Reinventing the Start of School to Foster Community Building

Andrew Greene

Andrew Greene

One of my favorite things about teaching at Whitby is the spirit of progressivism that pervades the school. I use this word not in a political sense, but rather to show how those who work at Whitby are always trying to think of ways to make the school better. This philosophy comes from the top down, as the Whitby administration has always encouraged this attitude in line with the innovation and risk taking that are essential parts of our institution. If the idea is deemed to be one worthy of exploration, we are told to take the lead, find colleagues who want to collaborate and are given whatever support is needed.

I’ve been through this process several times, with the most recent providing a perfect example of how this process works. During June Work Week—the time after students have finished and faculty wraps things up—the Upper School spent a day doing what has come to be known as Fedex Friday, copying an idea from a company in Australia. Everyone comes up with an idea designed to make some aspect of the Upper School better. People then sign on to different ideas, flesh them out and then pitch them at a meeting at the end of the day.

The stronger the community, the better equipped it is to deal with the inevitable challenges of Middle School.

This year, I decided to try changing the way we begin the school year in the Upper School. For the past few years, we have gone on a school trip to Lake George that typically leaves on the fourth day of school. That made the first three days of school challenging, as you wouldn’t want to start your unit and then have 10 days until the next class. The result was a lot of “getting to know you” classes. Putting myself in the students’ seats, I wondered how exciting it would be to sit and recount various aspects of your summer numerous times in the first few days.

I thought this time could be better used to further the primary aim of the school trip, which is to prompt community building. It seemed this time could instead be used to create interactions that would further relationships among students and faculty. The stronger the community, the more equipped it is to deal with the inevitable challenges of Middle School.

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After pitching it on Fedex Friday, four brave colleagues joined in and together we designed a schedule that would have no classes, but rather three days of activities, many of which centered around Color Teams that we started last year. We expected that maybe we would be given one day to try our idea, but in the end, there was enough enthusiasm that it was determined that we would forge ahead with the entire three-day schedule. The team charged with implementing this worked frenetically throughout August Work Week to organize everything and the rest of the Upper School pitched in with strong support where needed.

As a result, Whitby students have started the new school year as never before.  They have done an engineering project designed by the Science team, an Individuals and Societies-inspired Treasure Hunt that sent them all over campus, played games in Spanish and Medieval Dodgeball in PE, participated in book groups based on summer readings, made locker labels in Design, and have written skits based on fairy tales that they will perform during the school trip. Since the Color Teams are the basis of much of this, they have also had the chance to wear their color to school instead of their uniform, made color bracelets, and wrote a chant for their team.

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The result has been far more interactions between students and also between teachers and students which should in turn lead to stronger bonds in our community. But it’s truly the rare school that would have taken the risk to fix something that nobody really thought was broken. At Whitby, however, we are always looking for ways to do things better. This is a key part of what makes Whitby special.

Andrew Greene

Andrew Greene

Andy Greene is an Upper School teacher of Individuals and Societies who has the nearly impossible task of trying to get students to understand why people act the way they do and why societies are organized the way they are. Having visited 45 countries, some of which no longer exist, Andy focuses on getting students to see things from different perspectives.