Community and Belonging at Minnehaha Academy

Posted: October 26, 2022

After five unprecedented years, MA focuses on belonging at school

On January 3, 2022 teachers returned from Christmas break for a professional development day and chapel. The chapel speaker, David Hoffner, Director of Faith Formation at Minnehaha, prepared a speech highlighting the importance of community at school. The idea for this sermon was born from a news report about community he had read in December.

After speaking, it became evident to Hoffner that the theme of community and belonging had already been on many people’s hearts and minds.

“Right after [the sermon], Anne Calvin came up to me and she said ‘that’s our theme next year,'” said Hoffner.

When other teachers and school leaders heard about the idea of having the school theme as belonging in 2022-23, further ideas began to surface. One teacher in particular, Nathan Johnson, from the social studies department, decided to research this theme through the past 25 years.

“I tend to think [about] long term historical trends,” said Johnson. “That’s just my training…so that was a natural way for me to provide my expertise on the question.”

Johnson’s research revealed that loss of connection has been a trend for longer than Minnehaha’s students have been alive. “My generation and my parent’s generation were a part of this too,” acknowledged Johnson. “I’m not just pointing my finger at you.”

According to the Oxford Languages Dictionary, community is “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.”

School community is built on small things: attendance of sports games, fine arts performances, and clubs. This year, Minnehaha Academy transitioned back to a seven-period schedule which allows built-in time for student participation in clubs and other intramurals. As well as changing the schedule, teachers and other faculty made the decision to remove phones from the school equation.

Last year, MA’s common areas were filled with students fixated on phone screens without conversing. With phones tucked away after 8:20 in the morning, students now spend their free time talking, asking each other for help, and laughing together.

“I think it’s ridiculous to think that phones don’t make a difference in terms of our feeling of connection and belonging,” said Anne Calvin, Upper School Spanish teacher and chapel adviser. “How we’re using our time to be connected to each other is very different.”

Now that students have more opportunities to be together and build community, they are the ones who must break the isolating habits that were built during the COVID-19 quarantine.

“The biggest factor [of community] is our desire to care for each other, and the habits that we build, because we could choose to remain in the habits of 2020-21,” said Johnson.

Attending athletic games has been a priority for many Minnehaha students this year. Enormous crowds of student fans are a regular sight at every home game, contrary to previous years.

“I was at a girl’s soccer game,” said Hoffner. “And all the cross country kids and all the football kids and all the others came after their practices were over to cheer them on…after they won, they swarmed the bench. I haven’t seen this in years.”

Athletics aren’t the only place where school spirit has shone through. Minnehaha upper-school students celebrate homecoming week with grade-level olympics activities. The student collaboration led to several grade victories.

“This year in particular we, especially the upperclassmen, just have a lot better energy altogether, and I think that’s really fun,” said senior Aliyah Freeman.

Building community is a journey and a challenge that is well worth the effort.

“I hope that everybody would be able to say ‘oh my goodness…this is so much more fun,'” said Calvin. “But again, [community building] has got to come from students, because if it doesn’t then it falls flat.”

Students and faculty alike now take the time to sit down, converse, and listen to one another.

“Embrace not having your phones and embrace not having your iPad out during lunch,” reminded Johnson. “Embrace that hour of face to face conversation… learn how to build connection.”

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