At the beginning of Ross School’s academic year, a few days are set aside for grade-level retreats. Each class participates in an activity meant to unite the group and help students to form new relationships with their classmates, but few are as comprehensive as the one designed for the eighth grade: an overnight adventure to Camp Bryn Mawr in the hills of Pennsylvania.
Since 2007, Eighth Grade Team Leader Mark Tompkins has organized an event that pushes students out of their comfort zones and forces them to rely on one another. Although Mark keeps the details of the retreats mysterious, students can expect to participate in activities that build team spirit; promote courage, self-awareness, and self-discovery; and cultivate social and interpersonal relationships in fun, physically active, and affirming ways. The result is a transformative rite of passage in Ross students’ journey toward becoming leaders of tomorrow.
Though the trip has occurred at the end of the school year for the past several years, this year’s class headed to the camp one week into the new school year. “September is a powerful, hopeful, and forward-looking time to take the trip,” said Mark. “It makes sense for us as we try to incorporate day students and boarders into a unified sense of who they are as a class. The trip is a touchstone to begin the year together.”
One of the first challenges students face during the retreat is spending an extended period of time bereft of electronics. As Mark placed the devices into Ziploc bags, students feigned sobbing as they kissed their phones goodbye and lamented about the dark times ahead. Though many struggled without the phone’s clock, they soon found new methods of entertainment—even devising a came of tic-tac-toe from twigs and stones. Mark said the impact of students spending time away from their computers and phones is greater each year.
Students were encouraged to be more mindful of being inclusive, to create new patterns in their engagement with one another, and to pay attention to actions and thoughts that suppress a sense of community. “Many students made conscious efforts and formed new relationships,” said Dean of Wellness and first-time retreat chaperone Cathy Yun. “I think that this is an element of human development that is challenging to most people, young and older.”
One of the trip’s highlights was seeing students overcome fears. Cathy remembers seeing a student poignantly conquer his fear of heights. “The beauty of his strength had a profound impact on me,” she said. “Witnessing that was one of the most powerful experiences I have had as an educator.”
Building on the foundational relationships established during the trip, students will continue to work to forge bonds with their classmates throughout the year. The hope is that they come away from the retreat with a sense of the strides they can make through continued effort and collaboration.
“The most rewarding part of the trip is that if the students buy into the process, they end up feeling incredibly powerful and connected,” said Mark.