When the COVID-19 pandemic struck last spring, educators knew the following school year would pose unprecedented challenges for students and faculty. That concern prompted Holderness to forego regular Saturday morning classes - at least for the 2020-21 school year – in favor of programming that supported students’ social and emotional wellbeing.
For the next seven weeks, students will spend Saturday mornings deeply engaged on the topics of Outdoors and Service, Equity and Inclusion, Health and Wellness, and grade-specific programming. The new Saturday programming, which began during the Fall Term, is the brainchild of faculty who have long wanted to implement a curriculum around social and emotional learning, but were unable to because of scheduling constraints. That changed last spring, when teachers realized pandemic-related stress and anxiety would place a premium on students’ social and emotional health. “We just had no idea what was going to happen,” says Dean of Faculty Kristen Fischer. “So we decided to go with a schedule of five days of class and use Saturdays to pilot this socio-emotional curriculum in a modified way.”
Here’s what students will be learning on Saturdays during the Spring Term.
Outdoors and Service
A love of the outdoors is deeply embedded in Holderness School’s DNA, and Saturday programming allows students to give back in a meaningful way. This spring, students will perform trail work on the Nanamocomuck Ski Trail in the White Mountains, a key travel corridor used by the school’s Out Back program, and help build a nature trail behind the South Side of campus. The inspiration for the Outdoors and Service curriculum came from the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, which put Americans to work building trails and aiding in countless other outdoor service projects during the Great Depression. “It’s basically taking a really tough time for a lot of people and turning it into a really productive time for them in the woods,” says Director of Outdoor and Climbing Programs Erik Thatcher. Last fall, for example, students and faculty spent Saturdays sprucing up the OB cabin on campus, rehabbing the building’s stairs, railings, and fire pit. They also built a number of benches at various scenic locations across campus. That kind of work not only improves the outdoor spaces around school, Mr. Thatcher says, but it helps students learn in new and exciting ways. “Trail building and stuff like that is really fun and rewarding, but for me building things with students was really cool, too,” Mr. Thatcher says. “A lot of kids had never used hand tools. We got them out there, they built a bench, and at the end they stood back and it was the first time they had made something.”
Health and Wellness
This spring, School Counselor Carol Dopp and School Chaplain Rev. Joshua Hill will lead students in discussions about distracted driving and alcohol and drug use, while Sports Counselor Ginger Comstock will lead students in yoga sessions. Seniors, who spent the Fall Term working on college applications, will spend three Saturdays this spring engaged in a transition-to-college curriculum. Seniors will learn about a variety of situations they could encounter in college and beyond, including binge drinking, hazing, and dating violence. They will also be asked to research their college’s counseling center, so that they will know how to seek help next year should they need it.
Equity and Inclusion
With this year’s calls for racial justice, Equity and Inclusion have become especially relevant topics for discussion. On Saturday mornings last fall, students and teachers gathered in small groups to hold conversations about the impact of racist, homophobic, xenophobic, antisemitic, anti-Asian, and sexist language in the Holderness community and beyond. This spring, students will discuss the recent spike in hate crimes against the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities, focusing on the historical context and contemporary realities of the AAPI experience. Students and faculty will also honor AAPI Heritage Month in May.
Holding such important conversations every Saturday has given students the space to think more deeply and constructively about equity and inclusion than ever before. “We can’t create change if we don’t prioritize time and space to do it. We make time and space for what we value,” says English teacher and Director of Equity and Inclusion Jini Rae Sparkman. “Holderness has made a statement that we truly value inclusion and learning as a process of justice, by making time and space for this.” Giving students the space to hold these difficult conversations on a regular basis has been critical to fostering student growth and understanding. “Students are inundated with so many messages about their world and their place in the world all the time, and where are we giving them a place to think about that?” Sparkman says. “That, to me, changes our school.”
Last fall, grade-specific programming allowed seniors to work on their college applications. “I think it was really valuable for seniors to have dedicated time to work on their college applications and to have adults around to be able to support them. The feedback we got from those was really positive,” says Interim Director of College Counseling Erika Blauth. “We’re excited this spring to have some Saturday programs again with seniors to do transition-to-college sessions in partnership with Ms. Dopp, and to do some work with juniors, too.” While juniors will begin working with the College Counseling office, students in other grades will use the grade-specific programming to learn high school study skills and develop class bonding and cohesion.
As teachers and students get their first glimpses of a post-COVID-19 reality, it’s unclear what the future will hold for Saturday mornings. In a world where stress and anxiety are a regular part of the high school experience, a curriculum based on social and emotional health has become more important than ever. “It’s not the ABCs, it’s not reading, writing, and arithmetic, but it’s so important - so important,” said School Counselor Carol Dopp. “COVID could go away tomorrow and that stress and anxiety aren’t going to go away. So how can we give kids some tools to address some of these topics that stress them out?”