By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
“It’s the end of the world as we know it …”
In the West Seattle High School library last Friday morning, one of about four dozen students gathered for a special training session observed how appropriate that hook from REM’s classic 1987 song seemed.
Freshman year, which feels to so many 9th graders just like “the end of the world as (they) know it,” will never be the same at WSHS, thanks to a program called Link Crew.
The students we watched on Friday morning were getting ready to use it to accompany, mentor, reassure, entertain the 250 (or so) members of the WSHS Class of 2015 – on Day 1 today, and throughout the year – starting with a special freshmen-only assembly this morning (top photo).
This is the first time that WSHS has used Link Crew – a transition program that’s been deployed nationwide for more than a decade. (Read more about it here.) We were invited to sit in on the Friday morning coaching/training session, as the participating juniors and seniors got ready to roll:
Link Crew is now part of WSHS teacher Laura McCarthy‘s official job – along with Spanish teacher. She is hugely excited about her school’s commitment to the program, explaining that assistant principal Jennifer Kniseley was a huge fan of it, from previous schools.
Right out of the box, it looks to be a hot ticket at WSHS. 50 spots were open for juniors/seniors; McCarthy says 80 applied.
Today – the first day of school – began with the Link Crew leaders, and McCarthy herself, leading the aforementioned assembly for the freshmen; then the leaders were to pair off to lead small groups (every two charged with 10 or so) through the day.
That’s only the beginning. “They’ll check with them throughout the year,” McCarthy explained to us on Friday, offering an example: “They might call up their freshmen and say, ‘there’s a football game Friday night, hope to see you there!’.”
But now – the training. (And if you happen to have a WSHS freshman in your house, you’ll know what they were going through today – even before they get home and tell you, or don’t.)
It was a pep rally, it was a motivational seminar, it was a lesson in observation. It was leadership training, plain and simple, not dissimilar to what you might find in the corporate world – only here, teens are learning to lead other teens.
McCarthy told the students to line up by height. They shuffle around and accomplish it fairly quickly.
“Part of this is figuring out the task at hand – I saw some glimpses into your strategies,” she observes. “There’s no one right way to complete this task. Every one of you is a leader, but there’s no ‘one way’ to be a leader.”
The next task exemplifies that even more intensely: “Line yourself up in birthday order, with no talking.”
Fingers are held up to communicate birthday months. When they are allowed to talk, to fix any discrepancy in the order, few have to move.
The freshmen, apparently, will be lined up that way. It’s not necessarily just for processing, it’s also to mix things up. “One of the objectives is to get the freshmen to mix and mingle. We all have our ‘bungee-cord buddies’,” McCarthy grins. “I’m 39 years old, and I’ve had my bestest friend since I was 3.”
She admonishes them to not be “the discipline police” – their job isn’t to correct their assigned freshmen’s every move. They practice, at this point, a “permanent high five” – temporarily gluing themselves to someone who may or may not be a friend.
They are told to chronicle their summer to their temporary partners – in 43 seconds. OK, great, they survived that. But wait: Next task, do the same thing – in backward chronological order.
Eyes roll. Yet they manage; from the group nearest our observation point, snippets emerge – a trip to California, a car put up for sale. Then they shuffle again – and are tasked with one of the goofiest-looking exercises we get to see that morning:
The purpose of “Cyclops”? McCarthy makes it clear: “Help your freshmen remember to ‘take off their Cyclops,’ metaphorically speaking, and be aware of what’s happening around them,” lest a sort of tunnel vision develop as they try to see a path through everything that’s new.
The observational skills are key in the even-more-complex adventure that ensues – set up with a hypothetical scenario about freshmen getting an unimaginable privilege: One day to go to lunch off-campus, with double the time allowance, an entire hour. No matter what you do, get back to school on time, and there’s a chance “freshman free lunch” will continue – “So you REALLY don’t want to mess it up,” McCarthy continues, spinning the tale.
Sounds simple enough. Until … obstacles get in the way. Papers are arranged on the floor representing a “raging river,” and while certain sheets represent stepping stones of sorts, you don’t know which ones until you start to cross:
A process of elimination ensues, with the complications including the discovery that some sheets are turtles that will protest if you “step on” them.
This game is “64 Squares,” and like the others, the upperclassmen who have volunteered for Link Crew will be leading their assigned freshmen through them today.
McCarthy urges them to keep the scenario grounded in reality – saying, perhaps, that the rushing river was in Schmitz Park. “Don’t make up some planet.” The concept of a lunch hour in outer space elicits laughter. She continues, pointing out that turtles and rocks are more real than decreeing the 64 squares to be a minefield.
They do, however, represent 64 teachable moments – for McCarthy and her trainees, and then, today, for the freshmen. Watching others navigate the squares, and make choices, you are forced to listen, or else you will miss the discovery of which ones are stepping stones.
Listening is a vital skill for succeeding in school (not to mention the rest of life). One Link Crew goal is to simply get the 9th graders to 10th grade, with stats showing that this is the grade where students are more at risk of dropping out than any others.
Teach listening as hard as you can, McCarthy insists. “This is where you make a leadership choice. If you have a group of ninth graders who’s chatty chatty chatty chatty, MAKE THEM LISTEN.”
And it goes almost without saying that they will be required to participate. The upperclassmen are coached on keeping the environment supportive – how to deal with freshmen who might be afraid to make a mistake, or those who might tease (or worse) those who do.
The games give way at midmorning to the teaching of five questions that can be employed to find solutions. They are taught with singing and hand signs as mnemonics, including “Did you notice?” “Why did it happen?” and five questions in one, “Who/what/when/where/why?”
Some of the work is done in small groups on the floor. Some, standing up, with more games, like “Toe Tap.”
McCarthy observes, detects, and inquires. Of one boy, she asks, “Miles, what was going on?”
He answers, “I messed up a lot, so I got self-conscious.”
This brings in the question about noticing: If someone is silently simmering with anger, or sadness, or something else problematic, who’s going to … notice?
Hopefully a teacher will, it’s suggested … but wise not to assume. And McCarthy reminds her Link Leaders that she speaks from experience – 11 years of teaching. Don’t fall for the two most common, and meaningless answers to questions, she advises – “I don’t know” and “nothin’.”
Listening to her advice, we recognize parenting strategies as well (and she indeed tells her trainees, at one point, that she has two kids, ages 4 and 7). For example: If you keep hearing “I don’t know” as a response – try different strategies. “Well, what if you DID know?” – what would the reluctant responder say then? Or, “It’s OK if you don’t know – just guess!” Even “Say SOMETHING – I’ll make you right!”
“If you keep that attitude through the day,” it’ll be a success, McCarthy proclaims. “Show your freshmen that you are setting them up to feel good and successful – and that you are protecting them.”
And challenging them as well, to think about and talk about their goals and fears (here too, McCarthy shares hers – including a phobia about bats) – and to not dwell on mistakes: “Don’t focus on the bad; mention it, and move on.”
Plus: Don’t forget the fun:
The Link Crew leaders will be taking their assigned freshmen on school tours today. Probably wearing birthday hats. Maybe even singing the birthday song, as they did during training. Possibly even debunking legends you may never have heard (“that there’s a pool on the roof,” for example).
Perhaps – since they are the first West Seattle High School students ever to welcome and mentor freshmen via Link Crew – creating some legends, making some history, of their own.