve based on feedback, we anticipate continuing to offer it next year.
The freshman class trip
The freshman class trip is an important first step in helping our 9th graders become part of the Upper School community. During this three-day experience, new freshmen get to know each other, connect with faculty, gain understanding of the culture of the Upper School, and begin to form an identity as a cohesive class. For the last three years, this trip has taken place at Scouter’s Mountain, a woodsy camp where students sleep in rustic boxcars and teepees. The setting of the retreat and the activities that fill each day are designed to provide a context for the development of strength of self and community that will be important for students’ happiness and achievement in the Upper School. The values, support from upperclassmen and faculty, friendships, and willingness to put oneself in some new and uncomfortable situations provide a starting point for the open-minded and resilient traits found in many of our Upper School students.
The freshman class trip is made up of a variety of activities, from the simple, practical tasks of preparing and cleaning up meals for over 100 peers to an evening of square dancing called by Dave Corkran, retired history teacher. Students on the trip participate in a day-long community service project in collaboration with the National Forest Service. This year, the class of 2015 spent a day in the sun planting hundreds of trees and completing important habitat restoration work along an old road in the Mt. Hood National Forest. The on-site ropes course provides another afternoon of group and individual challenge, and a setting for problem solving and bonding. Simple challenges, such as one that requires the group to pass a carabiner from one end of a rope to another, become moments of intense focus, communication, and collaboration.
Students also take part in quiet activities, such as nature sketching, writing workshops, and community values discussions. This year, international mountaineer Willy Oppenheim came to give an inspiring talk about his most recent trip to Pakistan, where he combined research on girls’ education with an attempt to scale an unclimbed Himalayan peak. On the final morning of the trip, students draft letters to their future selves that we give back to them when they enter their senior year. We end the last night of the trip with a talent show around the fire. This year, as spirits were high on this final evening, and many members of the class of 2015 had already shared songs or silly acts, freshman Matthew Bernstein came to the front of the group with just his guitar, voice, and a thoughtful original song and captivated the entire audience. We will remember that for a long time.
Support from older students
This year we’ve had some of the strongest leadership ever by older students on behalf of the new 9th graders. Each spring, the faculty nominates seniors for leadership roles on the freshman class trip. These students consistently impress us with their commitment as role models, camp counselors, dynamic leaders, and gentle confidantes to their younger peers, both on the trip and afterward. For many freshmen, this is their first experience of having an older, established student as an ally and potential friend, and the experience is powerful. Seniors have a vested interest in transmitting all that they find best about the culture of the school they have grown to love, and they’re cognizant of their responsibility as mentors and role models.
Last spring, junior Ella Bohn called a meeting among members of her class to gauge interest in establishing a junior mentors program. Nearly half the class turned out and signed up to help, and late this past summer Ella met with us to match each freshman with one of the juniors. The mentors met, planned, and reached out to the 9th graders one on one to ask how they were doing. Ella said she had realized that “it might have been helpful to have someone to talk to about all the things people think you are supposed to know” by the time you arrive in the Upper School. Juniors have been here for three years, and they are a friendly, approachable group who “know how things work.”
The freshman class may not realize the framework that has quietly been constructed to support them through their first year in the Upper School. We are proud that their team of advocates includes not only teachers and staffers, but also trusted older students who are more influential than they recognize. Their peer-to-peer mentoring creates caring, supportive, and respectful collaboration with the 9th graders, and importantly, encourages the transmission of Catlin Gabel’s values and ethos to this next generation of younger teens.
Sue Phillips has been the Upper School librarian since 2004. She is a research geek who loves to laugh, work in the garden, and play early music. David Zonana is an outdoor education teacher who has long held an interest in the potential of adventure for growth and learning. Since 2006 he has led students on mountaineering, rafting, backpacking, llama packing, rock climbing, and sea kayaking trips.
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