By Maler Suresh
These past couple months have been a study in adaptation. Our idea of school (and really life in general) has been shattered, and in its place stands a time warp where no two weeks are the same. As students, we’re pretty resilient. We’ve faced endless weeks of tests, assignments, and extracurriculars. But this is a different kind of difficulty. How do you stay motivated to be present in school when you’re not even physically there? And how do you stay connected to others when interaction has been replaced by monotonous hours spent in front of a computer? That’s where Ally meetings come in. Held on Wednesdays, our fully independent workdays, each student has a 15 minute Zoom meeting with their “homeroom” teacher and their Ally group.
Our school psychologist, Mrs. Kasprzak, describes the Ally meetings as “a reminder that we are a community and that we look out for one another… In a time when our contact with others is limited, being able to maintain a certain degree of connectivity with peers and adults is so important – even if it is virtually…as a faculty, we wanted to ensure that connections with others were not lost.” Assistant Principal, Mrs. DeSantis, added to this, saying that the intended purpose of Ally meetings is to provide a “non-evaluative opportunity for students and teachers to meet, chat, and exchange information.” Mrs. DeSantis, as much of the administration and faculty at East, understands the pressure students are under, and Ally groups are meant to be a place where students can revisit the sense of community provided by school without the stress of doing work or being graded.
In theory, this concept seems to be exactly what students need, but in practice, it’s hard for some students to see the benefits. Administration has made a recent attempt to listen to student feedback, changing the timing of the Ally meetings from an early 8 AM, which was better for teachers’ schedules, to any time between 10-11 AM, which is better for students’ sleep schedules. This change was also made in hopes that it would improve communication and attendance in Ally meetings.
Speaking about the change, one student said, “I think this might still be a waste of time because we are all being forced to be there so nobody really wants to talk. I’ve observed in my own group that the teacher really had to pry to get the conversation going.”
Another student added, “ I appreciate the teachers trying, but I do feel like it’s a waste of time because I usually dread going….I honestly think I would be happier if we didn’t have the meetings at all because I’m sure I could get homework done in those 15 minutes.”
While students do need to attend Ally meetings each week because they provide a fifth day of school attendance, which counts toward the 180 days needed to graduate, the extra social-emotional benefits are still yet to be seen because of limited communication between students and teachers. Many teachers realize this, and have tried their best to get students to participate.
East’s AP Psychology teacher, Mrs. Bailey said, “ I have asked them to tell me about their pets, their hobbies, their talents. I have asked what their favorite thing about East is, what they would change about East.” She added, “I think students have to ‘buy into them’ a little bit more. I know I brainstorm ideas I think my ally group will be interested in and I am often left with limited responses from my group.”
Mrs. DeSantis did express the outlook from administration that teachers aren’t expected to be in charge of students’ mental health, and that Ally meetings should be more of a place where students can see that they have support and air out concerns if they want to. However, teachers know that in order to truly show support to their students, the expectation is that they create a comfortable, social environment in their Ally meetings. Unfortunately, it’s quite difficult to emulate the instantaneous dialogue that happens in person with the barrier of a mute button in the way. As East’s English teacher Mrs. Schoeppich said, “It’s the downtime spent in class, the shared experiences, that open the door to communication.” To try to emulate this open communication, teachers have mainly been following the Sources of Strength curriculum and other resources provided to them through a faculty Google Classroom.
Mrs. DeSantis said that nothing too specific is provided to teachers in order to “allow for flexibility based on student questions,” but given that many students aren’t yet comfortable talking in their Ally meetings, it might be helpful to give teachers more ideas for how to keep meetings relevant. Mrs. Schoeppich said, “I do wish teachers had more resources from which to pull– perhaps even a weekly theme beyond the SOS (Sources of Strength) curriculum. I am just saying I personally would benefit from a little more district or building guidance other than Sources of Strength and Community Circles for how to make these groups most relevant and time worthy.”
For many students, however, the curriculum is not the issue. The true problem lies with the makeup of the groups themselves. Mrs. DeSantis said that they purposely did not pay much attention to grade level or teacher when making the groupings. As Mrs. Bailey said when asked about what impact she thought Ally meetings had on students, “The hope is that students are exposed to people they may not normally associate with and find some commonality.” But maybe this is not the time for more exposure to new things. It may be more effective to put students with teachers they know, or group them together with other kids in their grade, in order to provide an underlying foundation of comfort off of which teachers can build rather than starting from scratch. One student said, “…I do feel uncomfortable talking about sometimes very personal topics in front of other students I don’t know. I might be more willing to participate if there were students in my own grade or more students that I know in my Ally group.” Mrs. Bailey feels that perhaps students and teachers might just benefit from a change in general. She said, “Maybe at the semester mark (end of January) we mix up the groups so that students get to know other students and teachers. My thought behind this is, that if we haven’t been able to get students to connect in 20 weeks with the group we have, the next 20 weeks may not be useful. Building rapport with a different cohort may facilitate the connections we are hoping the ally groups bring.”
However, when asked if there were any plans from administration to change the groupings later in the year, Mrs. DeSantis said that it had not been brought up yet. “Ally groups are supposed to be the one constant in students’ lives right now,” she said, “so we haven’t thought about changing them around much.” While it is not currently on the table to change any groups, Mrs. Schoeppich has an idea about how to build a foundation for communication in a different way. “I believe on a more consistent schedule, perhaps more than once a week, or somehow built into one of my daily classes, the concept of the Ally group could be more effective.”
Overall, while it has been difficult for both students and teachers to discern whether Ally groups truly have an impact, Mrs. Kasprzak brings up a noteworthy point in that “…it’s also important to recognize that while it might be easy for some students to identify one or more trusted adults in the building that they can go to if they need something, for others that task might be a little more daunting or challenging. It is my hope that Ally groups … help foster those types of relationships for students who struggle to make those connections.” Although Ally groups may not currently be a pillar of support for the several of students, East prides itself on its sense of community, and with that comes recognizing the benefits of Ally groups as they are at this time, even if they only help a single person.
In order to expand the benefit of Ally meetings in a way that makes a marked impact on the majority, both students and teachers agree that there are several changes that should be considered.