On Tuesday, my daughter started second grade. The night before, she had what we call “first day jitters.” The butterflies weren’t about reading, math, science, or music. Her concerns were more fundamental and universal. In essence, she wanted to know: “Will my teacher like me? Will I make new friends? Who will I sit with at lunch and play with at recess?”
Her questions were about connection and belonging.
Middle school students carry these same types of questions and concerns to their first day of school. Just about everyone experiences some degree of “first day jitters” — including parents and teachers! — and that is precisely why we purposefully design the first week of school to look a little different. That is why students spend the first three days participating in our annual “Leadership Lab.” We want to foster that sense of connection and belonging.
Why? When students feel connected, they are more likely to take risks, ask questions, explore passions, apply feedback, and collaborate with peers. Students thrive when they feel safe and supported bringing their full, authentic selves to all that they do.
This feeling of connection takes time; Leadership Lab gives it a jumpstart.
As Assistant Head of Middle School John Bower writes, “The goal of Leadership Lab is to provide an opportunity for students to further build connection across grade levels, develop effective leadership skills, and set a positive tone for the year. The focus of this year’s lab is on understanding dignity, celebrating identity and embracing community. Through skits, games, activities, service learning opportunities, journaling, and discussion, students will come away from this week with a solid understanding of our definition of leadership: Being your best self and positively influencing others.”
Sixth graders will get a chance to orient themselves to Rivers and find their footing. Seventh graders — new and returning — will get to build and strengthen relationships. And eighth graders will get to step up as leaders, running cross-grade activities that forge a sense of unity throughout the middle school.
For example, on the first day of school students will interact with every member of the middle school:
- eighth graders will greet new students at drop-off and help guide them to the middle school
- we will start the day as a whole division — with eighth graders introducing the faculty and leading small group conversations
- we will meet in advisory to get to know each other and walk through schedules
- we will meet in homerooms for grade level orientation, and
- we will re-gather as a full division for outdoor community-building activities
On Wednesday and Thursday, the work will continue: students will solidify community norms, participate in service learning opportunities, discuss digital citizenship, and engage in activities that will deepen their understanding of dignity, identity, and leadership. And each day, advisory groups will eat lunch together.
On Friday — when students start formal academic classes — their classmates and teachers will be familiar, friendly faces, and we will all be ready to dive into the academic year together.