A week to remember: Students forge connections through Breaking Down the Walls

October 30, 2018 — by Sofia Jones and Anna Novoselov

Moderator Dean Whellams speaks to the audience on Oct. 25 at BDTW.

“Cross the line if you play one or more sports,” moderator Dean Whellams asked the dozens of freshmen, sophomore, and juniors standing on one side of the Large Gym on Oct. 22.

A majority of students stepped forward, some still light-hearted and laughing.

As questions continued, however, the atmosphere in the room because progressively more serious; topics turned deeply personal.

“Cross the line if you’ve ever had an eating disorder.”

“Cross the line if you’ve ever done or considered self-harm.”

Surprising numbers of students crossed the line with each prompt, while others watched and held back tears.  

Breaking Down the Walls — the school’s first such event to target so many students at once  and in such an intense way — is organized by Learning for Living, an organization which hopes to develop communication skills in students and foster positive relationships among peers, bringing unity to campuses.

“The idea is to build connections on campus in order to promote student learning and to promote the idea that we’re all in this together,” assistant principal Kerry Mohnike said.

Last year, the school’s Social Emotional Learning (SEL) team researched methods for helping build positive relationships on campus. A few faculty members had experienced Breaking Down the Walls at different schools and suggested that Saratoga High consider the program as well.

A team of five teachers went to a two-day school culture summit put on by Learning for Living, and the administration later proposed Breaking Down the Walls to the Saratoga Foundation, which agreed to fund the week-long program at the school.

Each day, approximately one-fourth of freshmen, sophomores and juniors gathered in the gym to participate in activities ranging from meeting new people and playing games to sharing personal stories with small groups, while junior and senior Link Crew Leaders led small group activities. Teachers also recommended additional upperclassmen to participate as group leaders.

Many who participated reported that the all-day event was worthwhile and inspiring.

“I was really impacted by my friends and other people that I didn’t really know who were going through a tough time,” said junior Ananya Krishnan. “I could see it through their emotions and it made me realize that we all have so much in common, yet at the same time we don’t, so we need to be there for each other.”

Krishnan said the experience helped her realize the importance of supporting others and reserving judgment since people cannot be sure what others are going through in their lives.

“I think I gained more empathy for the people I didn’t know who I may have judged in the past,” Krishnan said. “Now that I know their story a little bit more, I can’t pretend that I understand what they’re going through, but I can definitely be there for them if they want to talk to me.

In the afternoon of Oct. 22, the Link Leaders and senior volunteers gathered in the gym to be trained for their designated day. Later in the week, they led small groups through activities that could help people break past barriers and become more comfortable with each other.

Junior Link Crew leader Ashleigh Abe thought that the week was a valuable and eye-opening opportunity. The training day on Monday was primarily focused on the introductory aspect of the program, so Abe expected a rather light-hearted day and was surprised by how quickly emotions got intense.

“Some kids seemed pretty closed-off, so the crossing the line activity was a great way to open up without having to say a single word, which must’ve felt really relieving,” Abe said.

At first, some students seemed hesitant to share personal stories since they were mostly surrounded by strangers, but as the day progressed, they were more open to talking to new people.

“The idea is that a student from any grade level, from any interest, can feel comfortable talking to another student who may be completely different,” Mohnike said.

Mohnike said that research has proven that it is easier for students to learn when they feel connected to the place where they go to school.

“We wanted the program to help us address some of the things that we sometimes suffer on this campus — such as being overly comparative with one another and overly competitive with one another — and understand that a lot of us are in the same boat,” Mohnike said. “We’re trying our best to do our best.”

The event was “logistically intense” and complicated because the administration had to coordinate with teachers and figure out which day to send students to the program, Mohnike said.

However, she said that the teachers were willing to accommodate and make it easy for students to make up missed work without unnecessary stress. They had experienced Breaking Down the Walls during a staff development day before school started so it was easy to get them on board.

“Every individual person on campus had a role in making this happen,” Mohnike said. “In that sense, it took the entire school community to make this come together.”

After the program, Krishnan said that many people went up to students who shared a personal experience and tell them that they were really strong and that their story had an impact on them.

The speaker, Dean Whellams, said that he owes much of the positive response to the event to the effort that students put in.

“When the kids engage and get something out of it, that’s only because they decided to give it a chance,” he said. “We couldn’t force the kids to learn, but because they were open-minded, they had the awesome experience that they did.”

The response was so positive that many seniors were disappointed that they were not included in the program; some even chose to miss classes to participate in the event. However, according to Mohnike, the entire senior class was not officially included because of funding issues and time limitations.

Senior Isaiah Vivero was one of those who wished seniors had participated, saying, “I think all seniors should have been involved, because especially before we go into the real world and leave our bubble, it will be helpful to know we’re not all alone.”

According to class secretary Khiara Berkowitz, the senior class officers hope that seniors can participate in a stepping over the line activity similar at the beginning of second semester.

She said that the activity would break down some barriers and give many seniors the opportunity to get closer to one another. Berkowitz said that the moderator directing the senior activity would need to know how to address personal issues and be sensitive to people feeling upset.

Senior Link Leader Simran Malik, who participated in the program, said that she got the chance to talk to her friends and even strangers “on a much deeper level as opposed to casual conversation.”

“I think that we will still be connected to the people we meet in highschool, even when we go off to college,” Malik said. “Whether people continue to communicate daily, once a week, once a year, or even just keep the person as a memory, the stories that people shared will stay with us for a long time.”


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