As Student Engagement Manager at Laurel Springs School, my team and I have invested significant resources into developing online socialization opportunities and proudly offer our students more than 30 virtual clubs, including:
● Art Club. Monet, Matisse, Picasso, and contemporary artists are introduced and discussed by members in the Art Club. Aspiring artists and students interested in a variety of art forms, including photography, architecture, wood, claymation, paint, charcoal, sculpture, line drawing, sand, and costume are welcome. This club encourages creative expression, student interaction, and discussion through student-led meetings, art tutorials, and project sharing.
● Book Club. Book club advisors strive to create a warm and student-centered experience where participants can both enjoy and be challenged by their peers as they consider literature through discussion, critical thinking, and reflection. Each fall, students help craft a yearly book list, then a rotation of student-led meetings fosters leadership and speaking skills. Objective and expressive thoughts and discussions are encouraged and acknowledged as important contributions building analytical skills.
● Debate Club. Members learn what it means to cultivate and maintain their own individual voice, as the opinions of members can be heard echoing down the virtual halls of Laurel Springs. Using contemporary topics introduced by the advisor, club members then vote, choose, briefly research, take a pro or con position, gather their arguments, and debate the topic until consensus and resolution is reached. Proper debate techniques are used as students explore civic literacy, global awareness, and individual liberties through the utilization of critical, creative, and innovative thinking.
● Student Government Club. Real world leadership experience is the focus of the Laurel Springs Student Government—from the leadership team, to representatives, to non-voting yet active members. Officers, appointees, representatives, and members actively participate and learn about civic literacy, service of mindful leadership, reviewing and amending by-laws in an ever-expanding virtual campus, and executing projects that are both community and globally oriented.
As these opportunities for interaction become increasingly more important for students—especially as in-person socialization with friends has become severely limited—schools may need some help getting started. Here are a few key pieces of advice for successfully running virtual clubs:
Identify topics or request club proposals from students.
From foodies to future medical professionals, when developing student clubs, potential topics are endless. To narrow down the options, clubs should be based on widely shared student interests and regularly evaluated at the end of each academic year. If students submit proposals for new clubs, they must be school appropriate, adhere to school policies, and demonstrate accessibility and inclusivity for all students based on their talents, interests, and passions.
At Laurel Springs, students follow a process that is entrepreneurial in nature to propose new clubs. Students must first ensure that a similar club does not already exist, then engage in collaborative discussions about the viability of their club. If the proposed topic is deemed appropriate and beneficial to the wider school community, an advisor will be assigned and the club will become available to students.
Set ground rules for virtual club participation.
Virtual club meetings are held at varying times each day, giving students the opportunity to participate in more clubs than they could in a traditional brick-and-mortar setting, where most club meetings take place after school. As a result, students may attempt to join too many clubs, simply because they can and are interested in doing so.
Unfortunately, over-commitment can keep students from fully engaging in and enjoying the benefits of the clubs they sign up for. To prevent this issue, Laurel Springs limits the number of clubs that students can participate in during the school year and found that students learned to prioritize and make deliberate choices—all of which are important skills for students to develop before college, when they will be responsible for building their own academic and social schedules. Additionally, schools can also set attendance requirements, such as attending at least 50 percent of meetings, for students to be considered active members of the clubs they select.
Let each student build confidence at their own pace.
A key benefit of socializing in a virtual environment is comfort: students can feel free to share who they really are. Interacting in an online space provides time to ‘warm up’ to a new environment and connect in a variety of ways just by attending—and without active participation in conversations.
Students entering a virtual room are allowed to take as much time as they need to observe before joining as an active participant in the conversation. As they watch other students with months or years of experience socializing in an online setting, those who are new to the format can identify what they have to offer in the conversation or discussion. They may begin to converse in the chat box, then the microphone, and eventually on the webcam.
Laurel Springs students have shared that this process allows them to build confidence at their own pace, because they are accepted and valued by their peers and club advisors. They each find their own place, their own niche, and their own sense of community. Students have also disclosed that this experience translates into face-to-face confidence. In 2020, a group of Laurel Springs students created a podcast focusing on the myths of online schooling, including the misconception that children who learn online are socially awkward. On the podcast, the students shared how confident they felt after having socialized online and that “maybe ‘social awkwardness’ is not that bad when it includes embracing and accepting our true selves.”
With no definite end to the COVID-19 crisis in sight, schools must take the necessary steps toward shifting student socialization online—and virtual clubs are just one component. Critical to the academic experience for students in all grade levels, creating and maintaining friendships in an environment where they can express themselves, their interests, and their passions is today of utmost importance for children, who may be feeling more disconnected now than ever before.