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March 04, 2017

Let’s Get Engaged  

Fostering Community

Trafalgar Castle alumna, Asha James (’98) tells the story of her first year at Tulane University in New Orleans. Early in the fall, she found herself sitting in a lecture hall beside another female student. When the professor asked a question, she heard the student quietly say the answer but not raise her hand. When Asha turned and asked her why she wasn’t answering, the young woman said she didn’t feel comfortable. With an answer ready to go, Asha shot her hand up because (as she jokingly recalls), there were marks for participation. So why not go for it?

Asha continued the conversation with the student afterwards and asked what was at the root of her reticence to participate. The young woman listed off a number of things that went through her mind in those moments: What if I’m wrong? What if people think I’m showing off? What if people think I see myself as better than them? What if the guys in class think I’m too loud? In that moment, Asha found herself unable to relate. She could sympathize with this young woman, but couldn’t personally identify with these types of worries. Asha’s experience at Trafalgar Castle, she believes, instilled in her a firm belief that her voice had a place as a student in the classroom, as an athlete on the field, and as it turns out, now as a human rights lawyer in Toronto.

When I asked Asha what it was about her high school experience that fostered such confidence and commitment, she credited caring teachers that encouraged (better yet, demanded) engagement, and a supportive school culture that believed in her ability to succeed. She recalls how important it was not to be defined solely by her obvious talent as an athlete who would eventually head to the States on a track scholarship. Teachers encouraged her to take up debating, try out for the school drama production, volunteer in the community, and get involved in school clubs. She felt free to experiment and explore, try out new things, and try on new roles. And Trafalgar’s all-girls’ setting meant she could follow her ambitions without wasting a second thought or a backward glance on how her male counterparts might perceive her.

Hearing Asha’s story, I thought about how rich her high school experience was outside the classroom. Knowing her many accomplishments as a lawyer, it’s a given that her academic preparation was outstanding. But I found it interesting that it was co-curricular involvement that sprang most readily to her mind when she talked about how Trafalgar prepared her for the world.

A significant body of research indicates a strong positive correlation between student engagement and academic success. It shows that students who are involved in activities outside the classroom not only do better academically at university but also are more likely to persist in courses and programs that are difficult. Interestingly, this doesn’t only apply to academically strong students. Those in need of extra support or remediation also did better academically when they participated in school activities and clubs. This last point is important particularly because struggling students are often forced to give up their involvement in clubs and sports in order to pull up their grades.

I believe that children learn best by doing, and the learning to “juggle many balls” aspect of a busy school day is what can help develop a student’s capacity for time management and organization. Down the road, it leads to stronger life skills that can translate to success in the workplace. I don’t believe it’s ever a matter of simply piling activities on top of students and letting them figure it out. Good schools know how to build capacity from an early grade and coach students through those moments when they’ve clearly taken on too much (or not enough). But it’s the school culture – a culture of positive encouragement and engagement – that lays the foundation for active and meaningful involvement.

When I see our youngest girls fling their hands up in the air to answer a question in Chapel, or leap to their feet when the call goes out for volunteers, I’m filled with a sense of cautious optimism that we’re doing something right to foster strong levels of engagement in our students.  We never take it for granted, and continually reflect on how we can do things better, how we can listen more carefully to the needs of our girls, how we can ensure that student engagement is authentic and not just a list of “busy-ness”. We also know that we have a responsibility to nurture stronger connections for those students who are reticent to throw themselves into life outside the classroom. It’s complex work when done well – there are so many factors that impact life in schools – but when I meet alumna like Asha I am reminded that good schools are not just about good academics. The experiences outside the classroom, the opportunities for personal exploration and growth that happen on the school stage or playing field, the day-to-day enjoyment of school life are the things that will be remembered most.

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