Accessing School Spirit

The email came out on Thursday. Another spirit week is underway. Winter sports is the reason and the theme is the season – winter and holiday cheer, complete with a staff dance based on the “12 Days of Christmas.” The English language department will take on “2 turtle doves” – not sure what that will look like, but we’ve been brainstorming. My first thoughts, though, are always on my students, equity, and access.

My usual questions are: 1) Have the leadership students considered the diversity of our student body? 2) Are multiple student groups being represented? and 3) Do all students have an opportunity to participate? In addition to general cultural responsiveness, I also ask myself can my students, brand new English language learners, participate and will participation be meaningful for them.

The answer to the first question is “no”. Even the staff dance number has a specific cultural lens. If students don’t celebrate Christmas, it will have little meaning. At the very least, it will be amusing for them, watching their teachers and other staff members making fools of themselves in front of the entire student body. There’s merit in that, watching the adults in their lives be silly. Imagine, though, the greater impact it would have should the activity reflect all of the members of the study body, their interests and beliefs.

As for the second and third questions, sports cons (otherwise known as pep rallies) rarely represent multiple student groups. They celebrate the athletes and encourage others to be athletic supporters. I do give our school leadership props in their effort to include as many students as they can through class competitions and the like, but with the multitude of sports teams, it’s difficult to eek out time for the non-athletic. The cons are exuberant and fun, but many students feel left out of the celebration.

Here’s where dress up days come into play. Dress up days are intended to create an in-road for the less involved students. They begin the build up to the big event at the end of the week and are intended to promote school spirit. However, each time I receive the email, I go through the list for the week and must determine which days I will attempt to make meaningful to my English language learners, and during which days I will encourage them to participate. Usually these are few and far between and some weeks I don’t even bother at all for several reasons.

Access is the main issue in determining the importance of tackling dress up days with my class. There are two main access issues. First, many of the days are culturally specific to the U.S., to Spokane, and even to specific neighborhoods. They also have socio-economic implications, meaning they are only accessible and relatable if you grew up in a middle or upper class household.

The second access issue is money. Many of the days require students to purchase items in order to participate. For example, Jersey Thursday, which is a common one for our school. Students either have to have access to their own jersey as members of a sports team, or have the funds to purchase a jersey of their favorite college or professional sports team. This is also true of any day that requires specific elements like flowered shirts or days specific to an era.

The cost is often unattainable for many students. They can choose not to participate in that particular day, but this usually leads to not participating at all. Who wants to admit they simply can’t afford to participate in one dress up day? They may as well choose to sit the whole thing out. At least then their peers will assume they just don’t want to, not that they can’t. It’s easier to pretend school spirit simply isn’t cool than to admit you can’t afford to look spirited.

This week’s dress up days are a little more accessible. I may encourage my kids to participate, particularly in those days based solely on a color. Even twins day isn’t too hard, if you choose something simple. As far as Friday goes, with its ugly sweater theme, I might be able to lend a hand in that area, maybe we’ll make our own. I need to go a step further, though. Instead of checking the list and determining whether I’ll encourage my students to participate, I should instead speak to the leadership class. Ask them to consider culture and cost when planning events in which they want all students to participate.

What have your experiences been with spirit weeks? What are your suggestions in increasing access? Participating in school activities is important to each student’s confidence and success at school. Some simple steps we can take in ensuring access during spirit weeks is to check the demographics of the school. We may be surprised by the diversity we find. Choose days which are easy to accomplish, for example days based on colors (make sure the colors are common and students would likely have them in their closets), pajama days, mismatch days, or any idea that does not require purchasing items in order to pull it off. We might also consider having at least one non-sport assembly which celebrates the other activities and people in the school who do not participate in sports. An example is the culture assembly at Kent Meridian High School in Kent, Washington. It is essential we make every opportunity accessible to all of our students. It is through access that we achieve equity.



6 thoughts on “Accessing School Spirit

  1. Kelye Kneeland

    I am so glad that this issue is now being discussed. To me it is a class thing as well as a culture thing. Why are we asking kids to dress in orange for anti bullying day, yellow for optimism day, Hawaiian gear, wear crazy hats, wear Seahawks gear, college clothes, red white and blue for patriotism day, etc.?
    I lose track of the number of “dress themed” spirit days I have seen in my school and others. Why should anyone need to buy clothing in a particular color or style to demonstrate solidarity with a cause such as school spirit? Many people can’t afford to participate, and if it means shopping for something they don’t already own. Many people don’t own clothing in every color of the rainbow, nor should they feel they have to. I have lived and traveled in many parts of the developing world where people wear clothes for the purpose of staying warm and being modest. In one West African country, I shopped In the “dead mans market”. The locals could not understand how so much clothing would become available second hand unless people had died. In reality our thrift stores ship it in huge pallets because there is so much excess in this country. I bought clothes with masking tape and ‘25 cents’ written on them. These things didn’t sell at yard sales in the USA and wind up being donated and sold to countries around the world. I’ve seen grown men wearing shirts that said “when God made man, she was only joking” or “I like tight buns”. It comes down to a waste of resources. It speaks of Extravagance, excess and materialism that we encourage participation and demonstration of “spirit” by asking kids to dress in a myriad of ways that have nothing to do with true spirit or pride. Sorry to go on about this, but this issue has yanked my chain for a while!

  2. Lyon Terry

    Such an important topic. No student should feel “less than” others during school sponsored events. We are promoting privilege when we have “spirit” days that are exclusive of many of our students.

  3. Shelly Milne

    Thanks for starting this conversation, Mandy. I am the Leadership Advisor for my middle school, and I can relate to your post. We are always thinking about ways to get everyone involved. We started a conversation starter T-Shirt Spirit Week a few years ago. Monday~Wear a t-shirt from an event you participated in; Tuesday~Wear a t-shirt from a club you belong to; Wednesday~Wear a funny t-shirt; Thursday~Wear you favorite t-shirt; and Friday~Wear a t-shirt showing something you participate in at school. Endless possibilities! In the bulletin, we reminded students to ask other students about their shirts. It was a way to get everyone involved, and the shirts showcased a variety of student interests and events. We did it in conjunction with our spring Mix-it-Up at lunch event.

    1. Mark Gardner

      I do like this T-shirt idea, though I still think it caters only to those who already have: those who have had access to events to participate in, those who can access after school clubs, etc.

  4. Mark Gardner

    I know many people value spirit days (etc.) but these are something I would love to see fade out of our modern public schools. I am a funless stickinthemud, I know.

  5. Lynne Olmos

    I remember talking to you about this. I have been super sensitive to the accessibility of “spirit” activities since then. I do what I can to help kids participate, but I think administrators and club advisors need to read this!

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