Century Middle School launched a new, teacher-led program Friday afternoon to build relationships, community and communication skills among its students.
Described by the teachers who thought it up as Century Camptime, the program brings together groups of 15 to 17 students, combining all age levels from fifth to eighth grade, for weekly "campfire circle" discussions, team-building activities and other projects.
Each cabin, led by a teacher, is in turn part of one of five camps, identified as Camp Aspen, Camp Birch, Camp Oak, Camp Maple and Camp Pine.
Friday's camp/cabin kick-off started with a general assembly in the gymnasium, where students had the unforgettable experience of seeing their teachers dance to the "Baby Shark" song and "Gangnam Style."
Using color-coded bracelets and banners, students were sorted into their camps, then filtered down from the bleachers to connect with their cabin mates and the teacher acting as their camp counselor.
Children ended up sitting in circles and introducing themselves with "floppy fish" handshakes and fun facts about themselves. Later, they played games outside and enjoyed ice cream.
Principal Shawn Andress said the cabin/camp program was completely teacher-initiated.
School interventionist Michelle Fritze identified language arts teacher Emily Schueller, science teacher Morgan Marcussen and Alternative Learning Center teacher Bryan Hirt as key people in developing the format.
"Cabins are a place for students to check in and connect each week with staff and students outside their academic schedule," said Fritze. "Each cabin group is a place to belong, which in turn, we believe, will spread through the camps and our school as a whole, improving our school's culture."
She added, "We want to create community. We also want seventh- and eighth-graders have opportunities for leadership and mentoring toward younger students."
She said a school survey showed a decline in students' sense of belonging and identifying with a larger community. Camptime "was designed to improve their sense of nurturing and belonging."
The road to camp
Marcussen explained that some of the school's teachers thought the school's advising period was not being used to its full potential.
"We wanted a way to start connecting with kids outside of the grade we teach and outside of the classes that we have every single day," she said. "We wanted to mix ages. We thought we could start building a better middle school culture by having older kids working with younger kids and kids that they're not sitting with every day in their classes."
The idea started to grow, Marcussen said, when she met a group from the Twin Cities while working at the Challenge Course during the summer. "They said, 'We're our house leaders.' They have houses at their school. They sent all their house leaders to the Challenge Course to work on teamwork and stuff like that. I just started questioning them about what that was and what they do. I brought the general idea back to these guys, and we thought it would be cool to start doing something like that at the middle school."
"When she brought that idea," Schueller said, "we started thinking about more of an 'up north' theme that would apply to us. We went with the camp theme, sitting around a campfire, breaking up into cabins. We want to create a culture of connection between our kids and have everybody feel like they are a part of something at the middle school."
Marcussen said every year, there seem to be a few students who "aren't recognized or they don't connect with anybody. Maybe they make it all day and no one has spoken to them individually or wondered how they're doing. So we wanted to make sure each kid had an adult that they connected with and a little group that they connected with."
The program challenges staff, who typically see hundreds of students a week, to check in personally with the same 15 to 17 kids every week and see how they are doing, outside academics, Marcussen said.
"We're trying to create another way of connecting with kids," Schueller said.
Around the campfire
Fritze's main contribution to the program was the circle process, which she described as an evidence-based "restorative practice" that teaches healthy verbal and non-verbal communication.
Restorative practices, she said, address school culture and discipline issues by modeling and practicing self-regulation, empathy and social and emotional learning skills.
For example, the circle passes around a "talking piece" to symbolize each person's turn to speak their mind about the day's topic. Fritze said this encourages respectful speaking, listening and taking turns.
"Physically sitting in a circle sends a message that everyone belongs," she said.
Fritze said school administrators are learning that many children come to school lacking the social and emotional skills to interact in a community.
"When I sit in a circle," she said, "I learn how to relate. I learn body language. I learn verbal and non-verbal skills. And we have a cabin leader who is teaching and modeling those things."
The talking piece, meanwhile, "gives kids an opportunity to speak, to be heard," said Fritze. "We have a lot of kids in school who don't feel heard. How do I learn how to give my opinion and hear someone else's opinion in a respectful way? We also learn how to listen to understand, and we learn to speak our own thoughts using 'I' statements. I get to give my own opinion; I don't speak for someone else."
The process also teaches kids to wait, to hold their thoughts and other social skills, she said.
Each weekly camptime session will begin with a circle to allow cabin mates to check in on each other, followed by other activities promoting character and social values.
Fritze said school staff has "carved out time" — approximately a half hour a week, on Wednesday afternoons — for the Camptime program.
"We're learning and training as we go," she said.
The cabin and camp concept at Century School is not a pre-packaged phenomenon.
Schueller said Camptime is "a pilot program that we're kind of making up as we go," with the help of teachers' past experiences, with some inspiration added by the Challenge Course, Fritze's specialized training and online research.
"We're trying to create moments to bond throughout that day that we wouldn't normally have in the classroom," she said.
Asked how they're coming up with ideas for themes and activities, Marcussen noted, "A lot of us have worked in buildings where the middle school and high school are together, and so things like homecoming are a really big deal, and kids get all pumped about that. We just felt like that really lacks over here because we're not physically connected to the high school."
So, to make homecoming week exciting, she said, "we've talked about doing a mini-parade for the elementary kids, where our camps and cabins can make little floats, even on wagons."
Last year, middle school students did community service within their homerooms. "We're thinking this year, you would go as your cabin to someone's house or business to rake leaves, pick up trash, weed gardens," said Marcussen.
Schueller looked forward to introducing "some friendly competition between the camps and cabins," such as door decorating and pumpkin carving contests.
"We're all talking, and people are coming up with different ideas," she said. "It's a huge collaboration by the whole staff."