Many high schools across the country have student government groups, such as a student council, class board, or an associated student body, typically with the purpose of enhancing the culture and climate of the school.
When planning activities to engage students, for years the student council at my school created large events like dances and pep rallies with over-the-top, unrealistic expectations of their impact on the student body. As the student activities coordinator, I saw it over and over again: No matter how well intentioned and even well planned these events were and how many students attended, there were inevitably significant numbers of students who didn’t participate.
If the goal of these events was to engage the entire student body and establish a sense of community, we were missing the mark. The student leaders and I needed to collaborate to shift our approach to student engagement.
FRAMING OUR WORK
For years, our director of student activities, Dr. Ted Goergen, and I had worked together to increase student participation at dances and pep rallies, but none of our adjustments worked. One day, Ted landed on a metaphor to describe the challenge: The student government was overly focused on “bonfires” (big, over-the-top events) and paid far less attention to “campfires” (smaller, more personal events). Once I shared the metaphor with our student government, creating many small campfire events became a priority, alongside less-frequent bonfires. The metaphor has guided the student government’s work ever since.
When we framed our work as a transition from bonfires to campfires, the student government needed to back up and clarify why the group existed. After watching a TED Talk by Simon Sinek about starting with why, we sat down together and created a mission statement. Students researched what made a good mission statement and examined those of other schools and even those of companies like Apple and Facebook. Together we arrived at a mission statement:
Our student government exists as the steward of the school climate and to build a sense of belonging in our entire student body through outreach and engagement.
From there, the mission statement guided every action taken with respect to events: If the action served our mission, then it worked, and if the action didn’t serve that mission, then it needed to be reconsidered. With that framework established, student leaders could more clearly see how to diversify its offerings.
MEASURING STUDENT ENGAGEMENT
Our school invested in a student activity management system called 5-Star Students to determine which students were attending the large events, clubs, and activities regularly, and which students were not engaging with student events and organizations at all.