Student conference aims to build confidence, relationships

The game seemed simple enough. Students were instructed to pair off and each use a single outstretched finger to hold five small square wooden blocks together between them, forming a bridge, while attempting to raise the blocks from the floor to over their heads.

If they succeeded, then they added additional blocks and tried again, until they had built the longest bridge they could.

Next, they took the blocks held in a similar way, but this time the goal was to walk around and attempt to knock other people’s bridges down while maintaining their own. If the bridge was knocked down, they would then form a new pair and start over.

The exercise was part of a student leadership conference held by the California Association of Student Leaders (CASL) at Chaparral Elementary School.

Fourth, fifth and sixth grade students from all of Claremont’s elementary schools were selected by their teachers for the seminar. The criteria for inclusion was fairly open, the student just needed to show some leadership qualities. Teenagers from Claremont High School’s ASB program were recruited as facilitators to help keep the younger kids on track.

Claremont resident Mikaela Ayala, a leadership development coach with CASL, played the dual role of emcee and director of the three-hour conference on Wednesday. She was a teacher at Heritage Middle School in Fontana when she first encountered CASL through a leadership conference at that school.

She was new to the classroom when CASL came, however, she noticed that after the conference the culture at the school completely changed. Kids were making friends outside of their normal circles and there was a lot more cooperation. So she decided to get more involved in CASL and now it is her full time gig.

“I was so inspired that I took a leap of faith,” she said. “I saw how beneficial it was and wanted to be part of this any way I could.”

On the surface the wooden block exercises taught cooperation, teamwork and communication. But there was a twist because it included a lesson on more serious life choices. Ms. Ayala emphasized how the first game was about building not only a bridge but a relationship. The second was about moving on once the first attempt did not work out.

She introduced the term generation Z, which included all of the attendees, and how studies have found that this generation is forming fewer lasting friendships. In the study, previous generations tended to say things like, “My best friend since I was in kindergarten.” But generation Z talks about “My best friend last year” and “my best friend this year.”

The consequences of having many brief connections can be lasting because we are so heavily influenced by the people we call friends.

“You become like the five people you spend the most time with. So think about who you spend time with,” Ms. Ayala said.

She told them that as leaders they need to encourage other friends to make the long bridges, the lasting relationships, that in the long run will make them happier and more successful people.

CASL was founded in 1985 with the goal of fostering leadership in California’s young people. The group has a governing board made up of high school leaders across the state, which is divided into southern and northern conferences. Board members are elected by their peers at the organization’s yearly statewide conference, which will take place in Ontario this year from March 26 to 30.

CASL has programs for elementary, middle and high schools, plus they recently added events for adults. These leadership conferences, like the one at Chaparral, form the group’s main outreach.

“These activities empower them to use their voices, explain their thinking, share ideas and build confidence,” Chaparral Principal Ann O’Connor said.

This was a pilot program for Claremont, but judging by the response—250 elementary students and 28 high schoolers—it will become a regular part of the curriculum. With kids coming from all of the district’s schools it was an opportunity to meet new people.

The attendees were divided into teams, each with one CHS facilitator who only received a brief introduction to the material. The result was fun, fast paced and extemporaneous as the groups sought to complete tasks such as inventing a team handshake.

Sixth grader Alexa Mowbray, who is co-president of the Condit student council, found the conference to be challenging but rewarding. “You learn to get out of your comfort zone and meet new people,” she said.

The facilitator for her team was CHS junior Alex Sotolongo, who was experiencing a homecoming, since he attended Chaparral years ago. The training he received from Ms. Ayala was pretty basic so he had to be creative and think on his feet just like the younger students.

“What a cool experience to come back here and teach the traits of leadership, which will be so important throughout life,” Alex said.

Ms. Ayala excused the kids for lunch one team at a time, but they had to answer a question about the material as a way to help cement the shared experience into memory. 

As the students left the big meeting room, Ms. Ayala said, “I feel like I am giving back and providing what I needed as a kid.”

—Steven Felschundneff



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