Balancing Tradition and Innovation in Student Activities
The concept of organizational memory often challenges a student activities department. Student life and co-curricular programming serve as the vehicles that create student memories and school traditions. Current students and alumni can connect over stories of epic color wars breakout, school shabbatonim and trips, wacky-themed chagigot, and shared memories from programs that make their school experience special and unique.
But what happens when specific programs and school traditions are no longer successful? Perhaps the school body has grown to where it is not sustainable for seniors to have the same leadership opportunities on Shabbaton that worked when the school was smaller. Or school culture has shifted, and students are no longer interested in staying after school for what used to be a popular Chanukah activity. A yearly grade sleepover may have become logistically challenging to staff and no longer achieves its educational goal of class bonding.
How can a school honor beloved programs that no longer speak to the current student body and preserve unique traditions, while staying creative and innovative?
Here are some successful practices that can help with navigating this challenge.
Change the form, keep the essence
Find the essence of the program that made it special and reapply it elsewhere.
In one example, in the past, having a grade of 40 seniors take a leadership role in programming on a school shabbaton was a wonderful and much-anticipated tradition. Now that the senior class has doubled in size, it is much more difficult to find leadership opportunities that feel authentic and meaningful.
Here, it can be helpful to single out which part of the leadership experience was most meaningful to students and repackage it. The tradition may have been leading sessions or running a tisch, but the experience was more about interacting with younger students and setting the tone. One can reframe this experience by adding more manageable opportunities for seniors to interact with each grade during the shabbaton or by expanding the definition of senior leadership, as a general responsibility to be friendly and bring the ruach during tefillah and dancing.
In a different example, a schoolwide color war feels tired and limits the number of educational themes used for the program. Students do not feel as much accountability or investment representing a general team over their grades. Switching color war to competition by grade will raise levels of student engagement and add a much-needed boost of energy. However, students will lose the highly valued opportunity to meet and befriend others outside their class. In this situation, the experience of creating opportunities for inter-grade friendships can be separated from color war and moved to a different co-curricular program during the year, where that can be the primary focus and goal.
Faculty and students are more likely to support program changes if the school culture already includes reflection and evaluation. On a grassroots level, student activity directors and administrators can model this with student leaders, naming times when the students pause actual planning of programs to think critically about what is working and what needs to be tweaked. Faculty meetings and student leadership training also can integrate this type of reflection. When students are evaluating if their programs meet their goals, they will be much more on board with programmatic changes done on a larger scale.
Student agency and choosing your battles
As much as possible, a student activities department should include students in the reflective process. Seeing our students as stakeholders and bringing a wide range of their voices on board will create buy-in and minimize resistance. Being transparent with students, asking what they think is working and listening to their feedback creates partnerships across the school. Students then serve as ambassadors to their peers, explaining why the school made specific changes.
At the same time, including students means hearing them when they say the price of changing a program will be too high or that we have it wrong about the need to update a school tradition or activity. Building trust with student leaders ensures student support for change, avoiding an “us versus them” situation where students feel the school is taking away what made their experience special.
When meeting with students, it is essential to acknowledge the loss that will occur with some of the programming changes. Naming the loss validates student concerns and allows the conversation to shift to all the opportunities for growth that now exist. Students leave with the message that things will be different, but keeping an open mind will allow student programming to get even better.
It is also important to step out on the balcony and look at how any programmatic switches impact the entire year. Even if more than one program needs updating, picking your battles will go a long way concerning the impact on student morale. For example, if you are making switches to color war, it is probably not the best idea to make considerable changes to how the student government operates in the same year. Students should feel excited about the innovations taking place and that they have actual agency in the process.
Staff training and fresh eyes
Ultimately, keeping programs relevant and exciting needs a highly trained team. Being able to do reflection well and be intentional about programming requires thought, time and practice. If a school is willing to invest in professional development for its teachers, it needs to do the same for its student activities staff.
Additionally, it needs a paradigm shift of viewing student activities the same way “Understand by Design” considers curricular choices in a classroom. We do not teach material or run programs to check them off a list but to meet specific educational goals, which may change year to year.
Finally, building a balanced team is crucial. Student life teams need to include veteran voices knowledgeable about the unique organizational memory of the school and the beloved traditions and programs that make the student experience unique. Adding fresh eyes and outside talent to the team introduces original and new ideas to the reflective process and catches the programs no longer meeting department goals.
Balancing tradition and innovation, organizational memory and change, is an ongoing challenge for schools and student activity departments. It requires reflection, sharing new practices and adjusting the scale when one pendulum is shifting too far. In the end, constantly taking the temperature of student programming allows us to ensure we meet our goals of excited, engaged and connected students.