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Twenty Years of Community Building

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Twenty years ago this year, the upper school—all the teachers and all the students—ventured off campus for two days of togetherness and fun in the New Hampshire mountains. The destination changed from Camp William Lawrence, in Tuftonboro, to Camp Winaukee, in Moultonborough, seven years ago, but the purpose of the trip remains the same: unity. It has become one of the highlights of the upper school experience and establishes a strong foundation for a great academic year.

At the center of the trip is a complex rotation that ensures that every student meets every other student in the upper school. Our own Mr. E works his magic to create a schedule that is conducive to community building. Students and teachers are mixed into coed groups of about ten to twelve for camp activities, rotating into different groups for each activity. Camp activities include swimming, kayaking, a low ropes course, board games, arts and crafts, field games, gaga ball, and four square. Everyone also participates in “GUS games,” elaborate name game activities that help teachers and students get to know each other. The games usually end with a singing activity that, while fun, is nothing compared to the campfire sing-a-long!

The evening campfire is one of the most anticipated Winaukee traditions. Any teacher, student, or group of students can lead the group in song. “I am awed by how bravely our students put themselves out there. You just don’t take risks like this in middle school unless you feel safe. That’s what the trip is all about,” explains Gretchen Forsyth, director of upper school. It is truly a magical night and sets a warm and friendly tone for the year. Definitely ask your child about “I’m a little teapot”—another Winaukee tradition.

Meal times in the dining hall provide another opportunity for students and teachers to mix and mingle. Everyone is assigned to a different table for every meal. Students have commented that the food is great. They are also pleased that there are bathrooms in each of the lakeside cabins, with electricity.

While the facilities are terrific, the weather is more difficult to guarantee. GUS has been lucky the last few years, but as Ms. Forsyth always says, “The worse the weather, the better the bonding.” It is true that trips with inclement weather can be more memorable, but students still prefer when the weather calls for swimming. “Over the past 20 years, it really hasn’t mattered if it rained or the sun shone brightly. Whatever the weather, the two days are always filled with fun,” confirms Bruce Emerson, director of athletics and the trip organizer.

There are so many reasons why the Winaukee trip is meaningful, but a particularly significant factor is the teachers’ involvement. Their enthusiasm and commitment is what GUS is all about. The way the faculty engage in all the activities, share themselves, and connect with individual students makes a huge difference when everyone is back on campus. Feeling valued as an individual is the foundation of a successful student-teacher relationship. Students who feel known are more comfortable posing questions, asking for help, and taking academic risks.

As the students pack up and head back to GUS, tired but filled with happy memories, teachers always hear, “I wish we could stay longer.” Of course, they can’t stay longer, but they can hold onto that Winaukee experience all year long. Solid relationships, a sense of belonging, and the willingness to try new things are the experiences that the upper school community gain at Winaukee, along with a memorable beginning that will resonate in their school life every day.