Written by Sheena Rorison, Teacher:
“Seminar was inspiring for me.”
“It is an experience I will take with me forever in my life.”
“I gained friends that I haven’t even talked to before.”
“It has been something that has let me come closer to my peers in way I did not think possible.”
These are words written by our Grade 12 students when reflecting on this year’s seminar experience. A longstanding tradition here at Calgary Academy, seminar is an extended capstone project that the entire graduating group participates in. It is a week-long event where students work with a variety of peers, build communication and transferable skills and places them into an environment that is similar to what they will be exposed to once they graduate.
As the years have passed, the idea of seminar has shifted to a focus of finding a topic that resonates with the specific graduating class. As such, seminar’s theme does not develop until the Grade 12 teachers get to know the students and find out what they need and what would impact them.
This year group is unique in that it is a very small graduating class. They are also a group of hard-working, driven students that are dealing with a lot both professionally and personally. As we got to know the students, we realized that the theme of seminar needed to be centered on wellness and building connections with one another. Even though the group was tiny, they were not close, and we felt a strong disconnection between them. As such, we felt that it would be important to work on building deeper connections with one another and helping them realize that they do share things in common with one another and that they are not alone.
The theme evolved into storytelling with a focus on respecting the sharing of stories with one another. We began with a day called “A Taste of Seminar” which involved various wellness activities, such as a makeshift coffee shop, team building exercises and yoga. The pivotal moment of the day was the talking circles that each of the four Grade 12 teachers did. In groups of 10, each teacher shared a very personal and intimate story from their life with the students. It was raw, emotional and more powerful than we were anticipating. In being vulnerable in front of the students, our hope was that we would start breaking down the walls that they had up with each other, and we can begin building a community of trust, comfort and acceptance.
As the weeks progressed, we used time in Special Projects for the groups to gain each other’s trust to the point that they participated in their town talking circles. They were then using one of their group member’s stories in a digital story where we would then compile all the stories into a final collaborative piece that they could watch together. The final piece of eleven stories was presented to them on the Thursday night of seminar week at Kananaskis Lodge (a popular feature of seminar is our overnight trip to the mountains). The stories were personal and moving and they resonated with their fellow peers so much so that they all shared hugs and went swimming as one big group afterwards. We were pleased with the response from the final video and the connections that we felt have been made during the seminar experience, but we were in no way prepared for what occurred the following day after breakfast.
On the final day, before leaving the hotel, we decided to open the floor and ask if anyone would like to stand up and share a story of their own to the group, face-to-face. The response was both overwhelming and inspiring. Slowly, one by one, students gained the courage to stand up and recount a moment in their lives that was deeply personal. It soon gained momentum and what we believed to be an activity that would be around twenty minutes turned into two beautiful hours of students sharing heartbreaking, raw, emotional stories that they had never shared with anyone. The group laughed together, cried together, shared hugs with one another and connected with each other on a deeply intimate level. It also helped them realize that they are not alone and that others may be battling similar issues in their lives.
As teachers, we often strive to teach that perfect lesson, like the ones you see in the movies, where the lesson is impactful, emotional and resonates with each of the students. That morning, in Kananaskis, the 42 of us were lucky enough to witness firsthand a moment that was as close to what you see in those movies, think “Freedom Writers” 😉. We were so honoured and thankful that students trusted us enough to share their stories in this experience. Initially, we were concerned that we did not have enough time with the students to build a culture of trust and vulnerability. However, on that Friday morning, what unfolded exceeded even our greatest expectations.