Building Peer Connections
By SARAH BATIZY
As our student team started to think about what the start of the 21-22 school year will look like, we came to the realization that over half of our student body will not have set foot on campus. We will essentially have two freshman classes, and all of our students will have gone through an incredibly traumatic experience. Our students have expressed anxiety at the thought of interacting with peers after over a year without in-person communication. Most of our students are very hesitant to turn on their cameras or come off mute, which means that many of them have only communicated with their peers via a chatbox.
With that in mind, we believe that the first weeks of school need intentional socialization built in rather than the open classes and lunches of the past. Students need to be given the opportunity to interact with their peers in a safe and supportive space.
Our idea is to leverage our older students and build peer mentorship cohorts of 5 – 6 students that will eat lunch together and participate in team-building activities for the first weeks of school. Each cohort will have 1 junior or senior who attended a summer training and will lead the activities and help the new students navigate our school’s systems and schedule. They will be responsible for essentially onboarding the students and helping them relearn what it means to be a student in person. Knowing that the first discussions might be challenging for students, we also hope to have several options of events for students to connect (e.g.: a pick-up soccer or tag football game, a video game tournament, a painting lesson). Through these events, students will discover shared interests and better connect with their peers.
Every two weeks in virtual learning, we survey our students and ask them how connected they feel to staff and their peers. Peers is generally significantly lower (between 10 and 20%) than staff, particularly in the freshman class. To help students feel more connected, we piloted a virtual pen pal program in remote learning. Each freshman was paired with an upperclassman, and we saw a significant increase (13.6%) in the connectedness survey for ninth graders. We also noticed an increase in the upperclassmen involved in the program (4.3%), which shows that even though the program was targeted towards freshmen, the older students benefited as well.
We believe that forging these connections will allow students to feel more connected to their peers and help them understand that we are a community that supports one another.
Adopt & Adapt
The program is relatively straightforward and could be implemented at any school that has multiple grade levels. It differs from many existing mentor programs as it will be student-planned and student-led. We hope to build a student-friendly guide for implementing the program that would be distributed for free to any schools hoping to build a similar program.
It is also a program that can be continued for years to come as mentees can become mentors in the future.