“Whose birthday is in September?”
“Are you a vegetarian?”
“Do you have attached earlobes?”
Random questions such as these crisscrossed the ballroom of the Great Escape Lodge, as almost 200 students from 23 districts plus the F. Donald Myers and Southern Adirondack Education Centers got to know each other at the annual Student Leadership Conference. The entire conference was planned and orchestrated by a student planning board with the guidance of Hartford Central School Superintendent Andrew Cook and WSWHE BOCES School Improvement Services.
“We met a Crandall Library a couple of times over the year to talk about what we liked about last year’s conference and how we could make it better,” said Planning Board Member Seth Godfrey from Fort Ann. “We set up different challenges when we met. One change this year was how we designed the ice breakers.”
“We changed the ice breakers so kids couldn’t pick people they knew from their own schools,” said fellow Fort Ann Planning Board Member Larissa Gusek. “We also wanted a shorter presentation and more interaction with students from other schools.”
Districts sent teams of students representing grades 6-12. Some students were chosen to attend the conference because a teacher or a principal recommended them, while other schools sent their student council representatives.
“We bring a group every year so they can experience the wealth of knowledge that is here,” said Bolton Public Services Coordinator/Chief Information Officer Stephen Showers. “We want our students to grow all the way through school. Some are leaders now, others have leadership potential, and so we bring them to this conference to develop their leadership skills. Plus, there are more students in this room than there are in our entire building PreK-12. Making them go out and introduce themselves to other people is an important experience for them.”
Ironically, students from larger districts had to introduce themselves to members of their own team. Four girls in different grades at Hudson Falls Central School District didn’t really know each other before eating bagels and muffins together that morning.
“Except I knew all of them because I have an older sister,” said Brinley Inglee, who is in 6th grade at Hudson Falls Middle School.
Ian Devlin, vice president of the freshman class at Lake George High School, said he was looking forward to hearing the keynote speaker, Chris Bowers: “I came to the conference when I was in 7thgrade, and I learned so much from the speaker. For instance, I learned you can be good at something if you work hard at it and apply yourself.”
“We heard about the keynote speaker from the students who attended the FFA [Future Farmers of America] leadership conference,” said Mr. Cook. “We have gotten several really great speakers from there.”
Bowers began his presentation with an activity to get students over a fear that a lot of people have in their lives – the fear of what other people think about you. He had all the students stand and sing ‘Singing in the Rain,’ accompanied by corny choreography. Video of the performance coming soon.
Afterwards he said, “After you sing ‘Singing in the Rain’, you should have no fear about what anybody thinks about you from now on. Here’s why: that right there, ‘Singing in the Rain,’ is the stupidest you’re going to look all day. If you were driving here on the bus going ‘man I hope I don’t have to do anything dumb in front of a bunch of people I just met,’ you just did.”
Bowers went on to explain that when you care about what other people think about you, “at some point, you’re going to end up doing something you don’t want to do, and it won’t make you happy.”
The other reason he told students that they shouldn’t care what other people think about them is because it gives people power over you; power to hurt your feelings. “Be your own person, make your own decisions, do what is right for you all the time,” Bowers emphasized.
The message resonated with the students at the conference, many of whom experience cliques at their schools, where different groups of friends don’t always mix and mingle with each other.
“I have three different groups of friends,” said Hudson Falls freshman Paige Mager. “There are the friends who play sports, the friends who are smart, and the fans (who are obsessed with bands like One Direction). They all stick to the same group, and I think, why not be friends with everyone?”
Bowers had another important message for the students: “To be a leader, you have to do things you haven’t done before. Some people who succeed a lot stop doing things they might be bad at because some people fear failure.”
Bowers explained there are two different kinds of failure: “The good kind of failure is when you’re trying your absolute best and you fall short and you learn from your mistakes. The bad kind of failure is when you don’t care and you don’t try.”
Following lunch, the student leaders put their newfound skills into action. Their challenge was to use positive ways of dealing with frustration and resolving conflict while building the tallest structure they could by using 15 marshmallows and one-third of a pound of spaghetti. The winning team was a group of seventh graders from various school districts (see picture below).