As you know, we are focusing this year on rebuilding community. To this end, we have all been thinking about the steps we can take that will strengthen community. While I have many of my own ideas, I also have been reading Priya Parker’s book, The Art of Gathering, because it seemed as though it might offer some useful advice as we return to in-person meetings and events. While not identical, a gathering does constitute a short-term community and I find her recommendations relevant. The two pieces of advice most applicable to community building are (1) you need a purpose and (2) you should create a unique environment -- which means you need rules. We meet both of these criteria for the school as a whole. We have clearly articulated the School’s purpose through the mission and the school-wide goals and competencies. We also have rules, expectations, structures and traditions that help to create an environment that is uniquely Holton. Members of the School community share the experience of that unique environment and that helps bond people, building community.
While people often see rules as limiting and restrictive, Parker would argue the opposite. She sees rules as freeing and democratic. She says, “explicit rules serve open circles that assume difference. The explicitness levels the playing field for outsiders.” (121)
We can immediately see the value of that approach in the context of a school, particularly one with a student body of diverse backgrounds. Think about uniforms. They create a world unique to Holton -- no one else in this area wears our plaid. The dress code defines what students can and cannot wear, putting everyone roughly on the same plane. It’s both democratic and freeing because students spend little time thinking about what they are going to wear, releasing mental capacity for other endeavors, such as academics. Finally, that unique world the uniform creates builds a sense of community defined by plaid and blue and white. On a much more limited scale, the t-shirts we created for Convocation and that we asked everyone -- students and adults -- to wear served a similar purpose, providing a common experience reinforced by visual unity.
Many of the traditions that help build the school community enjoy their special significance because of the rules or expectations that structure them; they also have purposes that everyone understands. We conduct many of these traditions the same way year after year which builds a sense of community over time as students have similar experiences across time. Spirit Week, for example, aims to foster school spirit as well as have fun. The structure, repeated annually, operates like rules in the sense that Parker means. Spirit Week always consists of a week of themed dress-up days in which all students participate. With the exception of last year, we have an annual Spirit Parade for which each class and even academic departments choose a theme, thereby building both school-wide and individual class community. The Freeze Dance, a competition between the Blue and White Teams, adds another opportunity for community building and this year, as part of our efforts in this area, we added some other Blue-White activities like Minute-to Win-It. Convocation and the Thanksgiving Assembly, both especially treasured amongst students, similarly gather the whole school together with a program that varies little from year to year. Likewise Senior Spirit Day, Lower School and All-School Field Days, and Middle School Beach Day promote school spirit and community connections, within divisions and the School. So do class-level activities such as Third Grade soup-making, Fourth Grade go-karts, Sixth Grade Greek day, the Projects in Middle School, and academic experiences shared by a whole grade such as the Ninth Grade Museum Project and the Tenth Grade Term Paper. Of course, each of these activities has its own purposes and sets of rules and expectations that provide consistency of experience even as there are opportunities for individual choice. Community also gets built in smaller groups such as advisory, athletic teams, performing arts ensembles, and extracurricular activities such as Model UN. Individual classes even develop their own senses of community. Global Ed trips, among many other benefits, also build community, often bringing together and forging relationships among students who were not previously friends. Those experiences also benefit from rules that allow for safety and full immersion in the experience -- most especially the prohibition against phones (something Parker talks about at some length).
Our inability to conduct many of these events in their traditional ways during the pandemic has revealed just how much they mean to students. Their crucible nature demonstrates the importance of purpose, structure, defined expectations, and, perhaps most importantly, the unique environment that each of these events provides. As we have thought about how to rebuild community, we have prioritized reviving and sometimes expanding our most meaningful traditions, building a bridge, in the process, to a pre-covid community.
We have also focused on giving students opportunities to connect with one another in-person. We have returned to in-person assemblies and gathering (Lower School) whenever possible. We are spending more time doing fun activities in advisory and Upper School has already had two assemblies devoted to Blue-White competitions (the number we probably would have had all year previously). In Middle and Upper School, we have replaced (at the suggestion of summer interns from the class of 2021) points for rule-breaking (such as being late to school) with strikes and instead award points for behavior that benefits the community (such as cleaning up a lunchroom mess).
A truly strong, positive community, however, develops in a context of culture, culture that events and activities reflect and help reinforce but don’t alone create. Just as a gathering needs to be intentional, so does the building of culture. We’ve talked about our mission and school-wide goals as providing purpose and a shared experience. Along with the Diversity Mission Statement, the Principles of Dialogue, and the Honor Code, they also provide guideposts for how we expect members of the Holton community to behave, including towards one another. Together, they call on us to respect and work to understand different perspectives and abilities; they ask us to be compassionate and empathetic as well as courageous as we work towards a more just and equitable world. One of the school-wide goals explicitly names “accept responsibility for our role in community building” as it exhorts us to make connections across differences while developing healthy relationships. The Diversity Mission Statement holds us accountable for our own behavior while “embracing every individual as essential to the community.” The Principles of Dialogue give us tools for managing and even leaning into the disagreement that is an inherent part of any community. The Honor Code extends the expectation of respect to encompass other’s work, ideas, and possessions, forming a community based on trust. The articulation of and efforts to live out these values allow us to create a community where everyone feels she belongs and has the opportunity to realize her potential. That is the community we want for our school.
~Susanna A. Jones